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If Chris Sale and Clayton Kershaw Pitch in the Playoffs, Does Anyone Win?

Game 1 was supposed to be a pitcher’s duel between two of the best starters of the 21st century. Instead, they both got chased off the mound before the fifth inning ended.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Clayton Kershaw came into Game 1 of the World Series in Boston on Tuesday night poised to put an end to it. Though he’d be starting on just two days’ rest, he and the Dodgers must have felt that the pesky can’t-get-it-done-in-the-playoffs narrative was about to be put to bed, permanently.

Kershaw threw seven stellar innings in Game 5 of the NLCS, dominating the Brewers and putting the Dodgers one step closer to the World Series. He struck out nine and gave up only a single run. Then he threw a perfect inning to help seal the deal in Game 7, punching out two as L.A. punched its ticket to Fenway Park.

Meanwhile, a rested Red Sox team entrusted the ball to Chris “the Belly” Sale, coming off a trip to Massachusetts General Hospital for overnight observation due to a stomach ailment. Manager Alex Cora said pregame that Sale—who went 12-4 with a 2.11 ERA and 237 K’s in just 158 regular-season innings in 2018—was a “one-pitch guy” who “survived” for four frames against Houston in Game 1 of the ALCS.

Coming in, it looked like a matchup of pitching titans: Kershaw and Sale rank no. 1 and no. 2 in career ERA among active pitchers and each have posted 300-strikeout seasons in the past. Both have the kind of stuff that ties hitters up in knots when they’re right.

So of course Sale struck out the first two Dodgers he faced and threw a scoreless opening inning, and Kershaw got ambushed by an aggressive Red Sox lineup and finished the frame down two runs. Then Sale gave back the lead … only to watch his offense take it back from the Dodgers ace.

Though both starters began the fifth inning, neither recorded an out in the frame. And both left with runners on base, hoping the bullpen could bail them out. Neither pen obliged.

After it became a battle of the bullpens, it was the Red Sox who struck the big blow, with pinch-hitter Eduardo Núñez golfing a two-out, three-run shot into the Monster seats to seal Game 1 for Boston.

“Our team battled well,” Kershaw said. “We stuck in there, kept fighting back, kept fighting back, and they finally got one at the end to kind of put us out of it.”

Kershaw owns an MVP, a trio of Cy Youngs, and five ERA titles, but in the 2018 postseason he’s been yanked around like a yo-yo: smooth ride one game, abrupt stop and reversal the next.

Here are the greatest pitcher of his generation’s lines for his 2018 playoff starts:

NLDS Game 2: 8 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 3 K
NLCS Game 1: 3 IP, 6 H, 5 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 2 K
NLCS Game 5: 7 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 9 K
WS Game 1: 4+ IP, 7 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 3 BB, 5 K

On Tuesday, it wasn’t all his fault. Mookie Betts led off the bottom of the first by lofting a lazy fly ball down the first-base line; David Freese gave chase and seemingly had it sized up, only to take his eye off the ball to make sure he wasn’t about to run into the rolled-up tarp in the short foul ground at Fenway and allow it to fall harmlessly to the ground.

That gave Betts another life at the plate, and the presumptive AL MVP lined a ball into center for a base hit, then promptly stole second and came around to score on a single by Andrew Benintendi.

You can argue that a pitcher of Kershaw’s caliber needs to be able to brush off a fluky missed foul pop-up and get the out, but Betts, who was every bit as good as Mike Trout this season, is the last player in this series you can afford to give a second chance to.

“It’s a hard team to beat, no matter what,” Kershaw said when asked about giving the Red Sox extra outs. “They do a great job all the way around. They can hit homers, they can beat ya putting the ball in play, getting singles, working the counts, getting walks, stolen bases, all sorts of things. So, yeah, you can’t [give them extra outs] either, for sure.”

After the bullpen allowed two inherited runners to score, Kershaw’s line bested Sale’s in the battle of the beleaguered lefties. But if the Red Sox no. 1 isn’t careful, his postseason narrative will start to mirror Kershaw’s: great in the regular season, greatly disappointing in the postseason.

Entering Tuesday’s start, Sale had a higher career postseason ERA (5.85) than either Kershaw (4.09) or the much-maligned David Price (5.04). Of course, that was in just three starts and 20 innings pitched, since Sale never pitched in the postseason prior to landing in Boston last season. And because he dealt with arm issues at midseason, returning late and only for short stints, Sale’s playoff report card still deserves to read “incomplete.”

“Stuff-wise, probably the best in the postseason,” Cora said of Sale postgame. “And he feels really good, no problems with the belly button. So that’s a plus.”

The end result is that Boston maintains home-field advantage and enjoys a 1-0 lead in the series. Game 1 winners have taken 12 of the past 15 World Series, and 17 of the past 21. Of course, L.A. won Game 1 last year and lost the series, so the Dodgers aren’t exactly panicking after their ace was saddled with another postseason L.

“Is it deflating?” Dodgers second baseman Brian Dozier said. “No, we ride [Kershaw] each and every game when he’s on the mound. There’s not anybody else I’d rather have. I thought he threw the ball really, really well. They did their job, getting him out of the game in the fifth. It’s gonna be a dogfight.”