For 163 games during the regular season and 11 more in October, the Dodgers comforted themselves by knowing they possessed more talent than whichever club they faced. No team holstered more firepower. No opposing roster stockpiled more depth. No clubhouse boasted a more effective blend of superstars and role players. When the standings suggested the Dodgers were bound for an early winter, the team steeled itself with self-confidence.
As the Dodgers sputtered through the summer, a budding juggernaut developed on the East Coast. The Boston Red Sox won 108 games this season, more than any team in 17 years, and picked up steam in the playoffs. Boston brushed aside a 100-win New York Yankees team and blitzed the defending champions from Houston to set a date with the Dodgers in the World Series.
In the days leading up to Game 1, some Dodgers joked about how they would enjoy being treated like an underdog. That was before they absorbed the clout of their opponent in an 8-4 loss Tuesday at Fenway Park, when Boston met every Dodgers action with a more forceful reaction.
When the Dodgers bruised the ace of the Red Sox, Boston answered by taxing Clayton Kershaw for five runs.
Boston pounced on every opening, burst through every sliver of space. The Red Sox converted extra outs into runs, and capitalized on a strategic misfire by Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. When Roberts inserted Alex Wood as a reliever in the seventh inning, Red Sox manager Alex Cora countered with pinch-hitter Eduardo Nunez. The subsequent three-run homer from Nunez robbed the final two innings of any drama.
"It's a hard team to beat, no matter what," Kershaw said. "They can hit homers. They can beat you by putting the ball in play, getting singles, working the count, taking walks, stolen bases, all sorts of things."
The Dodgers saw a little bit of each element Tuesday. The pitchers' duel between Kershaw and Red Sox starter Chris Sale never materialized. Neither man could record an out in the fifth inning. Sale departed with one runner aboard. Kershaw permitted two before Roberts intervened. Sale gave up three runs.
Two of the runs charged to Kershaw were scored with reliever Ryan Madson on the mound. The Dodgers had designated Madson as the fireman of their bullpen, a veteran with an elite fastball. Madson only fanned the flames Tuesday, throwing a wild pitch, walking a batter and giving up an RBI single as the Red Sox pulled ahead for good in the fifth.
The men surrounding Kershaw did him few favors.
A missed play in the first inning led to a two-run rally. Madson stumbled in the fifth. But the responsibility for the loss still hung on his shoulders, even before Wood served up the game-deciding homer to Nunez. The team's play negated a productive evening against Sale, who was pitching for the first time in 10 days after missing a start in the previous round with a stomach issue.
In the bottom of the first, Kershaw learned how painful it can be to give the Red Sox an extra out. Boston outfielder Mookie Betts popped up Kershaw's second pitch of the game. The baseball soared into foul territory past first base. David Freese twisted his way to find it, but misjudged the ball and had it drop behind him.
"It's a tough spot, tough popup," Freese said. "But it needs to be caught."
Freese was not charged an error. Kershaw would soon be charged a run. In Game 5 of the last series, Kershaw stymied the Brewers by wielding his curveball. He threw an 0-2 curve into the dirt against Betts. He did not throw the pitch again during the inning. The Red Sox aimed to force Kershaw to locate it for strikes.
On a 2-2 slider, Betts singled up the middle, then stole second base. Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi stroked an 89-mph slider through the right side of the infield. Betts scored, and Benintendi took second when Yasiel Puig decided to throw home.
The extra 90 feet contributed to a second run. J.D. Martinez, the slugger who terrorized the Dodgers with Arizona last season, lined a slider up the middle for an RBI single.
"To beat a club like that, you've got to play a cleaner game defensively," Roberts said.
Matt Kemp halved the deficit in the second. He fouled off a pair of 95-mph fastballs and held his swing on a slider that dipped just beneath the zone. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, Kemp hammered a 94-mph fastball over the Green Monster. The Dodgers drove Sale's pitch count up to 51 when the inning was over.
The hitters pecked at Sale with singles in the third. Justin Turner sneaked a one-out hit through the right side. Freese whacked a 3-2 slider into left. Manny Machado tied the score with a grounder between the shortstop and third baseman for the first of his three RBIs.
"We did a good job, we just weren't able to come up with a crooked number," Turner said. "We'll bounce back tomorrow."
The Red Sox reclaimed the lead in the bottom of the inning. After a one-out single by Benintendi, first baseman Steve Pearce kept the inning alive by beating out a double-play ball. He set the table for Martinez, who smashed a knee-high slider into the center-field triangle. Enrique Hernandez chose to play the ball on a carom. The RBI double bounced off the base of the wall and Pearce scored to put Boston back in front.
"I felt great," Kershaw said. "I just need to pitch better."
Sale started the fifth inning with 86 pitches on his ledger. He would throw only five more, walking Brian Dozier to begin the inning. From the bullpen emerged right-handed reliever Matt Barnes.
Turner greeted Barnes with a single. After Barnes spiked a curveball for a wild pitch, Dozier scored on a groundout by Machado to tie the score once more. The deadlock did not last beyond the bottom of the inning.
Kershaw walked Betts to start the frame. Benitendi collected his third single of the game. The hit prompted Roberts to leave his dugout. Kershaw was preparing for a conference with catcher Austin Barnes when he caught sight of his manager. He handed the baseball to Roberts and retired to his dugout.
"It's tough," Freese said. "You want to get that 'W' for Kersh."
Madson immediately slicked gasoline over the blaze. He bounced a changeup for a wild pitch and loaded the bases with a walk. Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts brought a run home with a grounder. A single by third baseman Rafael Devers extended Boston's lead to two.
The Dodgers squeezed a run from reliever Ryan Brasier in the seventh, cutting it to 5-4 on Machado's sacrifice fly. Boston sneered in response.
Benintendi blooped a ground-rule double off Julio Urias, a hit that left fielder Joc Pederson could not run down. Pedro Baez sandwiched a pair of strikeouts around an intentional walk of Martinez. Roberts elected to remove Baez to send Wood, a left-handed pitcher, against Devers, a left-handed hitter.
Nunez swings from the right side and slugged .344 against left-handed pitchers this season. Cora called upon him when Baez left the game. A curveball from Wood snapped over the plate. Nunez lifted it over the Monster. It was the third homer yielded by Wood this postseason. The Dodgers could not recover.
"I thought we pitched them OK," Roberts said. "But that's a good offense over there."