With the Dodgers/Red Sox and Dodgers/Twins deals finally set in stone, a new era in Los Angeles baseball begins. With another MVP in Mookie Betts to go alongside reigning NL MVP Cody Bellinger, Andrew Friedman has finally bucked stingy frugality in favor of “going all-in” (translation: an all-in move while still retaining the organization’s trademark farm system and depth).
What shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle, however, is the significance of Kenta Maeda’s departure. It’s not a particularly difficult one to come to terms with. His frustration with having to pitch in relief, against the incentives of his contract, was hardly concealed. Plus, he just couldn’t hold a rotation spot with seemingly endless young aces coming up.
Nonetheless, Maeda carved out a unique spot in Dodger lore in the 2010s. Much like the also recently departed Hyun-Jin Ryu, he brought international flavor to a franchise that’s long prided itself on diversity. And while he hated pitching in relief, his efforts there helped yield two NL pennants.
It was a short run, but one full of memories worth savoring. Here’s Kenta Maeda’s greatest hits (or, technically, a couple hits and many pitches) in Dodger Blue.
MLB Debut Win…and a Homer to Go With It (April 6, 2016)
This past off-season set a new standard for whiplash-inducing frustration for the Dodger faithful, albeit one that was ultimately worth it. So it’s kind of easy to forget that this is basically the norm for the Friedman Era. That precedent was set in the off-season following 2015, in which the Dodgers made a significant bid to retain Zack Greinke’s services, but ultimately lost out to the division rival Arizona Diamondbacks.
To many, Maeda seemed like little more than a discount alternative to Greinke when he was signed from Japan. But it ultimately proved to be the right move, and he showed just why in his MLB debut on April 6 in San Diego. He pitched just fine, with six scoreless innings and four strikeouts to earn the win. But the real highlight was when he golfed a solo shot off Andrew Cashner in the top of the 4th.
It was a sign of good things to come, going 16-11 with a 3.48 ERA in 2016 as the Dodger reached the NLCS. Greinke’s Diamondbacks, meanwhile, didn’t even make the playoffs.
Double-Digit K’s For the First Time (July 10, 2016)
There’s nothing quite like when a starting pitcher reaches double-digit strikeouts for the first time in their career. Maeda reached it for the first time as an MLB pitcher in July, fanning 13 San Diego Padres at Dodger Stadium while allowing just two hits.
2017 NLDS, Game 2 – Taking Down AZ’s Big Bats
After a strong first season as a starter in 2016, Maeda was (begrudgingly) shifted to the bullpen in 2017 by season’s end. It made perfect sense, as he was crowded out of a rotation that boasted four pitchers throwing at ace levels in Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, Yu Darvish, and Alex Wood.
Lo and behold, Maeda went from being a really good pitcher to one that was almost literally unhittable. As the calendar flipped to October, he teamed up with the likes of Brandon Morrow, Tony Cingrani, Tony Watson, and Kenley Jansen to create a super bullpen.
The first display of his new relief prowess came in game 2 of the NLDS against Arizona. Entering in place of Cingrani in the 5th inning, he proceeded to retire Dodger killers A.J. Pollock and Paul Goldschmidt, as well as J.D. Martinez in the 6th. His efforts earned him the first postseason win of his career, and a 2-0 series lead for L.A.
2017 NLCS, Game 1 – A Quick Inning Earns the Win
With Arizona quickly dispatched, the Dodgers went on to an NLCS rematch with the defending champion Chicago Cubs. Game 1 saw a decent, if somewhat sluggish, outing from Clayton Kershaw, who labored through five innings but served up a two-run homer to Albert Almora Jr.
Maeda was summoned from the bullpen in the 6th, once again replacing Cingrani. He proceeded to retire Wilson Contreras and Almora so quickly that if you went to the bathroom, you would have missed it. The Dodgers took the lead in the bottom half, setting up Maeda for his second win of the postseason. He also retired Addison Russell to start the 7th before being replaced by Morrow.
