Maybe it needed to happen this way, with the bullpen leading the charge.
Maybe it wouldn’t have felt right if Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and his relief corps, pilloried for the last three years of playoff heartbreak, hadn’t come full circle to pull off the ultimate triumph in baseball’s greatest chess match against the Rays and their overflowing hard drives of data and “the stable” of wipeout relief arms with blazing fastballs from a dizzying array of angles.
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In the latest installment of what seemed to have become an October tradition, the Dodgers didn’t have a clear path through the late innings in Game 6 of the World Series on Tuesday night. But for once, there was no late-game heartbreak, no lingering questions, no what-ifs, no second-guessing.
There was only triumph. The veteran relievers who had endured those failures watched from afar as the newcomers finally finished off the journey the Dodgers started years ago, with two rookies paving the way in the late innings to 24-year-old Julio Urías, the surprise playoff hero who yelled in a crouch before roaring to the heavens after securing the Dodgers’ 3-1 win at Globe Life Field in Arlington and Los Angeles’ first championship since 1988.
“It's a team effort,” Kenley Jansen said. “We've all got to pick each other up. That's why we do it, and that's why we're world champs today, because we all pick each other up. I'm proud of Julio, how he stepped up. I'm proud of everyone. It's awesome. I don't know how to describe this feeling right now. I'm just going to enjoy it every single day.”
The Dodgers hoped starter Tony Gonsolin would take them at least five innings into Tuesday’s decisive Game 6. The rookie right-hander lasted five outs, and the pitching plan could have fallen apart from there.
Instead, Roberts pushed all the right buttons as he ushered six relievers through the final 7 1/3 innings, while his counterpart, Rays skipper Kevin Cash, will be facing an offseason of questions after pulling his starter, Blake Snell, in the midst of a dominant outing just before the bullpen blew the lead.
“You can't say enough about what they did,” said World Series MVP Corey Seager. “Without those guys, we're not here. We're not in the same spot. We’re probably at home already. So to have those guys, man, it's fun to watch.”
It started when Gonsolin allowed a Randy Arozarena homer in the first inning before putting two men on in the second. An early hook brought Dylan Floro into the game to face the red-hot Arozarena, he of the record-breaking 10 playoff homers and 29 hits. Three changeups later, Arozarena and Floro were headed back to their respective dugouts.
Alex Wood came next against a lefty-heavy part of Tampa Bay's lineup. Six up, six down. Pedro Báez got two outs before allowing a hit to Arozarena -- who else? -- before rookie Victor González escaped on one pitch before blowing away the side in the sixth.
Fellow rookie Brusdar Graterol got the first two outs of the seventh, and Urías began to warm up, told that he would enter for the fourth batter of the inning, were it to get that far. It did, and in the pivotal moment of the game, the left-hander, once handled with “kid gloves” and having dealt with a major surgery, struck out pinch-hitter Yandy Díaz on four pitches to strand a runner on first and leave Arozarena standing helplessly on deck.
“I just focused on getting the one out,” Urías said. “Little by little, I just went batter by batter. When I least expected it, I was getting the final out."
It wasn’t broken -- so Roberts didn’t fix it.
Much like in his three perfect innings to close out Game 7 of the National League Championship Series against the Braves, Urías could do no wrong. It only took him 10 more pitches to navigate a perfect eighth, and before he knew it, he found himself on the mound for the ninth, the hopes of a championship-starved fan base riding on his left shoulder.
It took 13 more pitches, with Willy Adames staring at the championship-clinching strike three as it whizzed by on the inside corner. And that was that.
“He was incredible this postseason,” president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “The way he went about it was as good as it gets. We talked about putting him in that role in Game 7 [of the NLCS], and just to a man, it was easy to bet on. And then for him to go out and back it up the way he did just speaks volumes about him.”
Three days after throwing 80 pitches as Los Angeles’ Game 4 starter, Urías became the second player to close out two series-clinching wins in one postseason with two perfect outings of at least two innings, joining the Cardinals' Bruce Sutter from 1982.
All said and done, the Dodgers’ seven arms combined to allow five hits and one run while striking out 16, the second-most by one team in a nine-inning World Series game. Beyond Gonsolin’s short start, only two Tampa Bay runners reached base -- both on singles.
And after struggles that were costly in the Dodgers' losses in Games 2 and 4 of the Fall Classic, the bullpen locked down for 10 2/3 shutout innings across the championship-clinching Games 5 and 6, with eight relievers combining for 16 strikeouts, one walk and four hits.
“They made their pitches,” catcher Austin Barnes said. “They executed, didn’t let the moment get to them. Those first two innings were a grind for us; we were a little bit on our heels. Those guys won us that game.”
Just as Clayton Kershaw’s pair of strong outings in the World Series did plenty to ease the narrative that had built around his playoff performances that had tarnished his legacy, this game -- and Roberts’ usage of Dustin May, González and Blake Treinen to close out Game 5 -- also felt like a vindication of sorts.
There was no overuse of Báez, Jansen or Kershaw this time around. No images of Kershaw doubled over on the mound in disbelief; no shots of Jansen walking off the mound with opponents celebrating around him.
Jansen in particular didn’t get his personal redemption in this series, and Kershaw didn’t get a final relief outing to cement what could have been a case for World Series MVP, which would have been a fitting culmination to the playoff narrative he carried as a burden for so long.
There’s nothing that will erase those images of Kershaw allowing the back-to-back homers to the Nationals in last year’s NL Division Series, Joe Kelly giving up that grand slam, Marwin Gonzalez’s homer off Jansen in 2017, or even, more recently, Brett Phillips’ indelible moment to end Game 4 of this 2020 Fall Classic -- all pinned on Roberts and the bullpen usage.
But finally, the weight of a championship looms larger than the weight of those moments.
"A sigh of relief, you know? We finally made it,” Jansen said. “We're champs. We're world champs. Nobody can take this away from us.”
It didn’t matter that Kershaw didn’t make it into that final game. He stood in the bullpen with his sweater on as his teammates piled onto the field, soaking in the moment. Jansen wasn’t on the mound for that final pitch of redemption in the ninth inning, but that didn’t make this any less special for him.
“Yes, we all want that moment, but Julio was throwing the ball really well, and it's awesome, man,” Jansen said. “That's awesome.”
And Roberts, too, understood better than anyone what this meant for his veterans, acknowledging them both by name as the team celebrated on the field. The young bullpen guys carried the weight of everyone’s late-inning past on their shoulders -- and finally hauled this team across the finish line.
“For guys like Clayton -- I couldn’t be happier for you, Kersh, couldn’t be happier,” Roberts said. “You want to talk about a narrative, how about being a champion? He’s a champion forever. Kenley Jansen, what you’ve done, thank you.”
Do-Hyoung Park covers the Twins for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @dohyoungpark and on Instagram at dohyoung.park.