All things considered, this is as good as it gets. Or at least as good as we might expect.
Baseball had to throw together a convoluted, geographically-arranged 60-game regular-season schedule just to get here; managed to deliver a reasonable product despite the absence of the crucial element of fans in the stands; somehow survived until the final stages outside a protective bubble, and cheapened the post season by adding four teams (two of them below .500). But baseball somehow ended up with a fitting finish — a unique matchup for the 2020 World Series.
It may forever be known as the “Pandemic World Series,” just as the one in 1989 remains the “Earthquake World Series,” but this one also has the kind of matchup that’s only been seen twice before. The Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers both had to survive a seven-game League Championship Series to get to this point — previously done in back-to-back years of 2003 (Marlins-Yankees) and 2004 (Red Sox-Cardinals).
Dodgers-Rays isn’t the dream matchup for television (that would be Los Angeles-New York, of course), but as noted above, all things considered, it’s about as good as it gets. Neither team had an easy path — the Rays had to avoid a near collapse after winning the first three games against the Astros in the American League half of the parlay while the Dodgers needed a three-game win streak to survive against the Braves.
What we are left with is the team generally believed to have the best talent — and highest payroll — in the game (the Dodgers) against a team of relative unknowns on the low end of the salary lists. On paper at least, the Rays don’t have a chance because they lose every position-by-position matchup.
Only a mix-and-match pitching staff provides much hope, which might sound familiar. Should the Rays find a way to survive against the overwhelmingly favored Dodgers it would at least be comparable to the Mets beating the Orioles in 1969 — perhaps the Marlins beating the Yankees in 2003.
As good as it gets would produce another seven-game series. It doesn’t figure that it would take the Dodgers that long. Fortunately they aren’t playing the game on paper, or as part of a board game, so you might want to be among those who watch. That figures to be rather exclusive company.
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Even though they generally seem to be disrespected, it’s amazing how often teams mimic the Rays and try to beat them at their own game.
The Dodgers may have fallen into that trap when they bypassed Walker Buehler, who has been their No. 1 pitcher throughout the postseason, in Game 2 of the World Series.
It’s the same strategy the Yankees used in their best-of-five series against the Rays. Both teams failed miserably trying to utilize their version of a “bullpen game,” a tactic the Rays perfected a year ago and teams have been playing copycat ever since.
In passing up the chance to use Buehler on regular schedule, the Dodgers more or less committed themselves to two “bullpen” games if the series goes six games. It could be just the kind of opening needed by the Rays, who would go with an “opener” for Game 4 and have their three starters lined up for Games 5-6-7.
Of course, we know this series is not supposed to go that far. Just in case, you might want to stay tuned in.
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When his team was down 3-1 against the Braves, the talk was that Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was one game away from being fired. And there is some speculation he needs to win the World Series, because the Dodgers have been there before (two of the previous three years) and it hasn’t been good enough.
There is also suspicion that many of Roberts’ decisions are influenced by his team’s analytics department, but hopefully his penchant for using his designated hitter in the field late in games is not one of those times.
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There were two perfect examples of when “gut feel” and analytics clash during the two LCS — and they came on the same day.
The Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw had a solid outing, coming off a clean fifth inning, in a 1-1 tie game. Blake Snell had pitched four scoreless innings and had a 1-0 lead when he gave up a walk and a single to open the fifth.
Kershaw was allowed to start the sixth inning, which began with an infield hit that bounced over his head. A ground ball between first and second went for a double, and a subsequent two-base hit made the score 3-1 as the Braves went on to a blowout win. Much to his own dismay, Snell was taken out of the game, which quickly unraveled as the Rays’ usually reliable bullpen imploded.
Post-game critiques were predictable, as the “experts” claimed Roberts should have pulled Kershaw after five innings and Rays manager Kevin Cash should have stayed a little longer with Snell. What wasn’t said was the obvious — in each case the games got out of hand because of ineffective work by the respective bullpens.
Analytics or gut feel? In Snell’s case, analytics was almost certainly the deciding factor while Roberts maintained he stayed with his longtime ace because of his gut feel.
Bottom line: you can win or lose either way.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com