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BOSTON — For Rich Hill, the final start of his 18th season ended with a hug-fest.
The 42-year-old lefty is widely respected in his clubhouse — this one and all the ones he has played in over the years — for his accomplishments as a player and a teammate.
And it showed after he struck out Harold Ramírez on an elevated 89 mph fastball in an eventual 4-3 Red Sox win Monday night over the Rays.
Hill was barely into the dugout when one teammate after another hugged him.
“He’s very important in the clubhouse. The way he goes about it, everybody knows his story. He’s relentless in everything he does,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “He’s awesome. He’s a great guy.”
While there was once a question if Hill would come back for his age-43 season, he has left little doubt of late that’s exactly what he plans on doing.
In essence, the way he has pitched has made that clear. Hill went out on a high note, firing six innings of three-hit, three-run (one earned) ball that included one walk and six strikeouts.
Over 26 starts, second most on the team, Hill went 8-7 with a 4.27 ERA and proved to be well worth the one-year, $5 million deal the Red Sox signed him for last December. Those 26 starts are the most ever by a Boston pitcher in a single season at the age of 42 or older.
One thing is certain: Hill ended his season with a flourish. In his final five starts, he notched a 2.35 ERA that included 30 strikeouts in 26 2/3 innings and a 1.16 WHIP.
“The last six, seven outings have been solid ever since we made some mechanical changes with the tipping that was going on early on in the season,” said Hill. “Also adding in the cutter, that’s been a really nice complement to the fastball and the curveball. Just keep working on those things and get ready for next year.”
Hill is up for free agency, meaning that his third stint with his hometown Red Sox could be about to end. This isn’t to say a return to Boston is out of the question.
Asked if he would like to talk to the Red Sox about a contract even before free agency starts, Hill’s eyes welled up. The thought of leaving Boston is tough for Hill to think about, given how rewarding it has been from a family aspect, especially at this late stage of his career and getting to spend more time with his wife Caitlyn and 10-year-old son Brice.
“We’ll see,” said Hill. “I think at some point that conversation will be had, but right now this is obviously a place that … ”
That was when Hill gathered himself for a couple of seconds before finishing his response.
“It’d be nice. It’d be nice to come back. It would be great,” said Hill. “It’d be great to come back and obviously compete for a championship.”
As with any free agent, there are no guarantees what the future will bring. Perhaps that’s why a dugout full of players and coaches were compelled to show their appreciation just for the chance to share a season with him.
“I’m very glad that I had the opportunity to be his teammate. He was one of my favorite teammates,” said Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers. “He was always happy and always a leader here in the clubhouse. One of the things that I admire about him is just the way he goes about his business, and the way he doesn’t make excuses about his age or anything like that. For me, it was really fun to be able to play by his side this year.”
Now, Hill will get ready for something he enjoys nearly as much as facing opposing hitters. That would be the grind known as getting ready to pitch another season.
“I love the competition. I love the grind,” said Hill. “I enjoy getting up early in the morning the days that you don’t want to work out and lift, and get ready for that day, and once you get into it and once you get into that routine or that workout as the offseason is going is something that I enjoy. I’m probably crazy. I enjoy it.”