The Dodgers, with a stellar collection of patient, professional hitters, consider it a small victory any time they get to see another member of the opposing bullpen. They have made it this far in the postseason largely by wearing down pitchers, working counts, drawing walks, getting deep into bullpens and getting long looks at every pitch in every reliever’s arsenal. They may not win every at-bat, but if they work a pitcher over before losing, they have at least gained something useful for the next time they see him.
That was not what happened against Castillo, one of the pillars of the Rays’ deep and exceptional bullpen. The Dodgers’ Chris Taylor took the first pitch, a slider, for strike one on the outside corner. He took the second pitch, a sinker, for strike two, also on the outside corner. On the third pitch, Castillo unleashed another wicked slider, which bent out of the strike zone. Taylor tried to check his swing but failed. Strike three. Game over. Rays win. The entire at-bat lasted about a minute.
It is in moments such as this, the granular, late-inning micro-battle to win every pitch, when this World Series is likely to be won and lost — beginning with Game 3 on Friday night at Globe Life Field, with the series tied at a win apiece — with two of the most potent forces in baseball, the Dodgers’ high-octane offense and the Rays’ rally-crushing bullpen, clashing on a nightly basis.
Both are arguably the best in the game. The Dodgers led the majors in homers (118), slugging percentage (.483) and weighted runs created plus (122). The Rays were third in bullpen ERA (3.37), first in bullpen walk rate (2.9 per nine innings) and first in bullpen wins above replacement (3.6).
The Dodgers have compiled a highlight reel’s worth of writ-large, signature moments this postseason — epic home runs, outrageous defensive plays, late-inning comebacks — but arguably their most effective weapon has been the walk, at least one of which has preceded almost every significant hit or homer in these playoffs. Eighteen times in this postseason, a Dodgers batter has drawn a walk, then come around to score.
In all, the Dodgers have drawn 69 walks in 14 games this postseason (including 11 in the first two games of the World Series), an average of 4.9 per game — about 50 percent more than the Rays’ postseason average (3.3), as well as the MLB average during the regular season (3.4). It is also a significant improvement from the Dodgers’ rates during the previous three postseasons, all of which ended in losses.
“The best players in the game, year in and out, control the strike zone. They swing at strikes and take balls,” Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said. “And I believe championship baseball, at least on the offensive side [is] about passing the baton, getting on base, and it’s not about chasing hits. And we’ve just done it very well this postseason.
“If there’s something in our nitro zone, we’re going to slug it. Pitchers understand that. And if they’re not going to pitch to us, then the next guy will take that at-bat.”
The Dodgers are seeing an average of 157 pitches per game this postseason — 11 more pitches, or almost an entire inning’s worth, than the MLB average (146) during the regular season. In Game 1 of the World Series, an 8-3 Dodgers win, they worked Rays started Tyler Glasnow over for 112 pitches in just 4 ⅓ innings and as a result got to see three members of the Rays’ bullpen. Every pitch an opposing pitcher is forced to throw — and the Rays threw a whopping 174 in Game 1 — provides one more bit of information to file away for later.
“It’s really about getting base runners. It puts pressure on pitchers — something else to worry about. They’re more likely to make mistakes if you can work counts and get that pitch count up,” said Taylor, who cited Cody Bellinger’s 10-pitch at-bat against reliever Ryan Yarbrough in the pivotal fifth inning of Game 1. Although Bellinger ultimately popped out, he forced Yarbrough to work hard, and Taylor, the next batter, lined an RBI single.
Bellinger, Taylor said, “was able to wear the pitcher down, and the first pitch to me he left one over the plate for me to hit. The more pitches you can get those guys to throw, the more likely they are to make a mistake.”
However, the near-blowout nature of Game 1 provided the Rays with a subtle advantage: it allowed Manager Kevin Cash to bypass his “A” bullpen — the handful of exceptional arms he saves for high-leverage situations. That decision came in handy in Game 2 after the Rays out to a lead. Cash immediately deployed his best relievers — right-handers Nick Anderson and Pete Fairbanks, lefty Aaron Loup and finally Castillo — to carry that lead home.
And while Anderson and Fairbanks each allowed a solo homer in their outings, by pounding the strike zone. the Rays’ relievers denied the Dodgers the opportunity to work into deep counts and draw walks. Those four relievers combined to strike out six Dodgers hitters in their 4⅓ innings and issued no walks.
The Rays’ bullpen is a marvel of modern baseball engineering — a disparate collection of flamethrowers, junkballers, sidearmers and strike-throwers, lefties and righties, most of them picked up off baseball’s scrap heap and converted into unhittable machines. No two Rays relievers seem to throw from the same arm angle or release point, and they are oblivious to traditional roles. They had 12 pitchers record a save during the regular season and a 13th (Fairbanks, three times) in the postseason.
Anderson — arguably the best reliever in baseball this season, allowing just one earned run in his 19 appearances and limiting opposing batters to an .091 batting average, a .138 on-base percentage and a .182 slugging percentage — has entered games during this postseason in the third, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth innings. In Game 2, he entered in relief of lefty starter Blake Snell with two on and two outs in the fifth and struck out Justin Turner.
“When the game is on the line, we’re going to go to him,” Cash said of Anderson, who spent three years in independent ball before he broke through and who, like most of the Rays’ relievers, earns close to the big league minimum salary this year. “He’s been as good as any reliever in baseball from the day we acquired him.”
Just as the Rays gained a small advantage by being able to stay away from their top bullpen arms in their Game 1 loss, the Dodgers felt as if they gained one by getting to see them all in their loss in Game 2.
“Seeing relievers not just once or twice but three or four times in a series — there’s a lot of good things that come out of that,” Roberts said.
The Dodgers can be certain they will see the Rays’ best arms again in the series, perhaps as soon as Friday night. Against a lesser bullpen, the advantage would shift ever more to the Dodgers’ side. But just two games into this World Series it is already clear: The Rays are simply different.