With the World Series tied at a game apiece, that’s just what is happening. But before we get giddy, we need an honest context for what we’re watching.
Even with all the breaks that the October gods can muster, that might not be enough. The Dodgers and Rays are only superficially similar in ability. The Rays (40-20) outscored foes by 1.00 runs a game, typical of an excellent 99-win team. Tampa Bay, with its tiny payroll and big brains, has had similarly fine teams frequently in the past 13 years.
The Dodgers (43-17) slaughtered their foes by 2.26 runs a game. That’s what you would expect of a 121-win team — a team that has never existed. Probably, the Dodgers couldn’t have kept it up for a full 162-game season. But they sure made their point: This is finally our year. Even if it’s a shortened, sad, weird kind of year. But it’s ours.
Luckily for the World Series, all the little things are going the Rays’ way, especially the accident of how pitching rotations fall in place.
The Rays’ good fortune was on display Wednesday night in Game 2 when their ace, Blake Snell, who won the 2018 AL Cy Young Award, was on the mound because, well, that’s how this especially unpredictable postseason schedule fell into place.
By luck, who did Snell face? Not Clayton Kershaw, who turned the Rays inside out in a Game 1 win. And not the Dodgers’ postseason ace of recent seasons, Walker Buehler, who has a career postseason ERA of 2.44 in 10 starts.
Snell matched up with Nobody. Or, rather, with a Dodgers “bullpen game” full of hard throwers and fine young prospects. But not against a comparable ace. Snell had a no-hitter for 4⅔ innings before leaving with a 5-2 lead after a quick hook.
You can’t get much luckier than that. Snell also will work Game 6, if there is one, and the Dodgers will have no choice but to assemble another bullpen act like Game 2’s seven-man aesthetic mess.
“We’re good, and we’re here to play. It’s not going to be an easy World Series,” Snell said on national TV after his Game 2 start — not quite a thrown-down gauntlet but typical of the never-scared Rays, so used to the brutal Yankees and Red Sox.
“I’ll see them again, and I’ll be better,” added Snell, who had just fanned nine Dodgers.
Those strikeouts matter. The Dodgers pride themselves on long at-bats that end with frustrated pitchers giving up extra-base hits. In Game 2, faced with Snell and four hard-throwing relievers, the Dodgers fanned 15 times — their most whiffs this season.
Let’s not overinterpret. If the Dodgers’ lineup gets hot, the Rays could get squashed. But in a World Series, always watch to see whether one team’s excellent pitching confounds the other team’s super hitting. Great pitching does tend to beat great hitting in a postseason series — if that pitching ever gets on a roll. It means the scouting reports were right, the individual matchups worked and confidence built.
Almost half the World Series I have covered have ended with the loser — usually a superior hitting team — in an unanticipated hitting slump.
The final twist in this Rotation Roulette is that Buehler, with a 1.57 ERA in his past five games, threw 89 pitches Saturday. So he’s not ready to start until Game 3 on Friday and, if necessary, a Game 7.
You can’t dream of upsetting a mighty team until you can imagine a road map. If you are a Ray, you think, “If we could end the Series behind Snell in Game 6, we’d only face Buehler once!”
In this semi-fantasy of how the Rays might make us think that they could win the Series, there is one last element.
The current Dodgers are a super-rich franchise that also thinks it is more analytically advanced than any other team. After all, team president Andrew Friedman built the 2008 Rays, who reached the World Series with no visible means of support.
When David Price sat out the season because of pandemic health concerns, the Dodgers acted as if they had so much gifted young pitching and so many sabermetrically approved ways to patch it together that they could go with Kershaw, Buehler and Figure It Out. Someone would emerge.
Plenty of Dodgers, young and old, pitched well. But the Rays are still the team with three traditional starters who can go 100 pitches. The third such fellow, veteran Charlie Morton, who will face Buehler in Game 3, has a career postseason record of 7-2 with a 2.84 ERA.
With the deep Rays bullpen, Tampa Bay only needs Morton to be as good as Buehler for four or five innings. Los Angeles probably needs at least six from Buehler to take pressure off the back of its bullpen.
If the Rays’ Tyler Glasnow, who was nervous and wild in Game 1, can get his 100-mph fastball and lethal breaking ball under even adequate command, Los Angeles faces few easy matchups.
Some are stunned that top payroll teams, including the 2020 Yankees in the playoffs, would commit so profoundly to analytics. The Dodgers may end up using a “bullpen game” three times in one World Series!
When the tiny-budget Rays, who got saves from 13 pitchers this year, use a four-man outfield against .307 hitter Justin Turner with two on and two out and Tampa Bay leading 5-2 in the fifth, that is MLB at its richest — strategically.
A Rays team that “shouldn’t” be able to win a title thinks it gets a tiny edge if it makes a trade: increase Turner’s chance for an RBI single through the empty infield but cut off all gaps to prevent a two-run double that reaches the wall.
The Rays, with their blazing bullpen, can live with 5-3 but want to prevent 5-4. That is daring and adorable and enriches MLB because no other major sport has found a way for its have-nots to dream so big.
But when the Dodgers flatter themselves that they can win the World Series with such heavy reliance on “openers” and bullpen games — wheeling in a relief circus in Game 2 of Tony Gonsolin, Dylan Floro, Victor Gonzalez, Dustin May, Joe Kelly, Alex Wood and Jake McGee — there’s something in us, maybe not the best part, that wants the whole thing to blow up in their Dodger Blue caviar.
We all suspect the champagne probably still will go to the long-denied Dodgers. But for now, the door seems cracked open just a bit for the Tampa Bay paupers.