The Rays have perfected the model largely because, with one of the game’s smallest payrolls, they have to. The Dodgers, with a payroll near three times that of the Rays, adopted it when Andrew Friedman joined them — from Tampa Bay, as it happens — to lead their front office in 2014.
Throughout Wednesday night’s Game 2 of the World Series at Globe Life Field — a 6-4 win for Tampa Bay, which knotted the series at a game apiece — the Rays and Dodgers surely recognized their own philosophies in the many pitching moves of the other. But anyone who has watched baseball for more than the past few years would have walked away, assuming they could stay awake until the end, scratching their heads.
Welcome to baseball in 2020, when bullpen is a verb, a seven-inning start is a unicorn, and the managers wear out their spikes — and their pedometers — walking back and forth from their dugouts to the mound.
This is now a sport in which a pitcher working on a nine-strikeout no-hitter in the fifth inning, as Rays lefty Blake Snell was Wednesday night, fails to see a minute of the sixth. It’s a sport in which the Dodgers bring in their sixth pitcher of the night — as many as the 1989 Oakland A’s used in their entire World Series sweep of the San Francisco Giants — in the seventh inning.
In the end, the Rays prevailed largely because second baseman Brandon Lowe, a University of Maryland product who carried a .107 batting average and .161 slugging percentage this postseason into the game, homered twice — validating the faith Manager Kevin Cash showed by continuing to bat Lowe in the No. 2 spot in the Rays’ order.
“He’s shown over time that he’s a really good hitter, a really good player,” Cash said of Lowe. “And sometimes, you’ve got to allow them to go through some rough patches. And he was in one.”
For a change, the Rays, who have scored a staggering 72 percent of their runs this postseason on homers, scored an equal number on non-homers — two of them coming on Joey Wendle’s crucial, two-run double in fourth.
They also prevailed because their pitching moves mostly worked, or at least failed less egregiously than those of the Dodgers. Leading 6-2 heading into the bottom of the sixth, the Rays allowed the Dodgers to chip away at their lead. In the eighth, Corey Seager’s towering homer to straightaway center off right-hander Pete Fairbanks drew them within 6-4 and energized a socially distanced, heavily pro-Dodgers crowd of 11,472.
The homer was Seager’s seventh this postseason, tying Tampa Bay’s Randy Arozarena for the major league lead and moving within one of Barry Bonds (2002), Carlos Beltran (2004) and Nelson Cruz (2011) for the all-time lead. (This postseason, of course, is also the biggest and longest in baseball history, with 16 teams and four rounds.)
The Dodgers would bring the potential tying run to the plate with nobody out in the eighth, but Max Muncy flied out and Will Smith lined out — both off Fairbanks — and lefty Aaron Loup entered and struck out Cody Bellinger to end the inning. Loup also collected the first two outs of the ninth, but was not permitted to get the last one. The bullpen gate opened one last time, and in came right-hander Diego Castillo, the night’s 12th pitcher, for the one-out save.
Snell’s dastardly slider gave the Dodgers fits for most of the night, accounting for five of his nine strikeouts on the night. He appeared well on his way to a long, dominant outing, as the Dodgers were still without a hit when the fifth inning started — until Chris Taylor blasted a hanging curveball to right for a two-out, two-run homer, trimming the Rays’ lead to 5-2.
When the next two batters also reached base, Cash popped out of his dugout to yank him — a sight to which Snell reacted with a visible look of disgust. It wasn’t the first time this postseason Snell has appeared miffed at an early hook.
Snell, of all people, should know by now that’s just how the Rays operate. It’s nothing personal. Wednesday night’s quick hook allowed the Rays to extend a dubious streak: no Tampa Bay starting pitcher has pitched beyond the sixth inning in this entire postseason. And Snell extended another of his own: he hasn’t been left in a game to complete six innings since July 21, 2019, spanning 21 starts, regular- and postseason combined.
“I know I have to do things better,” Snell said. “I have to make it harder for him to come out and get me. I made it easy for him with the walks.”
But at least the Rays’ move worked, with bullpen ace Nick Anderson entering and striking out Justin Turner to end the Dodgers’ threat. The same could rarely be said for the Dodgers’ own moves.
For all their talent and financial might, the Dodgers came into this postseason lacking five true starting pitchers they trusted to take regular turns in a rotation — which is how they came to deploy quasi-starters Tony Gonsolin, Dustin May and Julio Urias as starter/opener/reliever hybrids. And when they got stretched to seven games by the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS, they had to deploy all three of them in Game 7, thus leaving themselves thin for Game 2 of the World Series.
And so, their strategy was to bullpen their way through Game 2.
Gonsolin, the opener, faced just six batters, before giving way to Dylan Floro, who faced three, then lefty Victor Gonzalez (four), then May (eight), then Joe Kelly (five). Alex Wood was the Dodgers’ workhorse, facing a total of nine batters and collecting six outs.
It was Gonsolin who gave up Lowe’s first homer, and May who gave up his second. Both Dodgers pitchers are rookies who were used primarily as starters this season, but who now are being asked to pitch in unconventional roles. Both were on two days’ rest, following their stints in Game 7 of the NLCS.
“It’s been a learning experience to me, doing new things,” Gonsolin said.
“It’s a big ask, to be quite frank,” Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said. “ … Yeah, these guys are in unchartered territory. They’re not making excuses. They expect to make pitches. It’s different, certainly. But we still need those guys to get important outs for us moving forward.”
Game 3 on Friday night could bring a temporary halt to the incessant parade of bullpen moves, with the Dodgers starting Walker Buehler, who went six innings in beating the Braves in Game 6 of the NLCS, and the Rays countering with veteran right-hander Charlie Morton, who went 5 2/3 innings in beating the Houston Astros in Game 7 of the ALCS. These days, six innings is the new eight.
But Game 4 has the potential to be another long slog of bullpenning. The Dodgers will start Urias, who was last seen closing out Game 7 with three shutout innings. The Rays’ pitching plans are TBD. Or more accurately: TBD, TBD, TBD, TBD, TBD, TBD and — depending on how the other TBDs perform — TBD.
Dave Sheinin reported this story from Arlington, Tex. The live updates below were reported by Scott Allen from Washington.
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