Mingling with the scent of pumpkin spice in the air this October is the smell of charred starting pitchers.
In the first seven postseason games this month, starting pitchers on the best teams in baseball had given up 44 runs in 58 innings and failed to make it through three innings as often as they pitched into the sixth.
The Dodgers jumped on that trend – and Taijuan Walker. They sent nine batters to the plate and scored four runs in the first inning, going on to a 9-5 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks in Game 1 of their best-of-five National League Division Series.
“You couldn’t ask for a better start to the game,” Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw said. “I think we really had quality at-bats the whole night all the way through. All the guys really just doing what they do all year.”
Not exactly all year.
The Dodgers’ offense limped to the finish line, posting the lowest batting average in baseball (.223) over the last month of the regular season. But it turned the clock back to July and August in Game 1. The top five hitters in the lineup – Chris Taylor, Corey Seager, Justin Turner, Cody Bellinger and Yasiel Puig – were not together often when that offensive downturn began. They combined for nine hits Friday night, drove in all nine runs and scored seven.
“Team offense right there at its best,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.
Walker’s rocky start was the price of admission to this NLDS for the Diamondbacks.
They used both Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray in Wednesday’s wild-card play-in game, leaving neither available to start Game 1 against the Dodgers. Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo gave the ball to the 25-year-old Walker, who acknowledged Thursday that the wild-card game had made him so nervous that he watched much of it on TV in the Diamondbacks’ clubhouse.
He was back in the clubhouse quickly Friday night. Walker failed to retire any of the first five Dodgers batters. After Taylor led off with a single and Seager drew a walk, Turner launched a three-run home run 424 feet into the left field pavilion.
Bellinger followed with a single and scored from first when Puig doubled.
Walker’s night was done after 48 pitches and one inning.
“No regrets whatsoever. He was a clear-cut choice,” Lovullo said of turning to Walker for Game 1. “I just think he didn’t execute the gameplan to get grounded and get into the flow.”
The first-inning homer was the beginning of a five-RBI night for Turner (tying the Dodgers’ franchise record for a postseason game). He drove in runs with singles in the fourth and eighth innings.
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) October 7, 2017
That extended Turner’s outstanding history in the postseason. In 19 career postseason games (all with the Dodgers), he is 23 for 60 (.383) with six doubles, a triple, three home runs and 17 RBI.
The postseason has never been as much fun for Clayton Kershaw. He did get his first postseason win at Dodger Stadium on Friday – a surprising statistic for a pitcher who is 80-31 there during the regular season.
But it was a troublesome performance by Kershaw. He struck out seven and allowed only three hits through the first six innings. But two of the Diamondbacks’ three hits were solo home runs by A.J. Pollock and J.D. Martinez.
Kershaw did pitch into the seventh inning – and probably shouldn’t have. That has been a dark alley for him in the postseason. He has pitched into the seventh inning nine times in the playoffs and allowed 17 runs in those seventh innings, posting a zero only three times.
The trend continued Friday. Kershaw retired the first batter then gave up back-to-back home runs to Ketel Marte and light-hitting catcher Jeff Mathis (seven home runs between them during the regular season) before Roberts came to get him.
“I felt fine. It just wasn’t coming out as good as I would have liked it to that last inning so they hit some good pitches,” Kershaw said before immediately contradicting himself. “Not really. I just didn’t have much left. Hopefully when you give up hits maybe one or two would stay in the ballpark. But tonight it didn’t seem like that was going to happen.”
It has happened at an unsettling rate for Kershaw this year and Friday was just another home run first in a season filled with them for the three-time Cy Young winner. He gave up a career-high 23 home runs during the season, including a grand slam (the first he had ever allowed) and four in one game (a personal first).
Now, he is the first pitcher in Dodgers franchise history to surrender four home runs in a postseason game.
“I’m not sure what he said about tonight but I thought he was outstanding and challenged guys, pitching with the lead, like he should,” Turner said. “Yeah, he gave up four solo home runs. But who cares? When you have a lead like that, it’s about attacking guys, not giving up free bases and pounding the (strike) zone. So I thought he was spectacular for us tonight.”