Pedro Baez was overwhelming the Boston Red Sox in the seventh inning at Fenway Park on Tuesday night, continuing his dominant two-plus-month run in another crucial spot, when Dodgers manager Dave Roberts emerged from the dugout to remove him.
The Red Sox were threatening to put the Dodgers away in Game 1 of the World Series. They held a one-run lead with runners on first and second. Baez was on the verge of putting out the fire after securing two strikeouts. But Roberts, playing the matchup game, decided to replace Baez with Alex Wood. Two pitches later, pinch-hitter Eduardo Nunez was on a joyous sprint around the bases after roping a line drive just over the Green Monster and a raucous Fenway Park sniffed an 8-4 victory.
“We talked about it with [Baez] throwing the ball well right there,” Roberts said. “But [Rafael] Devers is really good against the right-hander, and to get a guy off the bench in Nunez, I really liked Alex in that spot, I did.”
The inning began with Andrew Benintendi, who went four for five, reaching on a cheap ground-rule double off Julio Urias after Joc Pederson couldn’t quite reach his blooper down the left-field line. The ball landed just fair and bounced into the stands. That prompted Roberts to insert Baez with Steve Pearce, a right-handed hitter, due up. Red Sox manager Alex Cora countered with Mitch Moreland, a left-handed batter. The switch didn’t disturb Baez. He struck out Moreland on four pitches, finishing him off with a 97-mph fastball up and in that Moreland could not resist.
With first base open, the Dodgers then elected to intentionally walk J.D. Martinez to bring up Xander Bogaerts with an inning-ending double play on the table. Instead, Baez struck him out swinging too, with another overpowering fastball. Baez was cruising. Then he was pulled.
The rationale was clear. Devers, a left-handed batter, was up next. Devers, who turns 22 on Wednesday, owns conventional splits, meaning he is more productive against right-handers than left-handers. By inserting Wood, Roberts forced Cora to either stick with an unfavorable matchup or burn another player.
But Roberts also was taking the ball out of arguably his best reliever’s hand. Baez hadn’t given up a run since Sept. 9, a stretch of 141/3 innings across 14 games, thanks in part to honing a devastating changeup. Further, Baez’s splits this season suggested he was more effective against left-handed hitters than right-handers. He held left-handers to a .164 batting average and .608 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 84 plate appearances.
But Roberts chose to play the traditional match-up. Cora chose to use Nunez, who stepped to the plate with a plan.
“I know he throws a lot of off-speed,” Nunez said. “I know he didn’t want me to beat him with a fastball.”
The pitch he cracked — a 1-0, 84-mph curveball — was not poorly located. It was down and in, out of the strike zone. But Nunez feasts on those.
“He’s definitely a low-ball hitter,” said Dodgers second baseman Brian Dozier, who was Nunez’s teammate with the Minnesota Twins for parts of three seasons. “I’ve seen him take stuff off the dirt plenty of times. I don’t know what scouting reports say as far as pitchers, but up is probably better. I’ve seen him golf stuff down and in on him.”
It was the third home run Wood, who was converted from starter to reliever in mid-September, has surrendered in the playoffs in seven appearances. He’s given up one in each round; he yielded a go-ahead home run to Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman in Game 3 of the NL Division Series before allowing another solo shot to Milwaukee’s Travis Shaw in Game 2 of the NL Championship Series.
Baez, meanwhile, watched as he was charged with a run for intentionally walking Martinez to conclude his scoreless streak. His manager held no regrets.
“Whether they were going to hit Devers with a lead or go to the bench and go with Nunez,” Roberts said, “I still liked Alex in that spot.”