“It’s hard for me to really understand what’s going on,” said the man who swung the bat on that play, celebrity-for-a-day Brett Phillips, the last man on the Tampa Bay Rays’ bench who provided baseball’s buzziest moment of October on Saturday night with a walk-off hit — combined with a muff by center fielder Chris Taylor, a complete wipeout and bounce-back from Rays runner Randy Arozarena and a far-too-hasty tag attempt by Dodgers catcher Will Smith that caused the ball to squirt away. So much to digest. Don’t let it upset your stomach.
That play helped jolt this World Series back into the kind of baseball we deserve, and it continued Sunday night, when the Dodgers responded to a debilitating loss with a 4-2 victory in Game 5 at Globe Life Field. That result — on the back of left-hander Clayton Kershaw and three relievers — gives Los Angeles a chance to clinch its first championship since 1988 on Tuesday night. That alone is dizzying.
“The off day’s going to be hard tomorrow,” Kershaw said.
Easier than after a loss. On Sunday night, the Dodgers got massive home runs from left fielder Joc Pederson and first baseman Max Muncy. Yawn. Give me every single other element from this game over those blasts.
“Just looking to honestly put the ball in play,” Pederson said, the cliche description of baseball’s cliche accomplishment — the home run.
The ball in play, though, brings the more riveting moments. Rays first baseman Yandy Díaz roped a ball that forced Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts into the corner, a can-I-cut-it-off moment that became a triple. Tampa Bay left fielder Manuel Margot swiped second, forcing a throw that the Dodgers couldn’t handle that squirted away and eventually required a narrow play at third; Margot was safe. Margot then — inexplicably, in a game the Rays trailed by just a run — tried to steal home.
“We were all surprised,” Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said, identifying an element that should be more prominent in the sport. But Kershaw wasn’t napping. He nailed him.
The Dodgers scored their first two runs on a double, a single and a two-out single in the first — when Rays starter Tyler Glasnow uncorked two of his three wild pitches on the night, which is one path into the World Series record book. Pederson ran down a Joey Wendle drive to the gap in the seventh. Center fielder Cody Bellinger raced in to grab a hanging Brandon Lowe ball in the eighth. Hold-your-breath moments, all of them.
The point: The bombs off Glasnow from Pederson in the second and Muncy in the fifth will make every highlight reel. But the ball in play, the runner on the base paths — they both bring with them so much more possibility.
That vibe started Saturday night with Kevin Kiermaier on second, Arozarena on first and Phillips — a 26-year-old Floridian who grew up a Rays fan — with his first at-bat in 17 days.
Arozarena, of course, might have ended Game 4 with a home run, which would have not only served to rip the slingshot from Phillips’s hands but could be read as trite. Arozarena already has set a record by hitting nine home runs this postseason — including a shot earlier Saturday off Julio Urías and another off the man he faced in this situation, Dodgers reliever Kenley Jansen, a night earlier in Game 3.
That result undeniably filled the air with possibility. But as much as it’s a reflection of Arozarena’s extraordinary October, it’s quite frankly just a sign of the times — and a sign of these Rays. In the first eight innings of Game 4, Tampa Bay scored six runs — all on homers. That fit the Rays of this postseason: Headed into the ninth inning Saturday night, Tampa Bay had scored 74 runs in its 18 postseason games. Fifty-two of them — more than 70 percent — had scored on homers.
The home run, in and of itself, is a fine play. Bobby Thomson to win the National League pennant in 1951. Joe Carter to win the World Series in 1993. All-time swings. Indelible moments. A blast.
Consider, though, the game can be strangled by all the power present — at the plate and on the mound. Both hitters and sabermetricians have discovered there is far more value in hitting the ball in the air than on the ground, so home runs are being cracked at a historic rate — 2.8 per nine innings in 2019 and 2.68 per nine innings in this pandemic-shortened season, the highest marks this century, which covers the height of the steroid era.
At the same time, pitchers continue to wrench more velocity from their bodies. Hitters sell out for home runs and shrug off strikeouts. So for 15 seasons — a baseball generation — the percentage of plate appearances that have ended in strikeouts has risen annually. In 2020, it was a record 23.4 percent — darn near a strikeout for every four batters. In the first four games of this series, the Rays and Dodgers struck out 27.5 percent of the time. On Sunday night, Kershaw struck out six Rays, giving him 207 postseason strikeouts in his career — the most in history. It’s his immense talent coupled with all of his opportunities. It’s also the era.
“When you look at the pitchers that these guys are asked to face, whether starter or reliever: It’s a powerful game,” Rays Manager Kevin Cash said. “The stuff is as elite as we can imagine. . . . It’s not fun to hit right now in this game. Pitchers are so powerful. The way they can command pitches, the way they can land 2-0 breaking balls — that was unheard of back in the day. What they’re doing now is really a testament to really talented individuals throughout the industry. And they just continue to find ways to throw harder.”
The reasons make sense. The results can halt the action. Sometimes that’s good. Roberts — coming off a rough performance Saturday night in which he inexplicably told mediocre reliever Pedro Báez that he was done after the sixth, only to send him back out for the seventh — was booed by the partisan crowd of 11,437 when he came to get Kershaw in the sixth Sunday. There was no one on. Kershaw had recorded the first two outs of the inning on two pitches.
What gives? Modern baseball and electric young arms. Kershaw was on his third time through the lineup, taboo in these times. And 23-year-old firecracker Dustin May awaited.
“That was the plan,” Kershaw said. “We talked about it before the inning. Even though it was just two pitches, which made it seem super fast, we stuck with the plan.”
May held Roberts’s would-be stranglers at bay with a typical 2020 response: a 101-mph fastball to strike out Margot, then a 1-2-3 seventh. Then, somehow, Roberts got away with allowing lefty Victor González to face the right-handed-hitting Arozarena with the tying runs on in the eighth when Arozarena lofted a flyball to center.
Phillips’s heroics, though, hung over all of Game 5. The series is not likely to produce another moment that resonates as widely or for as long. It made you appreciate just getting the bat on the ball, putting pressure on the defense. A home run leaves the yard in seconds, and the stress is over. On Phillips’s single — or, for that matter, Díaz’s triple or Margot’s attempted steal of home Sunday — tension built. The plays were worthy of study, examination, extended breakdown. To get a World Series worthy of the same, the ball must be put in play and stay in the yard, both of which defy the times.