On July 23, Clayton Kershaw took the mound at Citi Field against the following Mets lineup:
In a fairly predictable series of events, Kershaw took a perfect game into the seventh inning against a hapless lineup and ended up going the distance, striking out 11, walking zero and allowing just three singles in a 3-0 win. The transformation of the Mets lineup from one of the worst in baseball early in the season to a formidable one has been well documented; the club added Yoenis Cespedes, Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson at the trade deadline, got a surprisingly strong debut from Michael Conforto and got Travis d’Arnaud and David Wright back from injuries.
The lineup that the Mets trotted out in their first playoff game since 2006 was much different than the one that Kershaw carved up back in July. This was no longer a pushover lineup, evident from the get-go when David Wright came out of a grueling 12-pitch battle in the first inning with a walk. Yet, the results weren’t all that different for Kershaw through the first six innings. The lone blemish on Kershaw’s line was a solo home run that Daniel Murphy had launched in the fourth inning, but otherwise, he had been masterful. He needed just 88 pitches to strike out 11 batters through six innings, pounding the strike zone early in the count with his fastball and then leaning on his hellacious slider to rack up the swing and misses. This was the Kershaw who has unquestionably been the game’s best pitcher the past five years.
Sadly, Kershaw’s harshest critics won’t remember those first six innings. Anyone under the belief that Kershaw can’t get it done in the playoffs probably already has their mind made up. Instead, they’ll focus on his fateful seventh inning, when his control wavered and he walked the bases loaded before exiting with two outs down 1-0. But even that narrative could have gone a different path. Kershaw could have simply put away Ruben Tejada, who was down 0-2 before drawing the second walk of the inning. Then there was Curtis Granderson, who has developed the type of discipline at the plate that allowed him to take Kershaw’s final pitch of the night, a 3-2 pitch that barely missed off the plate.
But just as Kershaw’s night would have been remembered differently had he not lost steam or had his bullpen bailed him out, manager Don Mattingly’s decision to pull Kershaw for Pedro Baez will be questioned because of what transpired next. In hindsight, yes, Baez came in and promptly gave up a two-run single to David Wright. But Kershaw was clearly running out of gas, had thrown 113 pitches, and would have had to face Wright, a noted lefty-killer, for the fourth time in the game. At best, Kershaw was just as good an option in that situation for Mattingly as going to the bullpen.
As for Mattingly’s choice to go to Baez, as much as we may wish to live in a world free of bullpen roles, we’re just not at the point yet where Kenley Jansen was going to pitch in that situation. That other managers don’t bring their closers into games in the seventh inning is hardly an excuse to not bring your best available pitcher into what was likely to be one of the most high-leverage situations of the game, but expecting Mattingly to be the first to break such a firm mold is little more than wishful thinking.
Realistically, maybe you would have preferred Chris Hatcher pitching instead of Baez. Hatcher’s been better down the stretch than Baez and the case can certainly be made that he was the superior option, but at some point it just comes down to the players executing.
After all, Baez was really good this year! He’s struggled at times in the second half but we’re still talking about a guy with a 29% strikeout rate and 5% walk rate this year. But he fell behind against Wright, forcing him to lean on his fastball. Baez gets predictable when down in the count, as he’s gone to his fastball 93% of the time against right-handers when they have the count in their favor. Down 3-1, Wright fouled off a heater on the inside corner. Baez came back with another fastball, this one over the plate, and Wright laced it up the middle to extend New York’s lead to 3-0.
Most of the time, questionable decisions get mulled over only when that team comes out worse for it. Look across the field, into New York’s dugout, where Terry Collins insisted on penciling a lumbering Michael Cuddyer into his lineup over either Juan Lagares or Michael Conforto.
Collins has made it clear for a while that Conforto wouldn’t get starts against left-handers until next year. The rookie has exceeded all expectations and been one of New York’s best offensive players since his call-up, but given the lack of reps he was afforded against major-league southpaws after being called up (15 PAs), his absence from the lineup was expected and even justified.
If there were a decision to be second-guessed, it would be Collins opting to go with Cuddyer over Lagares. In a game where runs were expected to be at a premium, he was clearly opting for offense over defense, but it’s not even clear that Cuddyer is much of an offensive upgrade.
The outfielder has been a shell of his former self at the plate this season, sporting just a .268 TAv against lefties. It’s a small one-season sample against left-handers, sure, and he has a .298 TAv against lefties over the course of his career, but that was also a completely different player. Lagares, on the other hand, has a .290 TAv against lefties over his career and has maintained his strong marks against southpaws even during his down year at the plate. If Cuddyer does hold an advantage at the plate, it’s not by much, and certainly not enough to justify the defensive upgrade Lagares provides not only over Cuddyer, but by allowing Collins to shift Yoenis Cespedes from center field to left field.
Instead, Cuddyer was left to fend for himself in the outfield and struggled with a pair of catchable balls over his head. First, there was Justin Turner’s double to lead off the second inning. It was actually one of the harder hit balls of the night for the Dodgers, but hit right at Cuddyer. He misread the ball off the bat, taking a couple of steps in, before backpedaling and reaching up as the ball glanced off his glove.
Cuddyer’s adventures in left field continued the very next inning when Corey Seager hit a ball down the left field line that both he and the TBS camera man thought was foul off the bat. More importantly, Cuddyer took a bad route to the ball and it ended up bouncing just fair, beyond his outstretched glove and into the left field stands for a ground rule double.
But unlike Kershaw and Mattingly, Cuddyer’s mistakes aren’t being magnified today. He has Jacob deGrom to thank for that.
The long-locked fireballer carved up the Dodgers lineup and bailed his left fielder out after each of his misplays. After Turner’s leadoff double, deGrom fanned Andre Ethier with a 98 MPH fastball up, and then got A.J. Ellis to chase at a 92 MPH slider out of the zone for the second out. Collins elected to take his chances with Kershaw at the plate rather than Joc Pederson and deGrom showed enough respect for his counterpart that he used a changeup to rack up his sixth strikeout through the first two innings.
Seager’s double came with two outs in the third inning and Adrian Gonzalez had a chance to get Los Angeles on the board. Instead, deGrom struck him out on seven pitches, finishing him off with a 3-2 changeup.
While deGrom has evolved into a pitcher who can terrorize hitters with his low-90s slider or pull the string on a changeup with fade and drop, what allowed him to dominate the Dodgers lineup over seven shutout innings was ultimately his fastball. His command of the pitch wasn’t at its absolute best, but when it’s sitting 97-98 MPH like it was early on, you’re afforded more margin for error. deGrom worked up in the zone with his fastball for most of the night and racked up 15 swing and misses with it, the most the 27-year-old has ever gotten with the pitch in a single game.
DeGrom’s incredible performance coupled with Kershaw’s outing ended up being the type of pitching duel that put the game in the record books. Not only did deGrom tie Tom Seaver’s franchise record of 13 strikeouts in a postseason game, but it was the first time that two pitchers struck out at least 11 batters in the same playoff game. Make no mistake about it: what we saw during New York’s 3-1 win in Game One was a remarkable duel between two aces. deGrom just happened to have the edge on this night.