The Dodgers’ fourth inning in Game 3 of the World Series on Friday night at Globe Life Field in Arlington might as well have been lifted straight out of the 1960s. Three singles, a stolen base and an RBI squeeze bunt from catcher Austin Barnes? How very un-2020.
That is fitting, though, because unbeknownst to Barnes, the solo homer he tacked on two innings later in the Dodgers’ 6-2 win over the Rays actually inserted him into an obscure niche of baseball history as only the second player with both a run-scoring sacrifice bunt and a homer in a World Series game. It requires a trip back in time to 1961 to truly appreciate.
“That's a cool little stat,” Barnes said. “It's not easy to barrel the ball up against all these really good pitchers.”
It’s all the more appropriate that the setting of 1961 was, well, just about the most 2020-like year imaginable in that era of baseball. Before Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris captivated the nation with the first true home run race -- the battle to outswat The Babe that made for a decidedly home run-centric storyline to the season.
But this isn’t about The Mick or the former single-season home run king.
This is about the other guy -- the one who stood in left field much of the time between 1960-66 while Mantle manned center and Maris patrolled right. He’s the only other member of the squeeze-homer club alongside Barnes. His name is Héctor López. He’s now 91 years old. Thanks to Barnes, we get to revisit the tale of this Panamanian legend whose noteworthy story gets resurfaced thanks to a poke and a blast from a modern-day Dodger backstop.
Barnes’ poke came in that fourth inning, when Cody Bellinger led off with a solid single against Charlie Morton and moved to second on Joc Pederson’s one-out knock down the line. Barnes got the bunt sign -- and he wasn’t surprised. He actually had two sacrifice bunts earlier in the regular season, including another run-scoring squeeze against the Padres on Aug. 12.
“You kind of read the situation,” Barnes said. “That's kind of something we've done before in the past. I had a feeling it was coming. Just had to execute.”
Barnes showed bunt on the first pitch but took it outside for a ball. Though corner infielders Joey Wendle and Ji-Man Choi crashed hard, he showed bunt again on the next pitch and got it down the first-base line. Choi had no play on Bellinger, who easily crossed the plate with the Dodgers’ fourth run. Mookie Betts followed with an RBI single.
“I trust Austin handling the bat,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “So I just felt that -- nothing against Choi at first base, I just don't think he's fleet of foot. So I felt if we can get something down on the right side of the infield, we got a good chance of getting an insurance run, and Austin did a great job of executing.”
Back in the day, López got some help from poor execution. During Game 5 of the 1961 World Series, a 32-year-old López, starting in left field for the Yankees, dropped a sixth-inning bunt against Reds knuckleballer Bob Purkey, whose throw home was errant and allowed Johnny Blanchard to score from third.
Barnes paired himself with López in the sixth, when he crushed a center-cut slider from John Curtiss an estimated 425 feet to left-center for his first career World Series homer -- and the longest of his career in the regular season or the playoffs. He only had one big fly during the regular season and one previous homer in 103 postseason plate appearances entering Friday.
López has the added distinction of having an RBI triple to go with his three-run blast in that decisive Game 5 in 1961, a 13-5 Yankees win that sealed the Bronx Bombers’ eighth championship in 13 years. López’s five RBIs in that game are tied for one shy of a World Series record for the Yankees shared by Hideki Matsui and Bobby Richardson.
López is actually a fascinating character, by the way. He was the second Panamanian to play in the Majors, and he played outfield for the Yankees throughout the shared tenure of Mantle and Maris in the Bronx from 1960-66. Baseball historian and statistician Bill James once wrote that López was “as bad a defensive player as you would ever want to see,” and he actually lost his starting left field job to Yogi Berra in ‘61, the only season Berra played more outfield than catcher.
More significantly, López is -- unfortunately -- mostly forgotten as the first Black manager in Triple-A history, having taken over the reins of the Buffalo Bisons in 1969.
Here’s where López’s and Barnes’ feats in the World Series diverge, though: López was only playing as an injury replacement because both Mantle and Berra were hurt for Game 5. (“I had to do something, because I had such a lousy season in 1961,” López said, according to his SABR bio. “With all those guys hitting home runs, they didn’t need me!”)
In contrast, Barnes is a guy that Roberts and the Dodgers want in there -- he always has been for these big moments.
That’s why Barnes appeared in every game in the 2017, ‘18 and now ‘20 Fall Classics for Los Angeles despite his career .700 OPS and his .244/.353/.314 slash line this regular season.
“He just receives the ball well,” Walker Buehler said. “He prepares well. He’s tough. To have the year he had last year offensively, then every year in the playoffs, it seems like he’s a different guy. He’s a tough dude, and we’re extremely lucky to have him.”
This is all the more rewarding for Barnes, considering that he was left off the Dodgers’ postseason roster altogether last season following some extended struggles and the immediate success of Will Smith.
The Dodgers have heaped praises on Barnes’ framing skills and his ability to call a steadfast game in these pressure-packed situations. Consider Buehler’s latest gem -- a six-inning, 10-strikeout outing on Friday -- yet another example of that.
Making history is fun, especially among unique company like López, but the ability to command the pitching staff and make versatile contributions on offense -- whether via bunt or blast -- are why Barnes is here for the Dodgers. He’s rewarding their faith, and as an added bonus, now has a neat tidbit to show for it.
"They ask you to do something, you need to do it,” Barnes said.
“Just shows how much we trust him in big games,” Roberts said. “He's done it for us time and time again, and he had a fantastic night.”