World Series: Breaking down David Price’s game-saving fourth inning escape job in Game 2

BOSTON — After his brilliant performance in ALCS Game 5 last week, the stage was set for another David Price postseason meltdown in Game 2 of the World Series on Wednesday night. Price started Game 2 with three hitless innings before the Dodgers loaded the bases with no outs in the fourth inning. Two singles and a walk did the trick.

In the past, that fourth inning would’ve spiraled out of control on Price and become another black mark on his postseason record. The numbers, even with ALCS Game 5, are ugly. Fifty runs allowed in 85 2/3 postseason innings for a 5.04 ERA. Following those two singles and the walk in the fourth inning, it felt like another postseason inning was about to get away from Price.

Instead, Price was able to limit the damage and hold the Dodgers to two runs. On average teams score 2.29 runs after loading the bases with no outs, but that’s the league average. That’s not the run expectancy for a very good Dodgers offense in hitter friendly Fenway Park, where routine fly balls to left field have a tendency to turn into extra-base hits.

“That was very important,” Price said about limiting the damage in the fourth. “I just told myself to continue to make pitches. I made a lot of good pitches that inning. That was a tough inning, it could have spun out of control pretty fast. And it’s been one of my Achilles heels — especially in the playoffs and even in the regular season — is that big inning. Being able to stop it at two right there … that was big for us.”

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that fourth inning was the most important inning of the game. The Dodgers had a chance to not only break the game open, but knock Price out of the game — Joe Kelly started warming up four batters into the frame — and push Boston’s bullpen to the limit. That didn’t happen. Let’s break down how Price avoided a disaster inning and kept the Red Sox in the game.

Loading the bases

You’ve got to create the jam before you can escape it! David Freese poked a leadoff single to right that perennial Gold Glover Mookie Betts almost snagged on the dive, but alas, it fell in for the first Dodgers hit of the game. Manny Machado then drove a first-pitch single to center to send Freese to second base.

Chris Taylor’s six-pitch walk to load the bases was a marvelous at-bat. This at-bat was when I thought Price might be in trouble. He was going through the lineup a second time and made several quality pitches on the edge of the zone, but Taylor wouldn’t bite. The pitch locations:

Price worked all those right-handed batters Dodgers manager Dave Roberts had in the lineup inside all game, Taylor didn’t chase, and he earned the walk to load the bases with no outs. The Dodgers were starting to square Price up and lay off those borderline pitches. They were in business.

Kemp gifts Price an out

I’m not sure anything grinds the gears of fans more than a hitter swinging at the first pitch after the previous batter walked to load the bases. I totally get it. The pitcher just gave out a free pass, why swing at the first pitch without first seeing whether he’s willing to gift you another free baserunner? Especially with the bases loaded.

It makes sense, but, that all said, the first pitch is often the best pitch to hit in a situation like that. The pitcher just walked a guy to load the bases and he doesn’t want to fall behind another hitter, so chances are pretty good that first pitch will be a fastball near the zone, maybe even middle-middle. Price did not give Kemp a fastball there. He threw a changeup down and away.

That is a gutsy pitch in that spot. Miss out over the plate with a changeup and it’s a batting practice fastball. The easy call would’ve been a fastball on the inner half, near Kemp’s hands. Price instead got him out in front on the changeup for a routine fly ball to center field. Yes, a run scored on the play, but once the bases are loaded with no outs, the pitcher is in damage control mode. Price happily traded the run for an out and kept Kemp from doing real damage.

Hernandez strikes out

Enrique Hernandez’s at-bat with runners on first and second and two outs was like Taylor’s at-bat on steroids. Price showed him everything. Fastballs in, fastballs away, fastball up, changeups down … he threw the kitchen sink at him. The first eight pitches of the at-bat went ball, called strike, ball, swinging strike, ball, foul, foul, foul.

That first two foul balls came on changeups down below the zone. Price thoroughly dominated the Astros in ALCS Game 5 with his changeup and, while the pitch wasn’t quite as sharp Wednesday night, he was still leaning on it to get outs. Those two changeups were in the zone and Hernandez fouled them away. The third foul was an elevated fastball. Price followed that up with another fastball and Hernandez swung right through it.

After following up those back-to-back changeups with an elevated heater, I expected Price to go back to the changeup. That is a classic baseball strategy. Set up something low with something high, preferably at a different speed. It’s a classic strategy because it works, still to this day. Rather than go back to that changeup though, Price doubled up on the heater, and based on Hernandez’s swing, he was expecting a changeup too. He was way late on 93 mph.

This at-bat was a major battle that really swung the inning in Price’s favor. If Hernandez reaches, even on a walk, the bases are loaded again. Instead, Hernandez struck out and the Dodgers rally was suddenly hanging by a thread. Price outlasted him with an excellent sequence that changed speeds and eye levels.

Puig cashes in

That wasn’t quite a back-breaker, but it was a disappointment. Price did well to strike out Hernandez for the second out, then he left a fastball out over the plate to Yasiel Puig, who shot it back up the middle to bring a run home and give his team a 2-1 lead. 

Price didn’t really give in to Puig there. Catcher Christian Vazquez wanted a fastball inside — Price was busting righties inside all night long — and it instead tailed out over the plate. A mistake pitch, it was. Puig put a good swing on it and did what a big leaguer hitter should do with a mistake like that.

Price overwhelms Barnes

Puig’s single gave the Dodgers a 2-1 lead and it put runners on the corners with two outs for No. 9 hitter Austin Barnes. With Kelly warming with intent in the bullpen, I got the sense Barnes was going to be Price’s last hitter if he didn’t get the out. The lineup was about to turn over the third time.

Kelly was never needed. Price completely overwhelmed Barnes for the three-pitch, inning-ending strikeout. First pitch foul, second pitch called strike, third pitch swing and miss. Inning over. Look at this:

That was some good ol’ fashioned country hardball. Three fastballs in the zone to Barnes, who was late with his two swings. Barnes is a career .246/.368/.426 hitter against lefties — 10 of his 12 career homers have come against southpaws — so, if Price had made a mistake, he could’ve paid. Instead, it was fastball, fastball, fastball, inning over. That was a veteran pitcher doing what he had to do against the No. 9 hitter to end a problem inning.

At the start of the fourth inning, the Red Sox had a 61.6 percent chance to win Game 2 according to basic win probability. After the Dodgers loaded the bases with no outs, it was down 41.4 percent. The Dodgers had not yet scored in the inning but the game was already hanging in the balance. Bases loaded with no outs in the fourth inning? That could get messy in a hurry. And it might’ve with Price on the mound in years past.

Instead, Price was able to limit the damage to two runs by keeping Kemp and Hernandez off balance, and by dominating a hitter he should dominate in Barnes. The pitch to Puig was the only glaring mistake once the first three batters of the inning reached base. Also, that single by Puig? It was the final Dodgers baserunner of the night. The final 16 men they sent to the plate made outs. Price closed out that fourth inning, threw two more innings, and the bullpen took it from there to close out the 4-2 lead.

“I’m very proud of him, very happy for him that now he can keep pitching,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “Like he said the last time, there’s not going to be questions in spring training about David Price in October. He beat the Houston Astros in Houston. He beat the Dodgers here in Fenway Park. I’m happy for that because he deserves it.”    

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