The Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers have split the first two games of the World Series, satisfying baseball prognosticators everywhere who called Dodgers in seven, or occasionally—wildly—Dodgers in six. This also satisfies those rooting for as much baseball as possible, in a year which otherwise had the least baseball in the history of MLB. Seriously: let’s please delay the offseason as much as possible. It feels like it was just the offseason yesterday.
But in that, and many other, regards, the Dodgers and Rays have played excellent baseball in the World Series. All of America, excepting maybe Red Sox Nation, rejoiced when Mookie Betts stole a base to garner tacos for the country. Brandon Lowe double-donged in game two, looking at last like the player who had led the Rays’ 2020 offense in fWAR. But above all, in the wins for both teams, each got what they needed out of their starting ace. This is a bolder assertion for Snell’s start in game two, but I’m prepared to defend it.
A Few Words on the Kershaw Postseason Narrative
First, I must say. All reasonable human beings root for the end of the “Kershaw chokes in the postseason” narrative. Though it’s not unfounded—contrast his career 2.43 ERA with his career postseason ERA of 4.22—aforesaid reasonable human beings could only wish for one of the greatest pitchers of this age to have a postseason to match.
Of course, on the Ringer MLB Show this week, Ben Lindbergh pointed out that Kershaw has had plenty of excellent postseason starts. Tuesday’s solid outing was only his eighth-best in the postseason, by game score. It feels patently unfair, at this point, to accuse him of being unable to deal with the demands of October. But it is odd that he doesn’t seem like the same pitcher that we see in, well, all the other months of the year. On an earlier Rates and Barrels podcast, Eno Sarris posited that command and control artists like Kershaw may have a more difficult time executing with the postseason’s amped adrenaline.
In any case, the battle between the Kershaw detractors and the Kershaw defenders has been raging long enough that I’m even rooting for an end to the rooting for an end to the Kershaw postseason narrative. I’m rooting for this nearly as strongly as I am against the end of the baseball season.
But anyone who was unsatisfied by Clayton Kershaw’s eight beautiful scoreless innings against the Brewers in the Wild Card series this year may be swayed by his performance against a more formidable Rays offense on Tuesday night. His previous outing against the Braves in NLCS had a less attractive final pitching line than it deserved; he had only allowed one run through five but ran into trouble in the sixth. Brusdar Graterol followed him, allowing one of his base-runners to score, for a total of 4 earned runs to Kershaw’s line. Still, after back spasms had scratched from an earlier outing in the series, it was not the ideal bounce-back start. Although ideally, you shouldn’t really be bouncing at all, with back spasms.
But in game one of this World Series, the broadcast booth, catcher Austin Barnes, and my dog all commented on how well his slider was working after the first inning. This proved key, as the slider was not effective in his first frame. Yandy Diaz singled off of the pitch, and three consecutive sliders for balls walked Randy Arozarena. Kershaw was unable to find the strike zone with it Hunter Renfroe’s subsequent at-bat but escaped the inning unscathed by using his curveball.
After that, Kershaw locked in, striking out both Mike Zunino and Brandon Lowe on the slider in the third. He would only allow one other hit in his six innings of work, while dealing out eight Ks. Alex Fast celebrated the fact that he had an astonishing 43.5% CSW — a Pitcher List metric which adds called strikes and whiffs, as a percentage of all pitches thrown — which is the fourth highest of his entire career.
Of course, the one hit was the improbable lefty-on-lefty homer smacked by Kevin Kiermaier in the top of the fifth inning, for Kershaw’s only earned run of the start. This solo shot came in stark contradiction to Lance McCullers’s mouthed assertion that Kiermaier “can’t swing,” when he was pleading with Dusty Baker not to be taken out of the final ALCS game on Saturday. But despite recovering from a hit-by-pitch wrist injury that happened earlier in that series, Kiermaier, apparently, can swing.
The oddity was only increased, in the moment, for those watching the FOX broadcast. John Smoltz had just mentioned congratulating Kershaw on surpassing him for the postseason strikeout record before the game, something the Dodgers lefty hadn’t yet done. Smoltz reiterated that these pre-congratulations wouldn’t be a jinx, exactly before Kiermaier got all of a slider that hung in the dead-middle of the zone. The Dodgers lead, two runs on a Cody Bellinger homer the previous inning, was halved. For the magically-thinking among us, it seemed like Kiermaier could psychically hear the telecast, or that Smoltz, apparently, could jinx.
A side note: Kershaw now stands at 201 postseason strikeouts, lagging Justin Verlander by only 4 Ks. We’re now assured of a game five on Sunday, which should be Kershaw’s next outing. Postseason Strikeout Watch will join forces with Postseason Kershaw Narrative Watch to rival Pete Fairbanks for a nervous, unblinking stare.
But any fears that Dodgers fans may have had following the Kiermaier homer were immediately allayed by the delight waiting for them in the bottom of fifth inning. The Dodgers’ onslaught was also a boon to any proponents of small ball, including, naturally, 100% of national broadcasters. (In fairness, I also find small ball objectively more fun to watch, and was neutrally delighted.)
