Two of baseball's most historic teams square off in the 2018 Fall Classic
The 2018 World Series is not the first time the Dodgers and Red Sox have gotten together for the Fall Classic, but it has been quite a while since these two historic franchises have faced each other to determine baseball's champion.
In fact, it's been more than 100 years since the 1916 World Series that pitted the Dodgers (then known as the Brooklyn Robins) against the Red Sox. That Fall Classic featured nine eventual Hall of Famers — one manager, two umpires, and six players — including a couple of fellas named Casey Stengel and George Herman Ruth.
The Babe was a pitcher for the Red Sox back then, and likely a much slimmer, younger version than the pinstriped hoss you’re likely thinking of right now. Stengel, the only manager to win five consecutive World Series titles, was the starting right fielder and one of the best hitters for the Robins, who were named in honor of their manager Wilbert Robinson.
Fast-forward more than a century to the 2018 version of a Dodgers-Red Sox World Series and it’s the Dodgers who have the future Hall of Fame pitcher in Clayton Kershaw and the Red Sox have the game-changing right fielder leading the charge in Mookie Betts. Add in a dash of Manny Machado and J.D. Martinez, a splash of Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jensen, a dose of Cody Bellinger and Andrew Benintendi and a healthy serving of Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium and you’ve got a recipe for one heck of a Fall Classic with storylines abound.
World Series Game 1: Los Angeles Dodgers at Boston Red Sox
Time: 8:09 p.m. ET (Tuesday)
Pitching Matchup: Clayton Kershaw (2.73 ERA) vs. Chris Sale (2.11 ERA)
Three Things To Watch
1. Kershaw takes the mound
Drop to your knees and say a heartfelt thank you to the baseball gods above. To watch one of a generation’s best pitchers in a World Series is exciting enough. But two of the game’s very best hurlers for a World Series Game 1 at Fenway Park? Somebody pinch me, I think I'm dreaming.
Alright, maybe I’m being a touch overdramatic, and maybe I should temper my expectations just a bit. Not because Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale aren’t absolutely fabulous pitchers capable of doing wondrous things with 5.25 ounces of cork, yarn and cowhide, but because history and health are currently fighting against our Game 1 southpaws.
Let’s start with Kershaw. Surely you’ve heard. He’s the best pitcher of the last 20 years —one of the best ever. From April to September he’s magic, near unhittable. A career 2.39 ERA, 2,275 strikeouts, three Cy Young Awards, and an MVP will all be engraved on the plaque in Cooperstown. But, October.
Man, October — that’s a whole other story for Kershaw. The future Hall of Famer just can’t quite get over that hump. Maybe it’s finding a way to get past the fifth or sixth inning that Kershaw can’t quite solve? Perhaps it’s navigating a playoff lineup for the third time in a single game? Or maybe it's another 33 regular-season starts and 230 innings pitched creeping up in that oft-injured back stiffening up in the wintry autumn air of Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and St. Louis after 100 games or so in Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix.
There are theories abound, but few answers, and enough evidence. Kershaw’s ERA jumps to 4.09 in October, and his team’s win-loss record in 17 postseason starts is 9-8, or a winning percentage of just 52.9 percent, a far cry from his career regular-season mark of 68.9.
But I’m not here to predict doom for Kershaw again. No, not this time. This time, I’ve got hope. Hope that one of the game’s all-time greats will have the World Series moment that few earn and even fewer get. I think — well, I hope — judging by how Kershaw has pitched this postseason so far, that he’s saved his best for the biggest stage against baseball’s best team, the Red Sox.
In his first start of the NLDS against Atlanta, Kershaw was a maestro for eight innings throwing 74 percent of his 85 pitches for strikes, allowing two hits and shutting out the Braves. That second postseason start against the Brewers? Forget about it. It doesn’t matter (3 IP, 6 hits, 4 earned runs). But that third start, he was masterful again, throwing seven innings of one-run ball, striking out nine Brewers and surrendering just one run. Then, the cherry on top — closing out the Brewers on their home turf, striking out two in the bottom of the ninth, to send his Dodgers back to the Fall Classic for the second season in a row.
The Dodgers are long shots by most industry metrics in this series, so getting at least one great start from Kershaw is a requirement to keep it close. Getting two great starts from Kershaw, say, in Game 4 in Los Angeles? Now, we’ve got ourselves a series.
2. Oh, yeah... Chris Sale is pitching too
Sale’s October woes aren’t as copious as Kershaw’s and they certainly aren’t as bloviated... but they do exist.
