Right there, with Clayton Kershaw on the mound, in the fourth inning of Game 5 of the World Series — Manuel Margot, by God, was trying to steal home.
It was but one play amid the dozens in Sunday’s game and amid the hundreds since this back-and-forth series began, and yet in the moment, it felt as if more than a single run was riding on its outcome. In a large way, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Rays was tilted in their favor by home plate umpire Marvin Hudson’s emphatic call, later confirmed by replay:
After the mind had a moment to process the sheer brazenness of Margot’s ill-fated dash, the consequences were clear and would only become clearer as the innings melted away: Kershaw, the future Hall of Fame left-hander, had gotten a reprieve from what had the makings of another unceremonious October exit. The Rays, having squandered their last, best chance to take him down, would not score again.
And when it was over, the Dodgers had “flushed” (their own preferred term) their horrific, walk-off loss in Game 4 the night before — and with a 3-2 lead in the series had moved within one win of the franchise’s first World Series title since 1988. Following a day off, they can close out the Rays on Tuesday in Game 6, when they will start right-hander Tony Gonsolin against Rays lefty Blake Snell.
The setup to the fateful play helps explain its import. The Rays trailed by a run in the bottom of the fourth inning and had Kershaw on the ropes. It was the fourth straight inning they had put the leadoff man on base. The Dodgers’ self-destructive ways, so in evidence the night before in the tumultuous end to Game 4, were returning, with Margot drawing a leadoff walk, stealing second and advancing to third on an error by Dodgers second baseman Chris Taylor.
Now there were two outs, and Margot, in the Rays’ powder-blue top, was scrutinizing Kershaw’s delivery, trying to time it. On an 0-1 pitch to Kevin Kiermaier, he took off — as if he were Jackie Robinson in some grainy video from 1951. Alerted to the attempt, Kershaw calmly stepped off the rubber and threw home to catcher Austin Barnes, who moved into position to make the tag — and Margot, just barely, was out.
“It was 100 percent my decision,” said Margot, who saw Kershaw frequently as a member of the San Diego Padres but had never attempted to steal home against him. “I thought it was a good idea at the time. I thought I had a good chance of being safe. I knew they weren’t paying too much attention to me. … I thought it was really close.”
Although Margot motioned to his dugout to check the replay, it was clear he was out — if just barely — and the Rays did not challenge the call.
“I was a little surprised,” Kiermaier said. “Manny’s a great base runner who is not afraid to take risks. I didn’t have a problem with it. ... It takes a lot of guts to try that in the World Series. It’s not the reason we lost.”
Kershaw, who as a lefty works with his back to third base, said he tells every first baseman he plays with to be on the lookout for and alert him to an attempted steal of home — which, in this case, Max Muncy did.
“If they break, you’ve got to say something,” Kershaw tells them. “It’s something that doesn’t happen much, but it has happened before, and you prepare for it. ... I just know now to step off fast and throw it.”
It was the first attempted steal of home in the World Series since Brad Fullmer of the 2002 Anaheim Angels successfully pulled it off on the front end of a double steal in Game 2. The last player to be thrown out trying to steal home in the World Series was Shane Mack of the 1991 Minnesota Twins, whose caught-stealing came on a failed squeeze bunt.
Margot’s attempt will have its critics, but there was plenty of logic to it as well. There were two outs. Kiermaier against Kershaw was a tough, lefty-on-lefty matchup for the Rays. Kershaw’s back was to Margot as he peered toward the plate. Justin Turner, the third baseman, wasn’t holding Margot on, giving him a 30- to 40-foot head start when he took off.
The most effective rebuttal to that argument is to simply point out that, especially in a World Series game, outs are too precious to give one away, especially at home plate.
Asked whether the Rays encourage players to take risks such as Margot’s, Manager Kevin Cash, choosing his words carefully, said: “I think we really encourage making intelligent baseball decisions, and Manny felt like he had the opportunity to score and he was going to get in there, and we should support him … If Manny felt he had a read on it, for whatever reason, it’s tough for me to say yes or no. He may be seeing something in the moment, and he’s trying to pick up his team.”