Tyler Glasnow walked the first two batters of the inning, Mookie Betts and Corey Seager. Mookie had stolen the aforementioned base that granted tacos to America, before an exciting double-steal by the speedy Betts and Seager as Justin Turner struck out. (This did prompt me to wonder: if the first steal had been a double-steal, would we have gotten two tacos? Or at least some kind of double-wrapped chalupa? I am sure Taco Bell representatives would say no.) This was the first time that one team had stolen three bases in an inning of the World Series since the New York Giants in 1912.
The Dodgers Pile On
Then, Mookie scored on an infield bloop by Max Muncy that would easily have been an out at first. Even with the fantastic lead Betts had off of third base, it still made for a breathtaking play at the plate. But Betts skillfully evaded the tag, manufacturing the run from his walk, and igniting the “How could the Red Sox trade Mookie Betts” baseball Twitter wildfire. After Will Smith’s base hit scored the walk to Seager, Tyler Glasnow was pulled from the game.
Ryan Yarbrough replaced him, but he couldn’t quell the onslaught of singles, either. Despite getting Bellinger to pop out, Chris Taylor scored Muncy and Enrique Hernandez–whose full first name I will type out until I can figure out how to get an accent on the e–plated Smith. Manny Margot caught Barnes’ fly ball, putting the Rays out of their misery.
Glasnow and Yarbrough
Speaking of the Rays’ misery, the bottom of the fifth encapsulates some of the more mysterious choices for manager Kevin Cash in this game. After surrendering the homer to Bellinger in the bottom of the fourth, Glasnow’s stuff no longer looked sharp. He had walked Chris Taylor, who advanced to second on a wild pitch. Joc Pederson helped him by fouling off two pitches that would have been balls and swinging at a fastball well above the zone, and Barnes also reached two strikes on fouled balls.
In the fifth, as we just rehearsed, he was missing the zone with the walks to Betts and Seager, and it’s baffling that he was kept in for three more batters, particularly as his pitch count stood at 112 when he was finally, mercifully, yanked. That was the highest pitch count for any Rays pitcher this year. Not in the postseason. The whole year.
This is mystifying from the man who pulled Blake Snell at 82 pitches in the loss to the Astros last Friday. And Glasnow doesn’t seem like the most likely Rays pitcher to set the 2020 high water mark for pitches. Even if he is the most likely pitcher for your totally hypothetical art historian mother to text you about, comparing him to a Titian Renaissance Prince.
Yarbrough doesn’t seem like the most obvious replacement, either, with his 87 MPH fastball. (I still love you, brough.) The lefty is a clearly a competent starter or bulk reliever, but doesn’t make sense in a fireman role, or, alternatively, as someone to go to when ceding the win. Yarbrough only threw 19 pitches, so he’ll still be available to start or pitch behind an opener, given the series’ schedule.
The Rest of Game One
Because Yarbrough will likely be a better option in that role that Josh Fleming, who the Rays went to in game five of the ALCS, when the teams had no off-days. Fleming got knocked around again in this World Series game, giving up a homer to Mookie, and back-to-back doubles to Justin Turner and Max Muncy. The Dodgers took a commanding lead, 8-1. Twitter attacked the Red Sox again.
The Rays mounted what I’ve always termed a “for the sake of our own pride” rally in the top of the seventh. Happy to see the last of Kershaw for the evening, Manny Margot and Joey Wendle notched hits off of Dylan Floro. Victor Gonzalez, brought in to replace him, only fared better in terms of his earned runs, giving up singles to Mike Brosseau and Kiermaier that scored his inherited runners. The Rays might have added on had Mike Zunino not grounded into a double-play, but Tampa Bay could only score two runs in the inning. This score of 8-3 would hold through the final, with shutdown innings from Pedro Baez and Joe Kelly. On to…
Snell’s Like Team Spirit
It’s a tougher case to make that Blake Snell gave his team the start of their (or everyone’s) dreams, particularly given how quickly he unraveled in the fifth inning. Granted, the fifth inning is usually the “Blake Snell Inning of Doom”, if there is one, frequently followed by the “Blake Snell Inning of No More Blake Snell” in the sixth.
But Snell’s pitching line of 4.2 innings with 2 earned runs doesn’t tell the story of how dominant Snell looked before he ran aground in the fifth. Until Chris Taylor’s homer, he had no-hit the most potent offense in baseball, striking out nine, and tying his high for Ks in 2020. Despite walks to Muncy and Bellinger in the second, he looked more in command of his arsenal than he did in his two starts versus Houston, or facing off against the Yankees in the ALDS.
Much like Kershaw, this was his best start of the 2020 postseason since the Wild Card series, when he dominated the Blue Jays. And also like Kershaw, it was the slider that was working much more effectively for Snell in this start. He had 9 whiffs on his slider, with a 44% CSW (as earlier, called strikes + whiffs).
Chris Taylor’s Homer
Of course, when Taylor crushed a ball into right, Snell had already walked Hernandez, a blemish that’s harder to overlook when it becomes a run.
