There will always be those who place a mental asterisk on the 2020 season and its eventual champion, myself among them. However, the Dodgers’ journey to this point, and the quality of Tampa Bay Rays, the last team that remains between them and their first championship since 1988, stand as strong testaments to the legitimacy of this year’s champion, regardless of who wins this year’s World Series, which will commence Tuesday night at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.
For the Dodgers, simply reaching the World Series for the third time in a four-year span is a significant accomplishment. They are the first team to do so since the 1998-2001 Yankees won four straight pennants. The last time the Dodgers were in three of four World Series was 1963-1966 (they won two). No team has won three pennants in a four year span without winning at least one championship since the deadball era, when the Tigers (1907-09) and New York Giants (1911-1913) both lost three straight World Series. The larger context of their sustained excellence (eight straight division titles and three pennants in four years) alone should lend a 2020 Dodgers championship a greater sense of legitimacy.
Then there is the fact that neither of these teams backed into the expanded postseason. Rather, they compiled the best records in their respective leagues, then survived an extra round of playoffs. In the Rays’ case, they bumped off the two teams that reached last year’s American League Championship Series, besting a fully operational Yankee team in the Division Series, then surviving a near-epic comeback from the defending AL champion Astros in the ALCS. The Dodgers, even more impressively, offed the teams with the second (Padres) and third (Braves) best records in the National League, staging an impressive comeback against the latter after falling behind three games to one in the best-of-seven NLCS.
The result is the rare World Series between the teams with the two best regular-season records. The Dodgers went 43-17 (.717) this year, a 116-win pace over a 162-game schedule. The only other team to win 40 games in the shortened 60-game season was the Rays, at 40-20 (.605), a 98-win pace. In terms of run differential, the two next-best totals after the Dodgers’ +136 were the Padres’ +84 and the +60 posted by three teams. One of those three was the Braves. One of the others was the Rays (the third was the White Sox, who lost to the A’s in the Wild Card round).
This stands in sharp contrast to the bifurcated 1981 season, when teams clinched playoff spots by leading their division over roughly 60-game spans either before or after that years’ strike, a poorly devised system that left the two best teams in the National League over the full 100-plus-game season (the 66-42 Reds and 59-43 Cardinals) out of the playoffs. There were many similarities between that year and this—the shortened schedule, the extra-round of playoffs, the Dodgers winning their third pennant in recent years—but because this year’s playoffs included all of this year’s best teams, and the Dodgers have had to beat them all head-to-head, this year’s championship would be more legitimate, at least in my mind, than the one L.A. won in 1981. The same goes for the Rays, who have their work cut out for them in attempting to defeat what I consider a historically great Dodgers team for the first championship in their franchise’s 23-year history (their only other World Series appearance was a loss to the Phillies in 2008).
The Rays are unlike any team the Dodgers have faced thus far this year. The Brewers, their Wild Card opponent, were closer in quality to the bottom three teams in the NL West than the legitimate contenders the Dodgers have faced since. The Padres and Braves were both among the top three (with L.A.) in run scoring during the season but had to overcome pitching issues on their way to the postseason (the Braves, by virtue of those issues arising earlier in the season, did so more successfully).
The Rays are a pitching-and-defense-first team. The Dodgers were among the top five teams in the majors in run prevention this year. The Rays are the only other one of those five teams L.A. will have faced this season, making this the toughest test for what was ostensibly the majors’ best offense this season.
The Rays, by contrast, were only slightly above average at run scoring. Ignoring Randy Arozarena’s postseason breakout for the moment, they lack any major stars on either side of the ball. Instead, they, not unlike the Dodgers, deploy extraordinary depth on both sides of the ball, with an ever-shifting lineup thick with platoon possibilities and multi-position flexibility, and a deep, well-balanced bullpen of no-name wizards.
The Rays are slippery. Playing them is like fighting a fog monster or a hydra. Second baseman Brandon Lowe (rhymes with “now”) was their best hitter during the regular season, posting 152 OPS+ and leading the team with 14 home runs. He has been lost at the plate this postseason, hitting .115/.193/.173 (6-for-52 with just one extra-base hit), but 25-year-old Cuban defector Randy Arozarena has emerged in his place. Arozarena debuted with the Cardinals last year, seemingly as a speed-and-defense fifth outfielder. The Rays acquired him as an apparent throw-in with outfielder/first baseman Jose Martínez in January and kept him at their alternate training site until August 30. Arozarena didn’t become a regular presence in the Tampa Bay lineup until the second week of September, but this postseason he has hit .382/.433/.855 over 60 plate appearances with seven home runs in 14 games, including two-run shot in the first inning of Game 7 against the Astros.
