BOSTON — For a moment there, as Game 1 of the World Series dawned Tuesday night, we almost forgot what year it was and what the game of baseball has become. We watched enraptured as two of this generation’s top starters climbed the mound at storied Fenway Park for the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers, and a warm sense of nostalgia, for the days when aces roamed the earth and stared each other down every October, may have had us envisioning Palmer vs. Koufax, or Clemens vs. Schilling.
Instead, when Game 1 was decided, with the Red Sox using two walks, a wild pitch and a couple of singles to push across the go-ahead runs, the respective pitchers were Matt Barnes and Ryan Madson. By the way, that was in the fifth inning. Barnes-Madson doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as Kershaw-Sale, right? But that’s baseball in 2018.
As if anyone needed another reminder of how completely the game has been taken over by bullpens, it came in Boston’s 8-4 victory on the sport’s biggest stage when the two best left-handed starters of this generation, Boston’s Chris Sale and Los Angeles’s Clayton Kershaw — albeit a diminished version of each — were gone before the first outs were recorded in the fifth inning and left having given up a combined 12 hits and eight earned runs.
What followed was a parade of relievers, pinch hitters, defensive changes, mound visits and situational matchups, as a game that began at 11 minutes past 8 p.m. stretched beyond midnight, and the crowd of 38,454 first grew restless — then exploded.
The single biggest swing of the bat, the three-run homer from Red Sox third baseman Eduardo Nunez that broke the game open in the seventh, came after the Dodgers, with two on and two out, removed right-handed reliever Pedro Baez for lefty Alex Wood to face Rafael Devers, a left-handed hitter — and the Red Sox countered by pinch-hitting Nunez, a right-handed hitter, for Devers. Nunez ambushed a 1-0 knuckle-curve from Wood and slammed it over the Green Monster in left, then pranced around the bases.
Game 2 is Wednesday night, with another matchup of lefties: the Dodgers’ Hyun-Jin Ryu and Boston’s David Price.
It shouldn’t need to be said that this is no longer 1965 or 2001 or even 2014, when there might have been at least some expectation of a starting pitcher going seven, eight or even nine innings. But such was the outsized anticipation of Kershaw vs. Sale in Game 1 that it might have been wise to repeat it.
For that matter, this is not even 2017, when Sale was winning the AL’s strikeout title and Kershaw the NL’s ERA title and both were runners-up for the respective Cy Young Awards. Neither exceeded 162 innings this season, thanks largely to injuries, and neither has been at their best this month. Tuesday night’s outcome, in other words, was not fully unexpected. Facing the highest-scoring offenses in either league, neither Sale nor Kershaw collected an out after the fourth — the first time in 14 years that had happened to each starter in Game 1 of the World Series .
“You look at the [lineups] on both sides — grinding at-bats, the ability to work pitch counts,” Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said. “So you’re going to have to go to the ‘pen.”
Never is the second half of a baseball game more of a chess match than when your opponent is the Los Angeles Dodgers, with their half-dozen platoons and roster full of Swiss Army knife utility men. It’s no wonder Red Sox Manager Alex Cora has jokingly compared the Dodgers to a hockey team that’s always changing lines.
The Dodgers’ parade of pinch hitters and shifting defenders began in the fifth, as they went heavily left-handed against the right-handed Red Sox setup men: Barnes, Joe Kelly and Ryan Brasier. By the seventh, the Dodgers had emptied their bench. Enrique Hernandez started the game in center field, shifted to left in the fifth, then to second base in the seventh.
“I love it. It’s a challenge,” Cora said. “It’s tough to manage against them. It’s a grind. But when you have the talent we do, and guys who can hit lefties or righties, you feel comfortable with any matchup.”
The go-ahead runs for the Red Sox came in the bottom of the fifth, which began with the score tied at 3, a sequence that started with Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi reaching with a walk and a single off Kershaw, and ended with both of them scoring with Madson, the ex-Washington National, on the mound. The key play: Xander Bogaerts beating out a would-be inning-ending double-play grounder, helped by a weak turn by Dodgers second baseman Brian Dozier.
Had Benintendi, a left-handed hitter, been playing for the Dodgers, he probably would have started the game on the bench against a left-handed starter. But for the Red Sox, he got five at-bats, all of them against lefties, and went 4 for 5 with an RBI and three runs scored.
James Taylor had just finished the national anthem, and Carl Yastrzemski was preparing to stroll to the mound for the ceremonial first pitch — the field in immaculate shape despite the rain that fell most of the afternoon and didn’t stop until an hour before first pitch — when the first “Beat L.A.!” chant went up from the stands. During introductions, the Fenway crowd roared for Roberts, a hero of Boston’s 2004 World Series champs, and booed mercilessly for Machado, the Dodgers’ villainous shortstop.
It was clear almost immediately that Kershaw didn’t have the requisite weapons to put away the Red Sox. Boston touched him for two runs in the first, teeing off on his slider, and another in the third. His Dodgers teammates did him no favors behind him, as first baseman David Freese overran a foul ball and right fielder Yasiel Puig missed the cutoff man, both misplays contributing to Boston’s two-run inning.
“We left some outs there,” Roberts said. “To beat a club like that you’ve got to play a cleaner game defensively.”
Meanwhile, with a fastball that touched 96 mph and a slider that had its old bite back, Sale looked better than he had in his loss in Game 1 of the ALCS. But Sale had thrown only 27 ⅓ innings since the end of July and hadn’t pitched at all in 10 days. He was on the disabled list for most of August with shoulder inflammation and was scratched from his scheduled Game 5 start in the ALCS by a stomach illness. The Dodgers’ all-right-handed lineup made him work for every out, and he needed 91 pitches just to collect his 12 outs.
“The starters are going to throw a lot of pitches,” Freese said. “These are two teams that spit [at pitches] out of the zone, and work counts.”
When Sale came out of the game one batter into the fifth, he got a standing ovation from the crowd near the Red Sox dugout — welcome to baseball in 2018 — but there were still 15 outs for Cora to cobble together.
As he has all month, Cora used his main setup men — Barnes, Kelly and Brasier — to carry the lead to the eighth, then inserted Nathan Eovaldi, Boston’s likely Game 4 starter, to handle the eighth, which he did flawlessly. All that was left was three outs in the ninth from closer Craig Kimbrel, and they came 1-2-3.
As the “Beat L.A.!” chant returned, the Red Sox lined up for handshakes and backslaps. There is every chance we will see Kershaw and Sale again, head-to-head, in Game 5. But next time, everyone will know better than to expect a duel between aces, when what baseball wants to give us is a duel of bullpens.