After losing their final six games to the Diamondbacks to drop the season series 11-8, the Dodgers have been viewed as particularly vulnerable against their rivals in the Division Series. In Friday’s series opener, however, they pounced early and hung on for a 9-5 victory that gave Clayton Kershaw his first career postseason win at Dodger Stadium.
A nasty, brutish and short start
Just four days into the postseason, several starters have struggled early and received quick hooks, but Diamondbacks starter Taijuan Walker may have had the worst night of any. The 24-year-old righty fell behind 4-0 before retiring a batter, and didn’t return for a second inning, forcing manager Torey Lovullo to improvise on top of what was already an improvisation.
The first five Dodgers Walker faced reached base, with a booming 424-foot Justin Turner homer following Chris Taylor’s single and Corey Seager’s walk, and then Yasiel Puig’s RBI double following Cody Bellinger’s single. Puig won a nine-pitch battle (after losing some kind of self-imposed taste test), and Walker didn’t record an out until his 38th pitch, when he whiffed Curtis Granderson. He escaped by sandwiching strikeouts of Yasmani Grandal and,Clayton Kershaw around an intentional walk of Logan Forsythe. The final tally was 48 pitches over 27 minutes.
Though Lovullo never had the luxury of making it official, the Diamondbacks had presumably planned to start lefty Robbie Ray given his dominance against the Dodgers during the regular season (2.27 ERA, 15.1 K/9, 31 ⅔ IP). But Zack Greinke’s short start in the NL Wild Card game led Lovullo to call upon Ray for 2 1/3 innings of relief; his 34 pitches were enough to push him back to Game 2. Instead, Lovullo tabbed Walker over lefty Patrick Corbin and righty Zack Godley, and while he fared well against the Dodgers during the regular season (2-0, 3.24 ERA with 17 strikeouts in 16 ⅔ innings), and posted a 3.49 ERA (137 ERA+) for the year, it was a different story for Walker on Friday night.
Walker’s start was the shortest of the 16 so far this postseason, and his 19 Game Score—the Bill James formula that credits and debits various outcomes in a pitcher's line score for comparative purposes, with 50 being average—was worse than all but Boston’s Drew Pomeranz (17, by allowing four runs in two innings but only striking out one) earlier on Friday.
Godley came on in relief and soaked up five innings, allowing a pair of runs. In the fourth inning, however, the Dodgers turned a trio of singles, a walk, an error (on Godley himself, trying to field an infield squibber) and an infield grounder into a three-run rally just after the DIamondbacks had cut the score to 4-1. Given the way the Diamondbacks clawed their way back against Kershaw, the rally proved to be a costly one.
The Dodgers could have been forgiven for holding their breaths and wondering if Kershaw would catch whatever postseason “flu” felled aces Chris Sale, Corey Kluber and Greinke, not to mention other frontline starters. Despite five ERA titles, including this year (2.31) and three Cy Young awards, the 30-year-old southpaw’s postseason track record coming in (4-7, 4.58 ERA) was notoriously unimpressive.
Though he kept the Diamondbacks off the scoreboard early, Kershaw labored, walking leadoff hitter David Peralta and needing 22 pitches to escape the first inning. His whiffs of Paul Goldschmidt and J.D. Martinez, two Diamondbacks who have bedeviled the Dodgers (the latter had a four-homer game against them on Sept. 5) offered reassurance, and he struck out six of the first nine batters he faced before serving up an A.J. Pollock solo homer in the third inning.
Kershaw got through the sixth with a 7-2 lead, a solo homer by Martinez in the sixth the only other blemish. At that point, his pitch count was at 92, but he had uncharacteristically walked three batters, and recorded just one other strikeout during his second and third times through the order. With a five-run lead, manager Dave Roberts decided to tempt fate by pushing Kershaw into the seventh, though he at least did have the bullpen going. TBS flashed a split showing that Kershaw had compiled a 3.33 ERA in innings 1-6 of his postseason starts, and a 16.88 mark thereafter.
Kershaw retired third baseman Adam Rosales on an outfield liner, then yielded a solo homer to shortstop Ketel Marte, who hit just five in 255 PA during the regular season. On the very next pitch, a 92 mph fastball, Kershaw served up a nearly identical homer to catcher Jeff Mathis, a .215/.277/.323 hitter with two homers in 203 PA; the four gopher balls matched his career high, set on June 19 against the Mets. Finally, Roberts went to his bullpen, calling in lefty Tony Watson and then righty Brandon Morrow.
Though he whiffed Marte in the second inning with a curveball that TBS booth analyst Dennis Eckersley called “a hook from Hell” (the great Vin Scully christened it “Public Enemy Number One” when Kershaw was a 19-year-old rookie in spring training), Kershaw had trouble with the curve. Via Brooks Baseball, just eight of the 15 he threw were strikes, with Martinez’s homer the only ball put into play.
For that matter, only 18 of Kershaw’s 34 sliders went for strikes as well, with just two swings and misses. He averaged eight swings and misses on the slider over his five starts after returning from a six-week absence due to a lower back strain, compared to 12 in his five full (non-injury) starts prior to that.
All of which is to suggest that Kershaw is not in peak form right now, even if his average fastball velocity (93.2 mph, via Brooks) was in line with his pre-injury rates. Roberts is going to have to be more sensitive to that, not pushing Kershaw too hard if the stuff doesn’t dictate it, if the Dodgers are to play deep into October.
The Elephant in the Bullpen
If that’s to happen, the Dodgers’ bullpen will have to step up, because the perennial question is how they’ll get the ball from their starter to closer Kenley Jansen. On Friday night, the ‘pen did its job. Lefty Tony Watson yielded a single but then got a groundout, and then righty Brandon Morrow induced a first-pitch fly out by Pollock to escape the seventh. Morrow pitched a scoreless eighth inning as well, and despite the Dodgers tacking two runs on in the bottom of the frame, Jansen pitched the ninth, allowing a run in a somewhat messy frame that ended with his spearing a comebacker from Peralta.
The 32-year-old Watson, who was acquired from the Pirates on July 31, made 24 appearances for the Dodgers and pitched to a 2.70 ERA with 18 strikeouts in 20 innings; overall, he posted a 3.38 mark with 7.2 K/9 in 66 ⅔ innings, though he didn’t exactly smother lefties (.276/.324/.367 in 107 PA). The 33-year-old Morrow, who struck out 203 hitters as a starter for the Blue Jays back in 2011, has always had electrifying stuff, but injuries have compromised his availability. After being limited to 49 innings over the past two seasons with the Padres, he supplanted Pedro Baez as the Dodgers’ top setup man as the season went on, posting a 2.06 ERA with 10.3 strikeouts and just 1.9 walks per nine in 43 ⅔ innings.
If Morrow can continue to pitch like that, perhaps the team can avoid its perennial nightmares regarding Baez, who did salvage a spot on the postseason roster after settling down from a stretch in which he was lit for 12 runs (10 earned) in 4 ⅓ innings. The 29-year-old fireballer owns a career 3.04 ERA with 9.5 strikeouts per nine; this year, he finished at 2.95 and 9.0 even with that late swoon. October has been another matter; Baez owns a 6.52 ERA in 9 ⅔ innings while walking seven, and in each of the past three seasons, he has had at least one big blowup that contributed to the team’s demise.