It’s the first Friday of the MLB post-season and that means we get four games played over roughly 12 hours (please let that be a maximum) to carry us Canadians into our Thanksgiving weekend. We’ll be watching it all and letting you know what you can take away.
Taijuan Walker’s a good pitcher. He’s certainly better than you, and most of the National League for that matter, as evidenced by his 3.49 ERA this season, the ninth-highest among NL pitchers to throw at least 150 innings.
But, boy, did he have a rough go against the Dodgers Friday. The first five batters he faced went single, walk, home run, single, double, as the wheels crashed off his night in spectacular fashion. It took Walker 38 pitches to record his first out, and the 24-year-old didn’t escape his living nightmare of an inning until he got LA’s starting pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, to strikeout with his 48th pitch of the night.
Walker was on the mound for 27 minutes in all, and its perhaps a minor miracle that only four runs crossed the plate in that time. It’s also a little harsh to hang this entirely on Walker. It was the 24-year-old’s first postseason appearance, several borderline calls didn’t go his way, and the Dodgers had a terrific approach against him, with five of the first seven batters he faced working their counts full.
And Walker’s struggles were endemic of a greater trend in these playoffs, in which starting pitchers are woefully ineffective. Walker’s one-inning start made him the eighth of 16 starters this postseason to not make it through four innings.
In fact, only five of the 16 post-season starters have completed six innings, which is generally the minimum requirement for a strong start. For whatever reason, starting pitching has fallen completely flat so far this October.
Still, Walker needed to be better, especially considering his opponent, Kershaw, is perhaps the best pitcher of his generation. And Kershaw pitched like it for some of his night, mixing 93-m.p.h. fastballs with hard, 88-m.p.h. sliders and looping, 74-m.p.h. curveballs all over the zone.
But bless these Diamondbacks, for they did not go quietly. Arizona put up four solo home runs off of Kershaw, including back-to-back jobs from the unlikeliest of players — Ketel Marte and Jeff Mathis — on consecutive pitches in the seventh, which drove Kershaw from the game.
Of course, it didn’t matter, because the Dodgers are really, really good. Even after their blistering start, the 104-win club kept adding on and adding on, maintaining their patient approach against Zack Godley, who took over in the second inning and threw as many pitches as he reasonably could (100 exactly) in order to save his club’s bullpen, which ran through five pitchers in the NL wild card game two days earlier.
Yes, the Diamondbacks didn’t have much of a prayer in this one. But they live to fight another day — specifically, tomorrow, when Robbie Ray will look to pitch much deeper into the game than Walker did. But as the Dodgers demonstrated Friday, they’re a team playing at an exceptionally high level. They combined for 12 hits; they went 5-for-15 with runners in scoring position; Justin Turner drove in five runs all on his own. It’s going to be tough for anyone to put this team away.
Of the many events the 2017 post-season has featured thus far, a pitchers’ duel was not one them until the start of this game. That’s when Stephen Strasburg and Kyle Hendricks took the mound in Washington and started trading blows.
They’re very different pitches, these two. Strasburg’s fastball sits at 97-m.p.h. and flirts with 100, and he’s not afraid to challenge hitters with it as he did many times Friday night. Hendricks’s fastball sits nearly 10 clicks lower at 88-m.p.h. He’s not blowing it by anyone, relying instead on command and guile to earn weak contact and strikes on the corners.
And that’s how they went at each other. Strasburg earning swing-and-miss results with his high velocity, and keeping hitters honest with an effective curveball and change-up behind it. Hendricks letting hitters put the ball in play, working his change-up off his sinker and using all parts of the zone. Strasburg struck out 10; Hendricks earned 12 ground balls. Power puncher versus finesse boxer.
Neither pitcher was touched until the top of the sixth, when Javier Baez reached on an error by Anthony Rendon, moved to second on a bunt, and scored when Kris Bryant got his bat on a 96-m.p.h. Strasburg fastball and lined a single into right field, the first hit the Nationals ace surrendered all afternoon.
And once he saw it was possible, Anthony Rizzo got his bat around on a Strasburg heater, driving in Bryant with a single to right of his own. Rizzo drove in another in the eighth, once Strasburg was mercifully lifted from the game, and that was all the Cubs would need as they opened their World Series defence with a comprehensive victory.
If you were picking a likely victor between Strasburg and Hendricks before this game, you probably would have gone with the Nationals ace and his dominant fastball. But Hendricks won this duel thanks to precision and command, proving once again you don’t always need overpowering stuff to be dominant.
And, really, considering some of the arcade baseball the playoffs have featured thus far (Friday’s game between Cleveland and New York, which started two-and-a-half hours before this one, was still tied 8-8 when the ninth inning began in Washington), a crisply pitched game was a very nice change of pace.