The Rays’ next hottest hitter this postseason has been first baseman Ji-Man Choi, a 29-year-old South Korean with a big frame and a big personality who can do the splits at first base and is on his sixth organization. Choi broke out after being acquired from the Brewers in mid-2018 and is hitting .290/.436/.516 this postseason with a pair of homers, but, more often than not, he’ll sit against lefties. He started just four games of the ALCS.
The Rays’ veteran leader is 30-year-old Kevin Kiermaier, the longest tenured Ray, the second-oldest member of their active roster (after righty starter Charlie Morton), and one of the best defensive centerfielders in the game. Kiermaier is capable of series-changing catches in center, but was hit on the hand in Game 3 of the ALCS, sat out the next three games, and failed to make contact at the plate in Game 7.
Their sparkplug is 24-year-old third-year shortstop Willy Adames (rhymes with “llamas”), who was acquired from the Tigers in the David Price trade way back in 2014, when Adames was still a teenager. He’s another big personality, and all-around talent coming off his best season at the plate, but he typically hits in the bottom half of the lineup.
As a team, the Rays have hit just .209/.295/.407 this postseason. Though you might expect a team of slick defenders to comprise a scrappy, small-ball offense, they’re actually more of a three-true-outcome team. They led the majors in strikeouts and were second in walks during the regular season, and have hit 25 home runs in their 14 games thus far in the playoffs.
Thanks in large part to Kiermaier, Adames, long-necked third baseman Joey Wendle (who is just four days younger than Kiermaier), Lowe, former Padres centerfielder Manuel Margot, and elite positioning, the Rays seem to catch everything. No team is shy about shifting these days, but the Rays will send Lowe to the right field corner to form a four-man outfield on occasion, and seemed to always have a man stationed where their opponents hit the ball (or one like Kiermaier with the speed to track it down).
That can be very discouraging for a team already forced to contend with the filthy stuff of the Rays’ pitchers. Speaking of which, before I go any further, here’s the schedule and the likely starters for the World Series, only a few of which have been officially confirmed (all games on FOX, all statistics from this postseason only):
Game 1 – Tues. 10/20, 5:09 p.m. PT: RHP Tyler Glasnow* (4.66 ERA, 19 1/3 IP) vs. LHP Clayton Kershaw* (3.32 ERA, 19 IP)
Game 2 – Wed. 10/21, 5:08 p.m. PT: LHP Blake Snell* (3.20 ERA, 19 2/3 IP) vs. RHP Dustin May (2.35 ERA, 7 2/3 IP)
Game 3 – Fri. 10/23, 5:08 p.m. PT: RHP Walker Buehler* (1.54 ERA, 11 2/3 IP) vs. RHP Charlie Morton (0.57 ERA, 15 2/3 IP)
Game 4 – Sat. 10/24, 5:08 p.m. PT: LHP Julio Urías (0.56 ERA, 16 IP) vs. LHP Ryan Yarbrough (3.60 ERA, 10 IP)
Game 5 – Sun. 10/25, 5:08 p.m. PT: Kershaw vs. Glasnow
Game 6 – Tue. 10/27, 5:08 p.m. PT: Snell vs. RHP Dustin May/Tony Gonsolin
Game 7 – Wed. 10/28, 5:09 p.m. PT: Morton vs. Buehler
Glasnow, acquired from the Pirates with Austin Meadows for Chris Archer at the 2018 trading deadline, is 6-foot-8 stud who topped 101 miles per hour earlier this postseason. He compliments that elite heater with a nasty curve and changeup. Glasnow can be a little homer prone—he has allowed six in four games this postesason—but the raw stuff is nasty, and the Dodgers haven’t seen him since he was a Pirate. He’ll be on five day’s rest for Game 1. Kershaw, who dealt with back issues during the NLCS and has been a little worse each time out since dominating the Brewers in the Wild Card clincher, will be on regular rest.
