Reimer: Laborious Game 1 outings from Sale and Kershaw show how quickly it can end for starting pitchers

Alex Reimer
October 24, 2018 - 12:57 pm

USA Today Sports

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Going forward, any general manager who considers signing starting pitchers to long-term deals worth more than $200 million should be forced to watch the first half of Dodgers-Red Sox Tuesday. Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale, two of the best pitchers of their generation, labored through truncated outings and failed to record any outs in the fifth inning. Their struggles are a stark reminder of the fleeting nature of starting pitching excellence, and how dangerous it is to invest in hurlers whose arms are destined to blow up.

Kershaw, who once featured a dominating repertoire of blistering heat mixed with a sweeping curveball, now throws most of his pitches in the high 80s or low 90s. In Game 1, Kershaw tossed 19 of his first 20 pitches between 87 and 92 miles per hour. All seven Red Sox hits came on balls clocked from 88-91 mph. 

From 2009-2015, Kershaw tossed an average of 215 innings per season, not including the playoffs, where he threw an additional 62.2 frames. Despite that wear and tear, the Dodgers inked their left-handed ace to a seven-year, $215 million extension prior to the 2015 campaign. While Kershaw has enjoyed success in each of the last three seasons –– he led the league in wins and ERA in 2017 –– he failed to make 30 starts in all of them. And this year, Kershaw saw his velocity torpedo. According to Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, Kershaw’s fastball touched 93 mph on just three occasions in 2018, and not once in his 1,392 pitches since July 27.

The Red Sox took advantage of Kershaw’s flatness early on, pummeling him for two runs in the bottom of the first. He got out of the second inning without allowing a run, but only after Jackie Bradley Jr. smashed the ball 104 mph into Manny Machado’s glove for the opportune double play. One inning later, J.D. Martinez smacked an RBI double to the bottom of the centerfield wall. 

Sale threw with greater velocity Tuesday, though he didn’t touch the upper-90s, as he had all season long. In three playoff starts, Sale has only pitched into the sixth inning once, walking eight batters and hitting another one over 13.1 frames. He has struck out 20 batters, but at this stage, he’s a 5-inning pitcher. The lanky flamethrower can seemingly no longer retire hitters with ease, as evidenced by his laborious second inning against bottom of the Dodgers’ lineup, which featured him giving up a home run and a walk.

There are probably a multitude of factors contributing to Sale’s erratic performance. A shoulder injury sidelined him for the final two months of the season, limiting him to just 17 innings pitched in August and September. Last week, Sale was hospitalized with a stomach virus –– err, bellybutton ring infection –– prompting him to lose weight.

Sale’s relative struggles this postseason encapsulate the urgency behind this Red Sox World Series run. The lynchpins of this high-priced starting rotation –– Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello –– cannot be counted on for much longer. Remember, doctors said Price would’ve undergone Tommy John surgery on his elbow last year if he were younger. With that harrowing prognosis in mind, it’s kind of amazing Price was able to give the Red Sox 176 quality innings this season, never mind his shutdown start against the Astros in Game 5 of the ALCS. 

Three years ago, Dave Dombrowski cast logic aside and made Price the highest-paid starting pitcher in baseball history. Next winter, he will be faced with a similar decision regarding Sale, whose contract will be up. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Dombrowski should let him walk.

While Sale and Kershaw are only 29 and 30 years old, respectively, they both appear to be closer to the end than the beginning right now. And it’s easy to brush that aside, given the enhanced role of bullpens. But in a seven-game series, Price correctly points out it’s still valuable for starters to advance into the deep stages of a ballgame. 

“Starting pitching to me is still the key,” Price told reporters after the game. “I understand starters are on very short leases. Teams are really going to go as far as their starters allow them to go. Pitching in a seven-game series you have to try and keep you bullpen as fresh as possible. In a five-game series I think it’s a little bit different. In a seven-game series, those three extra games, that’s a big deal. Starters, if we can go out there pitch deep into games and keep our bullpen as fresh as possible that’s going to help us out.”

That’s what Price will look to do Wednesday, even though the odds are against him. Neither of the two most unhittable lefties in history couldn’t record an out in the fifth inning of Game 1, showing how quickly it can all end. 

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