“This is our year!” Manager Dave Roberts roared at the trophy presentation.
The line for validation was long and illustrious in the wake of the Dodgers’ 3-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 6 of the 116th World Series, and all of them — the players, the manager, the brain trust, the franchise and the sport itself — would get their turn.
But before that could happen, there were other matters to deal with — this being a baseball season being played in a pandemic. As the Dodgers celebrated their championship on the field, many of them wearing masks, one key figure was missing: Third baseman Justin Turner, the longest-tenured Dodgers position player, had been pulled before the seventh inning after his latest coronavirus test came back positive, a result that arrived midgame. He was immediately put in isolation but was later spotted on the field celebrating with his teammates.
“It’s a bittersweet night for us,” Commissioner Rob Manfred told Fox Sports on the field. “ … We learned during the game that Justin was a positive. He was immediately isolated to prevent spread.”
It was the first positive test for a player in more than six weeks, and coming in the middle of the final game of the World Series — it was perhaps a fitting conclusion to a season that at times seemed endangered by the spread of the virus. It also appears baseball barely avoided a messy outcome had the series been extended to a seventh game.
And for a while Tuesday night, Game 7 seemed to be a strong possibility. The fact the series never got there was due in large part to the stunning and highly questionable pitching move the Rays made in the bottom of the sixth inning, when they pulled ace Blake Snell from a magnificent performance — a move that backfired immediately when the next two Dodgers hitters, Mookie Betts and Corey Seager, gave Los Angeles the lead.
“I’m not going to ask any questions,” Betts said of the Rays’ pitching change. “[Snell] was pitching a great game … They made a pitching change. It seems like that’s all we needed.”
Maybe the Dodgers would have won anyway if the Rays — who make no apologies for their analytic bent and data-driven decision-making — had left Snell alone. But no one will ever know.
“Analytics is a huge part of our success,” Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “And sometimes it can bite you in the butt.”
In any case, few who watched this series could walk away with any other conclusion than the better team prevailed in the end — an outcome that itself provided a measure of validation for the legitimacy of the 60-game regular season and 16-team postseason, both of which were dominated by the Dodgers.
“This team has been incredible all throughout the season. … We never stopped,” said shortstop Corey Seager, who was named World Series MVP, adding that trophy to the one he earned as MVP of the National League Championship Series. “You can’t say enough about what we did this year.”
They were the best team, on paper, on the crisp February day when pitchers and catchers first reported. They were best team on March 12, when the novel coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of the remainder of spring training, and the best team in April, May and June as a labor battle held the regular season hostage. They were the best team in July, when the season finally started, and in August and September as it careened toward the postseason.
The Dodgers’ victory Tuesday night gave future Hall of Fame left-hander Clayton Kershaw the title that forever cements his legacy, especially after he won Games 1 and 5 to help make it happen. It gave Roberts the championship that escaped him in the 2017 and 2018 World Series. It gave Betts, the Dodgers’ big offseason acquisition, a second title to go with the one he won for Boston — over the Dodgers — two years ago.
“I don’t care about legacy. I don’t care about what happened last year,” Kershaw said. “I don’t care at all, man. The 2020 Dodgers won the World Series. Who cares about the other stuff? All that other stuff is pointless. We won. It’s great.”
And it brought validation, too, for Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, who operates with one of baseball’s biggest payrolls but made his career out of passing on every big-ticket player on the market — Bryce Harper and Manny Machado among them — until finally grabbing Betts in a February trade with the Red Sox. He was rewarded when Betts proved to be the missing piece that pushed the Dodgers over the top, with his solo homer in the eighth inning Tuesday night the latest piece of evidence.
The Rays have never won a World Series title in their 22-year history, and the fact they came closer than ever before this week will be of little consolation. Because who knows? If they had not made one of the most curious and second-guessable pitching moves in recent memory, this series might have been heading to a Game 7 on Wednesday night.