Blake Snell won a Cy Young award that should have gone to Justin Verlander in 2018, was limited by injuries in 2019, and was more good than great this season. The Yankees touched him up in the Division Series (three homers for four runs in five innings), and he struck out just six Astros in nine innings in two ALCS starts. Still, the stuff is good: mid-to upper-90s fastball, slider, curve and change, all coming from the left side. He’ll be on regular rest for Game 2.
The Dodgers won’t have anyone on full rest for Game 2 (Walker Buehler would be on three days), so look for them to give the ball to Dustin May, who threw the fewest pitches of the three starters to appear in Game 7 of the NLCS. May hasn’t lasted more than two innings in any of his outings this postseason, but he hasn’t been as bad as he has seemed (2.35 ERA), and control has been his primary problem thus far. May would be working on two-day’s rest, but he threw just 18 pitches in Game 7, which almost works as his bullpen day. Dave Roberts will have a quick hook, of course, but probably wouldn’t be too upset to see May go a little longer in this one.
What makes this series different from all of the others this postseason (other than the stakes, of course) is that, although it will remain a single-site series, all the games taking place at Globe Life Park, the off days have been restored (most likely to avoid a sweep ending the series before the weekend). So both teams can make full use of their bullpens in Game 2 knowing that there will be no game the next day. That leaves open the possibility of the Dodgers fully bullpenning Game 2.
Buehler and Charlie Morton will be on regular rest for Game 3. The 36-year-old Morton now throws his mid-90s fourseamer and curve more than his sinker, so he’s less of an extreme groundballer, and he has lost a couple off ticks off the heater since 2017. Still, he continues to assert himself as a big-game pitcher, posting 0.57 ERA over three starts this postseason, including 5 2/3 scoreless frames in Game 7 of the ALCS against his former Astros teammates. This matchup would likely repeat if this series goes the full seven games, which is legitimate concern for the Dodgers, as Morton has now pitched in three Games 7 allowing just one run in 14 2/3 innings in those games, earning the win in all three. The Dodgers know this all too well. His one previous World Series Game 7 saw him throw the final four innings of the Astros’ victory over L.A. in the 2017 Fall Classic.
In Game 4, the Dodgers will likely have their choice of Julio Urías or Tony Gonsolin. Given their relative performances in Game 7 of the NLCS, Urías seems like the obvious choice. Urías has been outstanding this postseason, putting up a 0.56 ERA in 16 innings, including three perfect frames to finish off the Braves in the NLCS. That would leave Gonsolin as a possible alternate to May in Game 6, if the series gets that far and Gonsolin isn’t used in a bulk-innings relief role prior to that.
For the Rays, with everyone rested and the Dodgers generally weaker against left-handed pitching, they’ll likely turn to lefty Ryan Yarbrough, who won Game 3 against the Astros. They may also have Yarbrough follow an opener, as they did in Game 4 of the Division Series and for most of his rookie season in 2018. Yarbrough is a soft-tossing lefty sidearmer who doesn’t throw a straight fastball. He mixes a cutter, sinker, and change with the occasional curve and tends to hang out in the mid- to upper-80s, with the curve coming in at round 70 mph. Yarbrough throws a ton of strikes and could benefit from the strong contrast between his repertoire and those of his fireballing teammates.
Speaking of which: the Rays bullpen. Much has been made of the variety of arm angles the Rays offer out of the ‘pen, from right sidearmer Ryan Thompson to lefty sidearmer Aaron Loup, but the big three in the pen remain a trio of fireballing righties who all release the ball from roughly the same place. Nick Anderson, Pete Fairbanks, and Diego Castillo look very different—Anderson is lanky and bearded, Fairbanks is a 6-foot-6 bug-eyed blonde, Castillo is a well-fed Dominican whose girth makes him look shorter than he is—but their stuff doesn’t. All three are typical righty relievers (release points seen here) with upper-90s fastballs and sliders. Castillo throws a sinker. Fairbanks, a two-time Tommy John recipient who cost the Rays Nick Solak, regularly hits triple digits. Anderson, a 30-year-old on his third organization in three years, may be the best of the three, having struck out 15 men per nine innings with a 6.48 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 87 career regular-season appearances. However, Anderson struggled against the Astros in the ALCS (four runs and no strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings and the loss in Game 5).