In his postseason debut last fall, the eventual World Series champion Astros teed off on Sale, scoring nine earned runs, hitting four home runs, and forcing the lanky lefty to throw 177 pitches in just 9.2 innings over two ALDS starts. One of those just so happened to be the series-ending Game 4.
Last fall’s sub-par performance likely left the ultra-competitive Sale chomping at the bit to get back to October and prove his mettle. For the first four months of the regular season the lanky lefty seemed like the runaway favorite for the American League Cy Young Award (2.11 ERA, 237 K, 0.861WHIP), but lingering shoulder issues caused the ace to land on the disabled list twice in the second half, only starting five games from July 27 until the end of the regular season, never throwing more than five complete innings.
But it wasn’t just shoulder discomfort that kept Red Sox Nation holding their breath, Sale’s rapidly declining velocity was downright alarming. Sale’s average fastball speed dipped from 96.7 to 92.7 MPH from July to September, eventually sliding all the way down to 90.2 MPH in his final regular-season start — his lowest average velocity ever. To make matters worse, Sale couldn’t find the strike zone. In his final two starts of the season, it took him 73 pitches to get through just 3.1 innings against Cleveland and 92 pitches to only reach 4.2 innings against the Orioles. Sale never reached the fifth inning in four September starts.
Game 1 of this year's ALCS against the Astros was more of September Sale: pulled before the fifth inning, four walks, no velocity, no control, no decision, and the only game the Sox would lose in the series.
The team has chalked up the waning speed and command to a faulty mechanics issue. Maybe that is the case. It’s true, Sale does have an unorthodox, violent delivery. Maybe it’s the toll of a 180-pound man in a 6-foot-6 frame starting to fray from throwing 97 MPH fastballs. Again, there are theories, but we’re just going by what the numbers tell us.
Here is another number of importance. Nine. As in nine days since Sale last pitched. Sale was penciled in to be the ALCS Game 5 starter but a stomach ailment forced him to be hospitalized, moving his start back to Game 6. It didn’t matter as the Sox won Game 5 to clinch the AL pennant and move on to the World Series. But as Game 1 approaches, one has to wonder just what to expect from Sale on Tuesday night and for the rest of the series.
3. Managers matching bullpens
Dave Roberts is used to this stage by now, both as a manager and as a former player. He was here last fall as the Dodgers’ manager, eventually losing to the Astros in seven amazing games — one of the best World Series in baseball’s storied history. He was here 14 years ago as the base-stealing specialist for the Red Sox World Series championship team — the spark that reversed the Curse of the Bambino with that Game 4 stolen base as a pinch runner in the 2004 ALCS.
This time around Roberts will be the one calling for pinch runners in Fenway Park. He’ll also be setting the lineup and making the pitching changes against one of his former Dodger teammates, Alex Cora, the first-year manager of the Red Sox.
Cora has been here before too. He was a middle infielder for the Red Sox team that swept the Colorado Rockies in the 2007 World Series. He made it here last year as the Astros' bench coach, on the winning end of that classic series against his former teammate.
Bullpen-wise, Roberts likely has the advantage throughout the series. Dodgers closer Kenley Jensen understandably regressed during the regular season after being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat, but has recently found his groove, as has fellow bullpen hurlers Pedro Baez and Ryan Madson, giving Roberts three trusted relievers to use in high-leverage situations. Roberts also has a collection of versatile relief arms with Dylan Floro, Caleb Ferguson and Alex Wood to play matchups in the middle innings should Kershaw flame out too soon.
For Cora, the Sox bullpen has been in flux, unreliable and hurting, starting with the nightly roller-coaster ride that has been Craig Kimbrel's inability to find the strike zone at the least opportune times. Cora hasn’t been afraid to mix it up, mostly out of necessity, using Sale and fellow starters Rick Porcello and Nathan Eovaldi out of the pen. So far this October, it’s worked for Cora, but rolling that bullpen dice too many times may eventually backfire on Boston.
With Chris Sale struggling to keep his head above water, look for Alex Cora to go to his bullpen early if the lefty can’t get the ball over the plate or if the Dodgers strike early. Whether Cora decides to go to a long reliever (maybe Rick Porcello, maybe Nathan Eovaldi) or lefty Drew Pomeranz, who was added to the roster to counter the Dodgers' left-handed sluggers (Joc Pederson, Max Muncy, Cody Bellinger), will be fascinating to watch. If Clayton Kershaw has his stuff going on Tuesday night, I like the Dodgers in Game 1.
Prediction: Dodgers 5, Red Sox 3
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.