An off-day in the middle of a playoff series? Is this allowed?
The answer, finally, is yes, much to the relief of both the Dodgers and Rays. Some Tampa Bay players held a light workout at Globe Life Field on Thursday, while Los Angeles organized some Halloween activities for players and their families. And importantly, everybody got some much-needed physical and mental rest from the stresses of the 2020 playoff bubble and its unrelenting schedule.
“Look, we've played enough baseball here with the 12 games in 13 days [earlier in the postseason],” Rays manager Kevin Cash said.
Considering both leagues’ Championship Series went seven games without an off-day -- the Dodgers had only one day between Game 7 of the NLCS and Game 1 of the World Series -- both teams have plenty of reasons to welcome this respite with the Fall Classic tied at 1.
Both teams have their own reasons to be particularly thankful for this break that would be routine in any other postseason, but does it benefit one team more than the other? Let’s break it down.
Rays: 'The Stable' gets a much-needed rest
Everybody knows that the Rays’ bullpen depth and versatility are among their greatest strengths this postseason, but Cash and his staff have also done a remarkable job of monitoring each reliever’s workload to get to this point.
The high-leverage trio of Nick Anderson, Pete Fairbanks and Diego Castillo has combined to pitch on back-to-back days only three times this postseason -- once apiece. That’s particularly impressive considering that the Rays played so many close games against the Blue Jays, Yankees and Astros en route to the World Series.
That relatively measured usage has built to this point, when the Rays won’t be afraid to fire those bullets with impunity in all manner of situations with everything on the line. That became all the more clear when Aaron Slegers, a workhorse in the earlier rounds, was left off the World Series roster in favor of more southpaws to match up against the Dodgers’ damaging lefties in the lineup.
"There's really no margin of error with the team that we're playing,” Cash said. “They're so good. They're so talented. If we got opportunities to get Nick or Pete or Diego in the game, we're going to do that.”
If “The Stable” hasn’t been pushed too frequently to this point, why is this rest important?
Just look at Anderson’s outings. Six of his eight appearances this postseason have exceeded one inning, including all but one outing since the ALDS began. Following a two-inning scoreless appearance in Game 2 of that series against the Yankees, Anderson has allowed runs in each of his subsequent five appearances.
Though Anderson was among MLB’s best relievers in 2020, he made only one regular-season appearance in excess of one inning -- his first, back on July 25.
“We have to keep that in the back of our mind going forward,” Cash said. “If we want the best of Nick Anderson, we've got to be cognizant of his workload, and we are. But he's just so valuable to us, to come in in any situation and kind of quiet the storm."
Fairbanks has been similarly tested. After four outings of more than one inning in the regular season, four of his past five playoff appearances have stretched beyond one frame. That includes a pair of two-inning stints, matching his career high. Castillo has mostly been spared -- likely part of why he’s been the most effective of the bunch -- but even he pitched a season-long two innings in Game 5 of the ALDS.
Though Cash hasn’t pushed those three in consecutive days too often to this point, this off-day also makes it less likely that any of them will need to do so in the coming days, especially with another break looming between Game 5 and a possible Game 6. It’s particularly important for Anderson, who didn’t give up a run when rested during the regular season, though both Fairbanks and Castillo also improve when not pitching on consecutive days.
There are other, smaller benefits of this rest, too -- Mike Zunino will probably be able to catch all seven games, for one -- but reloading the biggest pieces of “The Stable” is undoubtedly the most important for the Rays.
Dodgers: This eliminates a bullpen game
For all the benefit the Rays will gain in an important part of their roster with this rest, it certainly looks like the Dodgers stand to benefit more.
Los Angeles has a depth problem on its pitching staff. Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw are obviously a formidable 1-2 punch atop the rotation, but given the recent underperformance of Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin, the Dodgers need all the help they can get to funnel most of their innings to Buehler, Kershaw and Julio Urías.
In a seven-game sprint, that wouldn’t have been possible without significant risk. Buehler has never started on less than four days’ rest -- in the regular season or playoffs -- and has allowed six earned runs in 5 1/3 innings when pitching in relief on short rest in his career. Kershaw had more success earlier in his playoff career when pitching on short rest (a 3.16 ERA, compared to his 4.22 career postseason ERA), but he hasn’t done that since Game 1 of the 2018 World Series, when he pitched on two days’ rest and allowed five runs to the Red Sox in four innings.
The off-day allows the Dodgers to line up Buehler for Game 3 on extra rest, which squares better with his history, as he’s made 37 career starts on five days’ rest, as opposed to 12 on four days’ rest (though he has done slightly better with four days off in his career). More importantly, the Dodgers can use an effective Urías in a straight start in Game 4 and line up Kershaw for Game 5 instead of needing to line up another bullpen game before the next off-day or pitch Kershaw on short rest.
It isn’t a fix-all, though; noting that a possible Game 6 would be an elimination game for one of the teams, the Dodgers could still need to use another bullpen game, possibly behind Alex Wood. There will still be tough choices, but this off-day will make it much easier for them to get there through what would otherwise have been a much more daunting trip through Games 3, 4 and 5.
Notably, the extra day of rest between Games 5 and 6 would also likely keep Urías, Buehler and Kershaw available in relief roles for the final two games of the series, were it to advance that far.
This is all important, of course, because Gonsolin and May -- both brought up as starters -- had to adapt to more flexible usage in the earlier rounds, with Gonsolin struggling to a 9.39 ERA in three postseason outings and May having been wild and ineffective without normal rest in his last three outings.
The lack of bullpen games also has a percolating effect on relief usage. The Rays make a point to use all of their relievers -- even high-leverage options like Anderson -- in a wide variety of roles with openers, bullpen games and such throughout the season, making them all the more comfortable in these kinds of games. As Gonsolin and May have shown, that kind of flexibility doesn’t always translate so easily into playoff settings for other teams.
For the Rays, this extra day of rest could make a difference in the efficacy of three short-relief situational pitchers who are already likely to be pushed out of their comfort zone in the coming days. For the Dodgers, it affords them a marked improvement in large swaths of innings early in games and keeps two of their most struggling arms out of the spotlight.
Advantage: Los Angeles