But at the time, my takeaway was that the curveball given up for a homer wasn’t a bad pitch; it wasn’t even in the strike zone. Obviously, pitchers get no credit for locating a ball that still end up in the stands, but as the only runs scored to his line, it didn’t dissuade me from being impressed with his performance.
The walk to Betts immediately afterwards, and the single surrendered to Seager, were more concerning, and Cash was clearly justified in pulling Snell, particularly after the previous night’s Glasnow incident. Nick Anderon, though looking disconcertingly mortal this postseason, was able to end the inning. Yes, it’s too bad that Snell couldn’t have kept the no-hitter going through five, when he might have been pulled, regardless, as Charlie Morton was last week. But even if he didn’t give us the Blake Snell start of our dreams, he did give the Rays the start they needed.
And Now, Lowe
But I can assert that, in part, because the Rays offense came out swinging in game two, led by Brandon Lowe. As I mentioned, many words ago, in my introduction, Lowe was the largest contributor for the Rays offense, filling in for Austin Meadows’ sophomore slump. But his .916 OPS during the regular 2020 season was contrasted by a meager .182 in the division series and .454 in the championship series.
This was exactly the tenor of the broadcast booth, citing a batting average in the low hundreds for the postseason, when Lowe hit a homer in a majestic, soaring arc. If Kiermaier had been able to hear the telecast the previous night, it seemed like Lowe was endowed with that magical ability on Wednesday.
If this wasn’t enough to silence the doubters, Lowe did it again in the fifth inning, knocking in Meadows in the process. Kevin Cash had been interviewed, in game, opining that he hoped Lowe was heating back up, so it’s still inconclusive as to whether or not choice members of the Rays team have telecast ESP.
The Rays’ Offense
Lowe staying hot will be key for the Rays, moving forward. Outside of Randy “Hotter than a Finnish Sauna” Arozarena, the Rays’ largest contributors have been Manny Margot and Ji-Man Choi, who could easily tail off.
However, the most heartening thing for the Rays in Wednesday’s game was production from many parts of the lineup, and via something other than the long ball. Between the two Lowe home runs, Wendle hit a decisive double to center field to score Choi and Margot. In retrospect, it looks like a 2-RBI double sandwich between toasty whole-grain Lowe homers, but at the time, it seemed like a turning point of the game, putting the Rays up 3-0.
Wendle also knocked in Choi for what would be the Rays’ final run, in the sixth. Several other hitters collected their first hits of the World Series, having been silenced by Kershaw and the Dodgers’ bullpen the night before, including Willy Adames, Austin Meadows, and Randy “Hotter than a Carolina Reaper” Arozarena. Arozarena had been peculiarly quiet in game one, but with that knock, he tied Jeter for the postseason rookie hit record.
Yes, it’s the longest postseason we’ve ever had. Do I still want Arozarena to overtake Jeter? You bet I do.
Tra La, It’s May, It’s Also Gonsolin for Some Reason
Four of the Rays’ six runs were scored with Dustin May on the mound. Despite May’s dazzling arsenal, he struggles to command his pitches, many of which hung over the plate. In contrast to Blake Snell’s outside curveball that Taylor was able to crush for a homer, these are the two pitches to Wendle and Lowe that did damage:
Nor were these Gingergaard’s only mistakes. Of the eight batters he faced, six smashed a hard-hit ball. Perhaps the twenty-three year old is struggling with his irregular usage in the postseason, but I remember discussing on the Sleeper and the Bust during the season the fact that May’s arsenal was leading to more contact and fewer whiffs than I had expected.
But in terms of strange deployment of Dodgers pitchers in the postseason, none is more baffling than Tony Gonsolin’s appearance in World Series game two. Gonsolin, the putative starter, only faced six batters, four of whom he retired. The Dodgers seemed to oddly concede this as a bullpen game when they could have even gotten slightly more length out of him. The best explanation that I saw for his role was this reply from Anthony Castrovince, referring to the multiple times that the broadcast team hyped Gonsolin as a cat-lover.
Catch a Ball, Throw a Glove
After all the hay that has been made over the Rays only scoring with homers, World Series game two saw the Dodgers’ offense thoroughly reliant on the long ball. After Taylor’s two-run bomb, Nick Anderson surrendered a dinger to Will Smith. Corey Seager also teed off of Pete Fairbanks, which both set the record for most homers by a shortstop in a single postseason, and, for once, lessened the cognitive dissonance between Fairbanks’ pitching dominance and him looking like he forgot that his Chemistry test was today.
But despite this homer creating a dead-heat between Seager and Randy “Hotter Than the McDonalds Coffee That Woman Once Sued Them For” Arozarena in chasing postseason records, the most entertaining Dodgers homer was Smith’s, even though it didn’t come off of Braves pitcher Will Smith, this time. Instead, the man in the stands who deftly caught the ball in its descent got so excited that he hurled his glove onto the field. Arozarena was kind enough to toss the glove back, which the man also caught.
I cast no shade on you, sir. If I could catch that ball, I am sure I would do something at least as stupid as throwing my glove onto the field.
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