Thursday's Game 5 at Dodger Stadium was Kenta Maeda's third start of the Dodgers' postseason run, and it was by far his best. That he recorded only 11 outs, forcing the club to jump onto its carousel of relievers far earlier than envisioned, revealed just how bad the club's No. 3 starter has been this month.
It was an altogether unusual outing for the 28-year-old right-hander, who yielded just one run. He struck out six Chicago Cubs. He walked two, and gave up a solitary run. And, yet, there were the 11 outs.
"My job as a starter is to go deep into the game, and I couldn't do that," Maeda said through interpreter Will Ireton. "As a result, it put a lot of stress on the entire team."
That was not a new development. In his two previous postseason starts, Maeda had finished seven innings combined. He had hit one man, walked five men and struck out six. He had given up nine hits and, in all, seven runs. Manager Dave Roberts suggested before the game that Maeda had been "trying to be too perfect."
"But, just seeing Kenta last night in the dugout, this guy is a fighter, he's determined," Roberts continued. "I've said it before, every time he takes the mound, I feel good. And this is no different. I think that he's going to rise to the occasion."
His words sounded confident — clairvoyant, even. His actions belied those words. In the fourth inning, Roberts pulled Maeda after back-to-back outs and with the Cubs pitcher, Jon Lester, about to bat. It was a rare display of confidence in a middle reliever over a No. 3 starter.
Consider that Maeda's replacement, right-hander Josh Fields, was pitching in triple A as recently as August.
Consider that Lester has batted more than 200 times between the regular season and postseason and logged a hit on only 10 occasions. But Lester hit a baseball hard in his first chance against Maeda, and that, Roberts said, was enough for him, with Dexter Fowler looming in the on-deck circle.
"Kenta's fine physically," Roberts said. "For me, I felt that at 32/3 innings, he was losing fastball command and the breaking ball wasn't as sharp. I didn't see Kenta getting Fowler, so I liked the Fields matchup if for some reason we lost Lester."
Maeda admitted he found his removal at that moment surprising. He said his manager did not further explain the situation to him.
"We don't know if he could've gotten out of that spot in the fourth or not," said reliever Ross Stripling, the last of the six men who pitched after Maeda. "We just went to the 'pen early. We're a team that goes to the 'pen. That's just how it is. You can tell he's yelling, pumped up.
"He wants to pitch, wants to have success. He just hasn't been able to give us any length."
The Dodgers placed an unusual bet on Maeda last winter after a physical examination uncovered irregularities in his arm. He had been a star in Japan, and they signed him to an eight-year contract worth $25 million with incentives that could multiply it several times over. This year alone, he earned nearly $9 million in extra payments.
But his strong start masked his second-half struggles. Maeda had a 4.61 earned-run average in July, a 4.05 ERA in August and a 4.03 mark in the season's last month.
The last time he amassed even 20 outs in a start was July 10. If the Dodgers advance to the World Series in spite of him, it's worth wondering whether he'll start again.