BOSTON — Clayton Kershaw had pitched 346 major league games in 29 ballparks from Miami to Sydney, but never here at Fenway Park, where Babe Ruth once pitched, Neil Diamond is revered, and the family histories of visiting players are openly discussed. Kershaw felt the full-on Fenway effect the minute he took to the bullpen mound to warm up for World Series Game 1 Tuesday night.
“Brutal. Pretty brutal,” said Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, making his first trip to the Fens since 2010. Not much has changed. The rubber of the pitching mound in the visitors’ bullpen is but three feet from the bleacher seats. “What I don’t understand is why baseball allows it. You’ve got the rubber right there and people literally standing over you.”
Welcome to Fenway Park, Mr. Kershaw.
The bullpen welcoming committee was nothing compared to how the Red Sox hitters treated him. If you are to have any chance against the highest-scoring team in baseball, you better bring crisp stuff to the mound and get airtight defense behind you. Neither happened with Kershaw, who was buried under an avalanche of hits and walks and a track meet around the bases.
Brutal. Pretty brutal. So went Kershaw’s night, too.
It was pretty brutal to see the three-time Cy Young Award winner wither like that. Boston blitzed Kershaw and the Dodgers, 8-4, bringing to life the worst-case nightmare for the Dodgers: that they simply don’t have enough pure stuff to hold back the Red Sox, especially in the hothouse of offense that is Fenway Park.
Before the game I texted a top major league evaluator on this World Series matchup, and the reply spoke directly to that scenario: “The Dodgers’ pitching excels at dominating hitters/lineups with obvious holes to exploit. They attack your weakness and stay there. This is not that type of lineup. The Red Sox hitters have very few holes compared to most, and as [Alex Cora] says, they have great ‘humble’ at-bats with runners in scoring position. I see the Red Sox continuing to have success with RISP and getting the big hits they need to win the series.”
The Red Sox went 4-for-12 with runners in scoring position and are hitting .365 in those spots this postseason. They have scored 75 runs in 10 postseason games. They have won games started by four former Cy Young Award winners: CC Sabathia, Dallas Keuchel, Justin Verlander and Kershaw.
They hung two runs on Kershaw five batters into the game. It was how they did it that so impressed Los Angeles first baseman David Freese. The leadoff batter, Mookie Betts, curled a foul pop up to the right side that landed harmlessly behind Freese.
“I just got turned around,” Freese said. “Tough pop-up that needs to be caught.”
Given a reprieve, Betts singled, swiped second and scored when Andrew Benintendi slashed a single into rightfield toward Yasiel Puig. Third baseman Justin Turner had been trying to get Puig’s attention because Puig was playing rightfield somewhere near Worcester. Turner kept waving his arms to move him in, but never caught Puig’s attention.
When Puig did field Benintendi’s hit deep in rightfield, he made a bonehead play that typifies why Puig remains a frustrating but talented player. Though he had no chance of throwing out Betts, Puig launched a rainbow of a throw all the way to home plate. The ball came out of his hand on such a high trajectory that Benintendi immediately continued toward second base, knowing there was no way in the world anybody could have cut the throw. Having been escorted freely into second by Puig’s folly of a throw, Benintendi scored on a single by J.D. Martinez.
“That’s just ridiculous,” one Dodger said about the Puig heave.
Two of the outs in that inning came on pop-ups that Freese did catch off the bat of righthanded hitters.
As Freese came into the dugout, down 2-0, he shook his head and told teammates, “I don’t know the last time the right side of the infield saw three balls in the air from righthanded hitters right out of the gate.”
The implication was that the Dodgers were dealing with a dangerously unselfish lineup.
“It shows those guys are working the inner half of the baseball,” Freese said. “That’s what they do. You don’t see that too often.”
The Dodgers helped give Boston another run in the third. Kershaw should have been out of the inning with a ground ball double play. But second baseman Brian Dozier was slow getting the ball out of his glove. His slow pivot allowed Steve Pearce to reach first. Pearce scored when centerfielder Enrique Hernandez, playing his first game at Fenway, pulled up before the warning track on a long fly by Martinez. Hernandez stopped and looked toward the top of the wall for the bounce. But the ball hit the bottom of the garage door in centerfield, indicating the ball could have been caught with a full-on running attempt.