Unless Kershaw makes a surprise bullpen appearance in Game 6 or 7, his 2020 postseason comes to an end with a 4-1 record and a 2.93 ERA, and with 37 strikeouts and just five walks across 30 ⅔ innings. It won’t completely put to rest the old narrative that he is a better pitcher in the regular season (career ERA: 2.43) than the postseason (4.19). But it will have included a pair of wins in the World Series and an eight-inning, no-run, 13-strikeout tour de force against Milwaukee in the first round. With six Sunday night, he passed Justin Verlander for the most career strikeouts in the postseason with 207.
And if Kershaw gets his ring, he won’t care a lick about any of the rest.
“It feels pretty good,” Kershaw said of surviving 5 ⅔ innings without his best stuff. “Any time you can have success in the postseason, it just means so much. … I know what the other end of that feels like, too. So I’ll definitely take it when I can get it.”
In an alternate universe, one where the Dodgers held on to win Game 4 instead of losing in excruciating and humiliating fashion, Kershaw would have been pitching to give the Dodgers the World Series title Sunday night, at a ballpark about half an hour’s drive from his suburban Dallas home. Instead, he was pitching to give them back the series lead — and restore their dignity.
The risky attempted steal of home marked a turning point in Kershaw’s night. He retired the next five Rays he faced, with none of them hitting a ball out of the infield. The decision by Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts to pull him with two outs in the sixth — following a plan Kershaw and Roberts had agreed to during the previous inning break — drew a resounding chorus of boos from the heavily pro-Dodgers crowd of 11,437, followed by a standing ovation as Kershaw walked off.
“We just felt that he was at the end,” Roberts said. “He just had enough to get two hitters. We talked about it, and he held up his end of the deal. ... He willed himself to that point. It wasn’t his best stuff, but he found a way to get outs, and I give him all the credit.”
The Dodgers’ bullpen handled it from there, though it was not without its heart-stopping moments. In the bottom of the eighth, the Dodgers somehow wound up with lefty Victor González facing Rays phenom Randy Arozarena — whose 27 hits in this postseason to that point are a record — with the tying runs on base. It was not the matchup the Dodgers wanted. But Arozarena flied out to center.
It is a guessing game these days who will appear out of the Dodgers’ bullpen to protect a ninth-inning lead, but this time it was Blake Treinen, who jogged in through the gate and closed out the Rays, working around a leadoff single by Margot.
It was only natural for people to wonder about the mental state of the Dodgers as Game 5 approached — that’s how ugly and painful their Game 4 loss, featuring a double-error walk-off, had been. Some bold types, such as the media members whose job requires it, came right out and asked them. More discreet folks kept it to themselves, but the Dodgers knew everyone was looking at them and wondering silently: Are you okay?
Such is life when you have just humiliated yourself, and quite possibly squandered a World Series title, on national television the night before.
“I understand that fans [and] players get caught up in emotion. And I’m emotional,” Roberts said. “But I still have to have clarity on things and make decisions. Because ultimately my job is to help the Dodgers win the World Series.”
It’s one thing to talk on and on about “flushing” the loss and turning the page, and it’s another to come out of the chute going left jab, right hook to the Rays, which is effectively what the Dodgers did in Sunday’s first inning against starter Tyler Glasnow. Mookie Betts led off with a double down the left field line, and Corey Seager followed with an RBI single through the shift and into right field. Cody Bellinger added another RBI single in the first, and Joc Pederson and Muncy later added solo homers, both off Glasnow.
Yes, the Dodgers were just fine, thank you. And eight innings later, they were a win away from the World Series title. Somebody, on the other hand, might want to go and check on the Rays.
Dave Sheinin reported this story from Arlington, Tex. The live updates below were reported by Roman Stubbs from Washington.
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