Can the Rays’ bullpen hold up against the Dodgers’ world-beating offense? Can the Rays’ patchwork offense make any noise against the Dodgers’ outstanding pitching? As creative and resourceful as the Rays may be, the Dodgers are clearly the better team. They even have the best defensive playmaker in Mookie Betts, whose work in right field was crucial to L.A. surviving the NLCS. However, as the Dodgers know all too well, anything can happen in a short series. The important thing is that both of these teams deserve to be here, which means that the result will have a significance it might not have otherwise. Oh, and they’re a ton of fun to watch.
The below are the rosters each team used in the LCS. Given the off-days in the World Series, both might opt to drop a pitcher or two in favor of a deeper bench. For the Rays, that might mean lefty-hitting outfielder Brett Phillips, a speed-and-defense player who was on their Division Series roster. For the Dodgers it could mean third catcher Keibert Ruiz, pinch-runner Terrance Gore, or lefty-hitting infielder Gavin Lux, all of whom were on their Division Series roster (though Lux was there only as an injury replacement for fellow lefty bat Edwin Díaz, who has since returned to action). However, Dave Roberts suggested on Monday that L.A. is unlikely to make a change.
Tampa Bay Rays
R – Manuel Margot (RF)
L – Brandon Lowe (2B)
R – Randy Arozarena (LF)
L – Austin Meadows (DH)
L – Ji-Man Choi (1B)
R – Willy Adames (SS)
L – Joey Wendle (3B)
R – Mike Zunino (C)
L – Kevin Kiermaier (CF)
Rays manager Kevin Cash almost never uses the same lineup twice. He repeated a batting order just once during the regular season (that included a player, Nate Lowe, not included on any of their postseason rosters), and in 14 games in this postseason, he has reused a lineup only twice and has yet to use any batting order more than twice. The above was the Rays’ Game 7 lineup against Houston, and it is a fair approximation of what the Rays are likely to run out against right-handed starters.
R – Yandy Díaz (1B/3B)
R – Mike Brosseau (UT)
R – Hunter Renfroe (OF)
L – Yoshitomo Tsutsugo (OF/3B)
L – Michael Pérez (C)
Against lefties, such as Game 1 starter Clayton Kershaw, look for Brosseau to start at first base and Díaz to DH, with one of those two leading off, dropping Margot to the middle of the order. Cash typically hits Arozarena ahead of Lowe against lefties, and might also start Renfroe in right field, pushing Margot to left and Arozarena to DH, which could shove Díaz to first and Brosseau to third (benching Wendle), put one of those two infielders on the bench, or simply push Margot to center (benching the banged-up Kiermaier).
R – Tyler Glasnow
L – Blake Snell
R – Charlie Morton
L – Ryan Yarbrough
R – Nick Anderson
R – Peter Fairbanks
R – Diego Castillo
R – John Curtiss
R – Ryan Thompson
L – Aaron Loup
L – José Alvarado
R – Aaron Slegers
L – Josh Fleming
L – Shane McClanahan
Los Angeles Dodgers
R – Mookie Betts (RF)
L – Corey Seager (SS)
R – Justin Turner (3B)
L – Max Muncy (1B)
R – Will Smith (C)
L – Cody Bellinger (CF)
R – A.J. Pollock (LF)
L – Joc Pederson (DH)
R – Chris Taylor (2B)
R – Kiké Hernández (2B/LF/UT)
L – Edwin Ríos (3B)
L – Matt Beaty (1B/LF)
R – Austin Barnes (C)
Barnes will catch Clayton Kershaw, batting ninth and pushing Smith to DH and Pederson to the bench. Pederson will also likely sit against the lefties Snell and Yarbrough, with Chris Taylor moving to left field and Kiké Hernández starting at second.
L – Clayton Kershaw
R – Dustin May
R – Walker Buehler
L – Julio Urías
R – Tony Gonsolin
R – Kenley Jansen
R – Blake Treinen
R – Brudsar Graterol
R – Pedro Báez
L – Jake McGee
L – Adam Kolarek
R – Dylan Floro
R – Joe Kelly
L – Victor González
L – Alex Wood