With one out in the sixth, Rays Manager Kevin Cash pulled Snell, who was in the middle of what could legitimately be called an October gem — a nine-strikeout two-hitter, during which he had been more or less untouchable by the best hitters in the Dodgers’ lineup, who are also, naturally, some of the best hitters on the planet.
The moment Cash strolled out of his dugout to pull Snell following a one-out single by Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes in the sixth, the crowd of 11,437, unable to believe what was taking place, hooted and cheered. Snell, despite knowing full well it is simply the way his team operates, looked away in disgust and shook his head. When he handed the ball to Cash, he wouldn’t even look him in the eye.
“I felt really dominant,” Snell said. “I had them guessing. It’s just tough for me. It’s going to be tough for a while.”
The Rays were leading by one. The next three batters due up for the Dodgers were Betts, Seager and Turner — the same trio who had gone 0 for 6 with six strikeouts against Snell. Did the Rays really want someone besides Snell to face them?
“I didn’t want Mookie or Seager,” Cash said, “seeing Blake a third time.”
The downfall was swift and predictable. Right-hander Nick Anderson, arguably the best reliever in baseball during the regular season but someone who appeared to have tired over the course of this series, entered and immediately allowed a double to left by Betts. A wild pitch scored Barnes, and a groundball to first base off the bat of Seager scored Betts — who beat the throw to the plate from Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi.
Within two batters of getting Snell out of the game, the Dodgers had flipped a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead.
Meanwhile, the Dodgers’ pitching staff, collectively, was doing a pretty good Snell impression. While starter Tony Gonsolin lasted just 1⅔ innings — giving up Randy Arozarena’s solo homer to right, the 10th of this postseason for the Rays phenom, extending his MLB record — the Rays failed to put up more runs against him despite ample opportunity.
But with a day off Monday to replenish sagging arms, and with the Rays’ lead stuck on one, Roberts managed his bullpen aggressively, cycling through reliever after reliever. All of them — right-hander Dylan Floro (who recorded one out), lefty Alex Wood (six), right-hander Pedro Báez (two), lefty Victor González (four) and right-hander Brusdar Graterol (two) — did the job to carry the game to the late innings.
When the Dodgers clinched the 1988 World Series against the Oakland Athletics, they used just one pitcher, with Orel Hershiser throwing a complete game in Game 5. This time, they used seven. The last of them was rookie lefty Julio Urías, who had thrown 80 pitches in his Game 4 start just three nights earlier but here closed out the Rays with 2⅓ dominant innings.
The Dodgers’ win, in its own way, also validated the entire 2020 baseball enterprise, which teetered and tottered on the edge of oblivion several times but stuck it out and was rewarded for its tenacity and adaptability.
A fluky champion might have contributed to the notion that this was something less than a legitimate season. But 60-game season or no, the Dodgers were a historically good team, going 43-17 — a .717 winning percentage that represents the highest for a World Series champion since Honus Wagner’s 1909 Pittsburgh Pirates, who went 110-42 (.724).
“This year has been crazy, obviously, but no matter what, we’ll look back on this and we’re World Series champs,” Kershaw said. “To get to say that and be part of it, it’s so special, no matter what.”
In any other season, the scene Tuesday night — the Dodgers, in their home whites, dogpiling on the infield, would have taken place at Dodger Stadium.
But if one scene could aptly put a bow on the bizarre, unprecedented 2020 baseball season, it was this: a team from Southern California dancing across a field in Texas, a socially distanced crowd looking on — with one player in isolation, at least at the beginning.
It may have looked and sounded odd and surreal, but the Dodgers would be the first to tell you: It felt no less amazing for its setting or circumstances. The trophy they were handed was no less precious. And the banner they will raise next spring, right next to the one from 1988, will look no less grand atop the bleachers at Dodger Stadium.
Dave Sheinin reported this story from Arlington, Tex. The live updates below were reported by Scott Allen from Washington.
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