“Make a couple of plays and catch a pop … there’s a lot less damage,” Honeycutt said. “You can’t give this team extra outs.
“You get the wrong people up at the wrong time. And you’ve got the monster [Martinez] in the middle. They put good at-bats on [Kershaw], and not putting away other people you maybe want to put away hurt. For me, we didn’t play good baseball.”
All true, but let’s also be frank about Kershaw. Now that his elite fastball is gone the guy has a slim margin of error. When he’s right, he can dot his slider to the back door on righthanders or throw it over the center of the plate and get swings and misses as it dives down. What you saw in World Series Game 1 is what happens to him when his slider is ordinary.
“The slider wasn’t very good tonight,” he said. “It didn’t have the depth. It was kind of flat in the zone. I made some mistakes in the zone they made me pay for. All the way around it wasn’t very good.”
His fastball is consistently below average. The average major league fastball is 93 miles per hour. Kershaw this year has hit 93 just three times, not once in his 1,392 pitches since July 27. Just three years ago he threw 1,550 pitches at 93 or better.
This was a marquee matchup of two of the five toughest lefthander to hit in the history of baseball. Among those with 200 career starts, Kershaw (.207) ranks behind only Sandy Koufax, while Sale (.217) checks in at number five behind Sid Fernandez and Sam McDowell. But that was false advertising. Right now Kershaw and Sale are shells of their former selves.
Sale has thrown 303 pitches this year at 97 mph or faster–none of them since his shoulder started barking in August. He’s a five-inning pitcher (he went four in Game 1) who throws in the low- to mid-90s and lacks his here-it-is-try-to-hit-it command. His fastball command Tuesday night was awful.
So it was hardly a surprise that Kershaw and Sale were gone by the fifth inning. They combined to allow 17 baserunners in eight innings.
Kershaw’s lack of stuff and his pitch selection were alarming, a shortcoming made more obvious against the relentless Boston lineup. He threw one curveball for a strike among his first 50 pitches, and wound up throwing only five curves for strikes among his 79 pitches.
He kept trying those flat sliders, which on a bad nights like this look like mediocre fastballs. In the first inning Kershaw threw 19 of his 20 pitches between 87 and 92 miles per hour. He had absolutely nothing to disrupt the timing of the Boston hitters. All seven hits he gave up came in the narrow range of 88-91 miles per hour. I have no idea why he doesn’t feature his curveball more to at least get hitters off the steady stream of look-alike pitches, but it’s a foolish way to try to navigate through the Boston lineup.
“When you don’t have one of your key pitches you try to feel for it a little bit instead of trusting what it’s going to do,” Honeycutt said. “A lot of back door [sliders] wound up over the middle.”
Kershaw has started more postseason series openers than anybody but Jon Lester and Greg Maddux. In his 10 Game 1 starts, he is 4-5 with a 5.86 ERA. Nothing about his start Tuesday was ace stuff. He now has not made it past the fifth inning in eight postseason starts. Only Roger Clemens (12) and Rich Hill and Sabathia (9) have had more truncated starts in such big games.
“It’s the World Series. Close plays have got to be made,” Freese said. “Double play balls, pop-ups … you’ve got to back your guy. Right out of the gate we didn’t do that. That’s a tough team to play. The close plays have to be made.”
Kershaw gets the ball next in Game 5, and he’ll have to pitch that one on four days rest–one day fewer than when the Dodgers prefer to use him. In between, the Dodgers will send to the mound Hyun-Jin Ryu, who was bad his last time out in the NLCS; Walker Buehler, a rookie who has thrown 167 innings in a year when the Dodgers had budgeted 130-150 for him; and Hill, who has made it past the fifth inning once in 10 career postseason starts.
“Don’t count us out,” third baseman Justin Turner said.
It’s looking already that to beat the Red Sox the Dodgers are going to have to outscore them–a tough task against a team averaging 7.5 runs per postseason game.
“We’ve got to tighten up all of it,” Honeycutt said. “You’re not allowed to make too many mistakes against that team and get away with it.”
The Red Sox did more than win a game. They beat up Kershaw and they put pressure on the Dodgers now to play clean, near-perfect baseball to hang with them. Welcome to Fenway Park. The place never seemed so inhospitable.