BOSTON —- Hope you like pitching changes. Because if Chris Sale and Clayton Kershaw couldn’t deliver a bona-fide, must-see, instant-classic duel in Tuesday’s Game 1 of this World Series, then what is there to possibly look forward to for the remainder of this championship round?
Plenty of TV time for Alex Cora and Dave Roberts, that’s what. Both managers will be trudging a well-worn path through the grass between the dugout and the mound, as they did before the Red Sox prevailed, 8-4, in a contest that stretched for 3 hours, 52 minutes at chilly Fenway Park.
Clever bullpen strategy has always been a key element of playoff baseball. The late-inning matchups can be the most interesting — and entertaining — part of these title showdowns. But when we applauded these chess matches, it was with the understanding they weren’t supposed to linger for five or six innings every night.
That’s what these games have deteriorated into, however. The one chance we had at maybe avoiding such a slog was Game 1 at Fenway, where the crumbling Sale was coming off nine days rest and Kershaw supposedly was still Kershaw, after pitching a seven-inning gem to beat the Brewers in Game 5 of the NLCS.
Even with Sale running on fumes lately, we figured he could muster one last ace-quality effort. As Sale insisted Monday, if he was standing on the mound, then he was 100 percent. Anyone who’s watched him recently, however, knew that was an empty promise. Sale was a shell of himself, needing 91 pitches to survive for only four innings, allowing three runs.
“The stat line wasn’t the prettiest thing,” Sale said. “It wasn’t how you draw it up or how you dream about it, but we got the win. That’s the most important thing.”
The fact that Sale was able to outperform Kershaw was less a credit to the Sox’s exhausted ace and more an indictment on the state of starting pitching here in late October. The Red Sox ambushed Kershaw for two runs in the first inning, and once the Fenway crowd launched into raucous “Kerr-shaaw!” chants, it felt like he wasn’t long for this game.
"I don’t think he had the fastball command that he typically does, missing up in the zone,” Roberts said. “I don’t think his slider had the depth that we’re used to seeing.”
In years past, the assumption was someone like Kershaw might weather the early storm, then rebound to keep his team close into the late innings. Not anymore. They don’t get the opportunity. At the first signs of trouble, relievers begin to stretch in the bullpen, and by then the clock is ticking.
With Sale, the Red Sox were on high alert as soon as the fourth inning, when Nathan Eovaldi — the expected Game 4 starter — could be seen getting loose beyond the rightfield wall. Sale’s velocity was dropping steadily each inning, and despite an effective slider helping with the seven strikeouts, the Dodgers nicked him for a pair of runs before he was removed after a leadoff walk to Brian Dozier in the fifth.
“Stuff-wise, probably the best in the postseason,” Cora said. “And he feels really good. No problems with the belly button.”
Very funny. But if Sale wasn’t up to the task, neither was Kershaw, who stuck around for only one more batter than he did in the fifth. In Kershaw’s case, he walked Mookie Betts to open the inning, then surrendered a single to Andrew Benintendi. The combined line of Sale and Kershaw was hard to believe: eight innings, 12 hits and eight earned runs. It was only the fourth time in World Series history that both Game 1 starters failed to record an out in the fifth inning, and the last time it happened was in 2004, with the Red Sox’s Tim Wakefield and the Cardinals’ Woody Williams.
Boston wound up scrambling that October after rallying from an 0-3 deficit to shock the Yankees in the ALCS, so it’s not like Wakefield carried the typical Game 1 pedigree. That was a rotation that had Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling at the top, but extenuating circumstances forced Wakefield into that spot. On Tuesday, the Red Sox and Dodgers combined to use 10 relievers. Expect to see more of the same in the late nights/early mornings ahead.
“Luckily for me, I have a great offense and a great defense,” Sale said.
Greatness on the mound? For bullpen fans, this is the World Series for you.