Skip to 6:39 for Maeda’s highlights:
2017 World Series, Game 6 – Retiring Altuve to Escape the 7th Inning
After a 0.00 ERA in the first two rounds, Maeda continued his efficiency in the first Fall Classic in Los Angeles in 29 years. There was but one blemish, a game-tying three-run home run to Jose Altuve in the 5th inning of the decisive game 5. It ended up being the only earned run he surrendered, as the other two were put on base by Kershaw.
Of course, we now know for a fact that Houston cheated throughout the 2017 postseason and World Series. No game looks more fishy in retrospect than this 13-12 slugfest, and it is exceedingly hard to believe not a single one of those 13 runs teed off of ace Dodger pitchers was ill-gotten. If anything, it was the logical conclusion of a cheating system that started way back in May of that season.
Fortunately, it wouldn’t be the last time the two faced, with another match-up in a crucial spot in game 6 at Dodger Stadium. After Tony Watson began the 7th inning with a walk to Josh Reddick, Maeda darted out to the mound for the last time that October. He induced a forceout at second, but then gave up a single to George Springer.
This made it two on with one out, and big guns Alex Bregman and Altuve coming up. A 2-1 lead was especially fragile with these two, and while Bregman flew out, it advanced a runner to third. Thus, Altuve had a chance to tie the game with two outs, but Maeda got the better of him this time, inducing a groundout to third to end the inning. He let out his most uncharacteristically exuberant celebration, while Altuve could only chuck his helmet down the dugout tunnel in frustration.
After that, Kenley Jansen took over and muscled a six-out save to force game 7. Looking back with what we know now, it’s not unreasonable to think that in a fair contest, this would have been the series-clinching game for the Dodgers. In a team full of standouts top to bottom, Maeda was one of the players that certainly deserved a ring the most.
Skip to 1:52:03 for the big out:
Facing, and Retiring, Ohtani Twice (July 6, 2018)
Since Ichiro Suzuki’s phenomenal season in 2001, there has been a healthy influx of Japanese players in MLB. But few have generated the level of buzz of the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani in 2018, a rare duo ace pitcher and power hitter in the American League.
In July of 2018, Maeda and Ohtani had the distinction of facing each other in the Freeway Series. They had already faced off back in Japan, with Maeda getting the better of the slugger. The same happened in this game, as Ohtani struck out and popped out in his two at-bats against his fellow countryman.
2018 World Series, Game 3 – Two Innings and a Strikeout of Betts Preserves the Tie
2018 continued to be more of the same for Maeda, starting the season in the rotation before wearing down and being stuck in the bullpen yet again in October. Lightning didn’t quite strike twice, as he wasn’t as dominant that postseason as he was in 2017.
However, he saved his best for when it was needed most: the 18-inning standoff that was game 3 of the World Series against Boston. Entering the marathon in the 15th, he quickly got into trouble with a leadoff single to Eduardo Nunez and a walk to Jackie Bradley Jr. But on the next batter, he got the first out on a heads-up throw to third to get Nunez.
After Sandy Leon went down swinging, it came down to (all too fittingly now) AL MVP Mookie Betts, with two on and two out. Maeda responded by striking him out looking, preserving the tie. He trotted back out for the 16th, striking out Xander Bogaerts, Nathan Eovaldi and Ian Kinsler in order. The Dodgers hung on to win in 18 on Max Muncy’s walk-off homer.
Fast forward to 8:14 for the Betts strikeout:
More Double-Digit K’s and RBIs against San Diego (May 15, 2019)
Maeda’s 2019 season, his last in Los Angeles, followed the pattern established by 2017 and 2018: Start strong in the rotation, wear down, and angrily be stuck in the bullpen for the playoffs. But just like in 2016, it was the Padres who brought out his best highlights.
In a May 15 contest at Dodger Stadium, Maeda struck out 12 Padres in a 2-0 win. Better yet, both of those runs were courtesy of an RBI single in the bottom of the 2nd. Like Hyun-Jin Ryu and Rich Hill, Maeda was another pitcher who raked who will no longer get to do so in the AL. But it sure was fun to behold when he did it in Los Angeles.
We thank you for the memories, Maeda-san!