Red Sox, Dodgers show they're about more than aces as Kershaw-Sale duel fizzles

ByBradford Doolittle ESPN logo
Wednesday, October 24, 2018

BOSTON -- You would be hard-pressed to create a more alluring World Series Game 1 pitching matchup than Chris Sale versus Clayton Kershaw. You might also be hard-pressed to understand why, as the game unfolded, the pedigrees of the starting pitchers felt so irrelevant.

Neither starter was wholly responsible for the game's outcome, an 8-4 Boston Red Sox win over the Los Angeles Dodgers. L.A fans, after watching Boston roll up its run total, might experience some queasy flashbacks to last year's seven-game loss in the World Series to the potent Houston Astros. Sale labored through four innings as the velocity on his fastball degraded with each passing inning. He was effective enough, giving up only two runs, but he failed to get an out in the fifth.

That was also true for Kershaw, who was getting by for the most part while struggling with his command. He didn't get much help from his defense, making his final line -- five runs allowed in four innings -- uglier than it might have been. As ugly as the Boston weather on a cold, wet night. Not that that was what plagued Kershaw.

"I didn't pitch very well, but I don't think the weather had anything to do with it," Kershaw said.

No, neither ace carried their team in Game 1, yet we still had a one-run game in the seventh that was very much in doubt. The course of the game said as much about the Red Sox and Dodgers as a whole as it did about anything Sale and Kershaw did. These are two teams that utilize their full rosters and, for all the high-dollar stars in the matchup, the team that wins any given game is probably going to be the one that gets positive contributions from every facet of the club. On Tuesday, that team was Boston.

"They are going to be a hard team to beat," Kershaw said about the Red Sox. "They do a great job all the way around. They hit homers, get balls in play for singles, doubles, stolen bases. All sorts of things."

That's not as sexy as Kershaw and Sale going the distance, combining for about 30 strikeouts and throttling each other's lineup. Baseball, circa 2018, rarely works that way anyhow, but it's especially not how Boston and Los Angeles operate. Yes, big-name players on both teams put up numbers. Manny Machado drove in three runs for L.A. Justin Turner had a big night. For Boston, Andrew Benintendi had a career night, becoming the third Boston player to have a four-hit game in the World Series. Mookie Betts got things started. J.D. Martinez drove in a pair.

"Man, both lineups can spit on pitches, can work counts," Dodgers first baseman David Freese said. "I don't know the last time I faced the team where the right side of the infield saw three balls in the air right out of the gate. That shows that those guys are working the inner half of the baseball. That's what they do. Their squad going up against Kersh, honing in on their skills, not trying to do too much."

In fact, both teams put up early runs with their powerful lineups, despite the presence of Sale and Kershaw on the mound. Later, both teams got as many innings from their relievers as they did their starters. Both teams looked to their bench in key situations. The Red Sox and Dodgers both have multiple starters capable of producing a gem in any given outing. It's also just as likely that every game will be decided by little moments, and the constant turnstile of substitutions. And, don't forget, all those managerial levers being pulled, which leads to "clarification" questions in the postgame interview room, and second-guessing from pundits from coast to coast.

It wasn't about the aces, or even the stalwarts. It was about everybody.

"You look at both rosters, there's a lot of depth," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "You look at the position players on both sides, grinding at-bats, and both teams have the ability to work pitch counts and get pitch counts higher, so you're going to have to go to the pen and play matchups. That's kind of how we saw it."

These teams are so good, and typically execute so well, that little mistakes in this series could result in outsized consequences. In Game 1, a mostly well-played contest in less-than-ideal conditions, all of the mistakes seemed to fall on the Dodgers' side, and it's why they head back to their hotel with a deficit on their hands.

A couple of the miscues came after Kershaw departed with two men on base -- a wild pitch and a missed double-play chance that led to the fourth and fifth runs on Kershaw's tab.

"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. And those guys, to their credit, they put some good at-bats on him. We didn't play the defense that we typically do. I thought we left some outs out there. And it didn't make Clayton's job any easier."

A big fulcrum moment came in the top of the seventh. Three straight Dodgers reached base against Red Sox reliever Ryan Brasier, loading the bags for Machado, who hit a sacrifice fly, narrowing the game to 5-4. Roberts had Cody Bellinger at the plate, so Boston manager Alex Cora summoned Eduardo Rodriguez from the pen. Normally a starter who over the course of his career has had reverse platoon splits, Rodriguez got a ball up in the zone where Bellinger struggles. The slugger flied out meekly to center to end the threat.

Finally, the balance of the game was turned conclusively in Boston's favor next to another Eduardo in the bottom half of the seventh. With two on and two out, Roberts pulled Pedro Baez, who again flashed the dominant stuff he has had all through the postseason.

Lefty Alex Wood came on, so Cora sent Eduardo Nunez to the plate as a pinch hitter. Wood, who, like Rodriguez, is also normally a starter, threw Nunez two straight breaking pitches and Nunez crushed the second one, hammering the hardest-hit home run ball he has had in two years. The ball just cleared the Green Monster, but it was a game-breaking home run just that same.

"In the beginning I thought it was going to be a single, because the wall is so high and I know it was a low ball," Nunez said. "When I see the ball is going, I was excited, because I didn't expect the ball going [out]."

All of this happened after Sale and Kershaw had returned to their clubhouses to ice their arms. One missed double-play opportunity, one lefty starter-turned-reliever who comes through, and another one who does not. The Red Sox played an airtight defensive game. The Dodgers did not. The Dodgers made the one big pitching mistake. The Red Sox did not.

"I mean, I love it," Cora said. "I love it. It's a challenge. They're going to mix and match. They're going to pinch hit, they're going to bring their relievers. You know how I say I hate managing the other team, but actually you have to manage them and see who they have, and where they're going to come in, and when is [there] going to be the point that the matchup is going to benefit us."

Neither the Red Sox nor the Dodgers are just about their aces, nor their stars, nor any one phase of the game. They are about all of it, and it gives us plenty to keep track of. These little sub-matchups are just as likely to decide the series as anything that happens with the headliners. To win a game, much less the series, both teams need all of their disparate parts to work together. Because if they don't, the other side has the weapons to take advantage.

"I really don't care if they second-guess me," Cora said. "I prepare. We prepare as a group, and you make decisions. And honestly, when I'm done here, I shower, I get in that car, I might get a text that says, 'Go to the pharmacy and get some diapers for the kids.'"

In Game 1, it was the Dodgers who fell short in ways that were small but had consequences so large. In Game 2, it's entirely possible that the roles will be reversed, and it will be the Red Sox who are left ruing a missed double play, or a curveball that doesn't bite.

But we will hopefully also get a game or two in which none of these facets fail for either team. When that happens, we'll see the two best teams in the sport right now help keep the classic in Fall Classic. We might even get a game decided by the stars.

Related Video