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From Long Island Duck to reborn starter, Rich Hill baffles Rays

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Any discussion of the encore, or how many encores there may be, can wait. You make an improbable journey like the one that 35-year-old left-hander Rich Hill took to be on the mound at Tropicana Field Sunday afternoon -- the road to the majors doesn’t often lead through Central Islip, New York -- you stop to admire the view.

“A lot of stuff now,’’ Hill said after holding Tampa Bay to one hit in seven scoreless innings while striking out 10 in Boston’s 2-0, 13-inning win over the Rays, “is about staying in the moment, trying not to get too forward, or think about anything that happened in the past.’’

Hill hadn’t started a big-league game in six years. He was with Baltimore then, in 2009, his shoulder already was hurting and would require surgery at the end of the season, and two years later he would undergo Tommy John elbow surgery.

When he came back, it was as a reliever. Hill pitched for four big-league teams, signed nine times as a minor-league free agent (six times by the Sox), was released three times, sold once and reinvented himself this summer as a starter for the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League.

“I owe a lot to the Ducks for giving me an opportunity to start,’’ said Hill, whose manager there was Kevin Baez, the Brooklyn-born shortstop who spent parts of three seasons with the Mets in the early '90s. “A lot of good people there.’’

Hill pitched five hitless innings in his Ducks debut, then tied a franchise record on Aug. 9 with 14 strikeouts in six innings in his next start. For a few thousand dollars, the Sox purchased Hill and assigned him to Pawtucket, where he made five starts, posting a 3-2 record with a 2.79 ERA.

When the Sox were looking for another pitcher to stretch out the big-league rotation to six starters because they wanted to keep down the innings for rookies Eduardo Rodriguez and Henry Owens, they found themselves scrambling. Knuckleballer Steven Wright needed more time to recover from a concussion, and Matt Barnes, another candidate, was better served to stay a reliever, the Sox decided. The call went out to Hill.

And he responded Sunday with a performance against the Rays that has only one precedent in Sox history. Only Pedro Martinez, whose no-hit bid was broken up by John Flaherty leading off the ninth inning on Aug. 29, 2000, had shut out the Rays on one or fewer hits while striking out 10 or more.

J.P. Arencibia’s infield hit into the shortstop hole with two out in the third was the only hit allowed by Hill, and it could have gone into the books as an error by shortstop Xander Bogaerts. Against Hill, no Rays player advanced as far as second base. Only three Rays hit a ball to the outfield, and the only other baserunners either reached via walk (one) or hit by pitch (two).

“Sandy (Leon) did a great job behind the plate,’’ said Hill, citing the third-string catcher who also had caught Hill in Pawtucket. “I followed his lead. The command was there with my fastball. I was able to keep the ball down, and the command of my breaking ball was the way I wanted it to be, which enhanced my fastball. I got a lot more swings and misses on my fastball from the good command of the curveball.’’

Hill got 17 swings and misses in all, 11 on his fastball. He threw 57 fastballs, 52 breaking balls, and mixed them beautifully.

“His curveball wasn’t sharp,’’ said Rays right fielder Steve Souza, who struck out twice against Hill, “but it was just slow enough to throw off your timing. You’ve got to hand it to him. He threw them both for strikes most of the game, and in any count.’’

Hill was not involved in the decision; rookie Rusney Castillo won it with a two-run single in the 13th after six Sox relievers held the Rays scoreless on three hits after Hill departed. But yes, interim manager Torey Lovullo said, the plan is to give the native of Milton, Massachusetts, the ball at least twice more. “It’s a great story,’’ he said.

With no need, Hill said, to forecast the ending.

“Next year? I want to find out who I’m starting against next,’’ Hill said. “And that’s where we’re going to.’’