PITTSBURGH (AP) — When he’s on, Rich Hill’s pitches still dance. They still dart. They go this way. Then that way. They can baffle hitters with their movement, particularly the ones that don’t come close to breaking the speed limit on most interstates.
In a game that seems to get faster each year, Hill is a throwback. A survivor. At 43 and 19 years into a career he figured would have been over long ago, the well-traveled left-hander knows he’s essentially playing on borrowed time.
Hill is in Pittsburgh to show a young staff how to be a pro while occasionally showing the kids he can still bring it. That example was on display in a 2-1 victory over St. Louis on Sunday that gave Pittsburgh a three-game sweep of its longtime NL Central nemesis.
Knowing the bullpen needed a bit of a break, Hill (5-5) kept the Cardinals off balance for 6 2/3 innings, expertly weaving in and out of trouble with a series of curveballs that hover around 70 mph offset by a fastball that can touch 90 mph but plays up because everything else comes in so much softer.
Hill walked three and struck out six while giving up just one run, a seventh-inning homer by Andrew Knizner that drew the Cardinals within one. He allowed the leadoff hitter to reach in the first four innings and stranded them all as the Pirates pushed their winning streak to five.
“He threw the pitches he wanted to throw,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “They didn’t swing at them. The fact that he’s able to just bounce back and continue to execute shows how savvy he is as a veteran.”
Ji Hwan Bae’s two-run single off Miles Mikolas (4-2) in the first provided all the offense Hill would need as Pittsburgh swept St. Louis for the first time in five years. Ke’Bryan Hayes singled three times and is hitting .562 (9 for 16) over his last four games after a 3-for-32 funk dropped him to seventh in the batting order.
David Bednar worked the ninth for his 13th save and third in as many days, striking out Knizner with a 98 mph fastball that provided an exclamation point to three days of tight, meaningful baseball, the kind the Pirates haven’t played much of for the better part of a decade.
“We know we have a very good team,” Hill said. “We’ve had meetings in here and we talk about it and reinforce it and just continue to go out there and give that effort every single night and understand that (if) we continue to put in the work, it’ll start to show every night on the field.”
Tommy Edman had two hits for the Cardinals, and designated hitter Luken Baker picked up the first two hits of his career after being called up from Triple-A Memphis early Sunday.
The middle of the St. Louis lineup — Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Gorman and Nolan Arenado — went a combined 0 for 11 as St. Louis lost for the fifth time in six games. The Cardinals left 27 men on base at PNC Park over the weekend to fall back into last place in one of the weakest divisions in the majors.
It’s a division the Pirates — coming off back-to-back 100-loss seasons — are managing to hang around the top of for a solid two months. The bullpen has evolved into a strength, with Bednar at the back end and a series of flashy hard throwers like Dauri Moreta in the middle.
Moreta came on for Hill with two outs in the seventh and struck out Goldschmidt with the tying run at first while Hill was in the dugout accepting high-fives, already thinking about his next start, likely on Saturday against the New York Mets. It’s a mindset that has kept Hill around for far longer than he ever imagined.
“Every time he picks up a baseball, I know he feels blessed to be able to continue to throw baseballs for a living,” Pirates catcher Austin Hedges said. “I think that’s one of the best things he can teach our young guys.”
Cardinals: Continue a six-game road trip in Texas against the Rangers on Monday. Adam Wainwright (2-1, 6.15 ERA) faces Martín Pérez (6-1, 4.43 ERA) in the opener.
Pirates: A season-long nine-game homestand continues on Monday when lowly Oakland visits. Johan Oviedo (3-4, 4.50 ERA) gets the start against JP Sears (0-3, 4.37 ERA).