The last time Boston Red Sox left-hander Rich Hill was a major league starting pitcher, it was for the Orioles six years ago, when he had an unsightly 7.80 ERA in 14 appearances (13 starts) back in 2009.
He has been well-traveled since, pitching in six different major league organizations -- mostly as a situational lefty reliever -- before the Red Sox unearthed him from the independent Long Island Ducks last month.
And on Friday night at Fenway Park, the 35-year-old did major damage to the Orioles' suddenly resurgent playoff hopes, sending them to a 7-0 loss in their must-win series opener against the last-place Red Sox in front of 32,411.
Hill threw a complete-game shutout -- his first in nine years -- on 116 pitches, holding the Orioles to two hits while striking out 10 batters and walking just one. Hill baffled the Orioles hitters by mixing his low-90s fastball with a sweeping mid-70s curveball.
“You don't see many of those hammer curveballs anymore,” catcher Caleb Joseph said. “He's got one. I remember catching him a few years ago when he was with us, really big curveball. When it comes out of the same spot, you're thinking there's no way possible that it's going to be a strike. It just comes down like a bowling ball. Before you know it, it's right in the middle of the plate.”
Over the past four seasons, the Orioles (76-77) have had their share of success at Fenway Park, but Friday's loss in Boston was a devastating one. The Orioles suffered their first shutout loss in Boston since June 7, 2012, and now have nine games remaining in the regular season with the division front-running Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees looming in their final two series. The Orioles remained 3½ games behind the Houston Astros for the second American League wild card.
Against Hill, the Orioles didn't look like the same team that had won 11 of 15 games, including a three-game sweep of the Washington Nationals, before arriving in Boston.
“To get two-hit, yeah, that's disappointing,” Joseph said. “We swung the bats pretty well over [in Washington]. We had a bunch of clutch hits. We ran into a really good performance. The guy's a veteran. He knows how to pitch. Yeah, it's disappointing. We still feel good. If we go in here and win the next two, you never know what could happen. … We can't throw the towel in now just because we lose. There's still a chance. We have to flush this one and come back tomorrow and be ready to play.”
Hill was not just dominant, he was extraordinary. The Orioles went eight innings without a hit. They did not record one from Nolan Reimold's single to open the game until Dariel Alvarez's leadoff infield single in the ninth. The Orioles had just four base runners on the night. Hill retired 26 of the final 29 hitters he faced.
In three starts since joining the Red Sox, Hill is 2-0 with a 1.17 ERA with 30 strikeouts over 23 innings.
"Just commanded two pitches,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “Same thing he's been doing his last three outings. He didn't do anything different. We didn't expect him to change anything. He's changed planes and commanded two pitches. Pretty much what we thought."
Hill needed a sensational defensive play from right fielder Mookie Betts to preserve the shutout on the final play of the game. With two outs in the ninth, Orioles first baseman Chris Davis rocketed a shot that appeared headed into the Red Sox bullpen for his 44th homer of the season. But Betts extended his body over the low right-field fence, using his right hand to prevent him from falling over and brought Davis' ball back in the yard for the final out.
The Red Sox pounded right-hander Kevin Gausman for five runs over five-plus innings. They scored their first two runs with two outs before erupting for a three-run sixth inning, during which Gausman was chased from the game.
All three walks issued by Gausman came around to score, including leadoff walks in the fifth and sixth innings.
“Anytime [you do that], especially to lead off the inning, you put yourself in a bad situation,” Gausman said. “… That was the biggest thing. This was a big game for us and I just kind of let my team down.”
Gausman (3-7) has struggled with two outs of late. He opened the third inning by striking out Sandy Leon and Jackie Bradley Jr. looking before issuing a walk to Betts, allowing a single to Dustin Pedroia and an RBI double to Xander Bogaerts. After allowing a leadoff walk to Brock Holt in the fifth, Gausman retired the next two batters, but a wild pitch allowed Holt to score from third base.
“That's something that I need to figure out,” Gausman said. "With two outs, I've been killing myself. Two outs, walking a guy and giving up a hit and then bringing up a good hitter, you put yourself in a bad situation. Especially putting that leadoff hitter on, it's one of those tough things. Definitely frustrated and I'm trying to find the answers and just go forward and try to work harder.”
The Red Sox (73-80) jumped on Gausman early in the sixth. After Pedroia walked to open the inning, Bogaerts beat out a grounder to third for an infield hit, setting the stage for David Ortiz's two-run double just past Alvarez near Fenway's tricky right-field corner.
Pedroia and Bogaerts slid home within two steps of each other ahead of Davis' relay throw home.
“I think I let my ego get the best of me, especially to Big Papi,” Gausman said. “I tried to throw a fastball by him and if I pull back a bit, I probably hit my spot. I tried to throw it by him like the pitch before and like I said, left the pitch too middle and he's a future Hall of Famer. You just can't do that.”
Boston went up 5-0 on Holt's two-out double off left-hander T.J. McFarland, the final run charged to Gausman.
The Orioles had their best opportunity against Hill with two outs in the sixth when Alvarez reached on Hill's two-base throwing error and Reimold walked. But third baseman Manny Machado struck out to end the inning, flailing wildly at a strike-three changeup well out of the zone.