There were two outs in the top of the third inning of World Series Game 3. The Dodgers already had the lead thanks to a Justin Turner solo home run, but Charlie Morton, the Rays’ starting pitcher and their only World Series-tested player coming into this Fall Classic, was finding a rhythm.
Morton had retired six straight hitters, four of them on strikeouts. But then he yanked a splitter and hit Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager on the front foot for a free baserunner that might have amounted to a mere annoyance. Against the Dodgers in this postseason, however, two-out baserunners are a problem for opposing pitchers.
A record-setting problem, in fact.
After scoring five of their six runs in Game 3 with two outs -- including two after Seager’s hit by pitch -- the Dodgers kept making the most of their allotments of outs during what became a gut-wrenching, 8-7 loss in Game 4 on Saturday night, when every one of their runs scored with two outs.
In 16 games this postseason, the Dodgers have scored 57 runs and counting with two outs. They have scored 40 runs and counting with two strikes. Both are all-time records.
“That's how you win a World Series,” Mookie Betts said after Game 3.
Unfortunately, the Dodgers don’t own the copyright on two-out runs. The Rays took Game 4 with a pair of two-out runs on a wild play in the bottom of the ninth inning to even the Fall Classic at two games apiece.
Just like that, all of the hard work of Dodgers hitters was for naught.
In Game 4, the Dodgers got another first-inning homer from Turner, giving him 12 career postseason home runs for the all-time franchise record; another home run from Seager, giving him eight in these playoffs to briefly tie the likes of Barry Bonds for the all-time record (the Rays’ Randy Arozarena promptly pulled ahead with his ninth); run-scoring hits from Max Muncy and Enrique Hernández to extend one-run leads to two; and go-ahead hits from Joc Pederson in the seventh inning and Seager in the eighth as Los Angeles continued to apply pressure to Rays pitchers in a see-saw game that turned into a classic.
All with two outs.
So after the Rays staged the night’s final comeback in the bottom of the ninth, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts refused to assign blame.
“We competed on the offensive side,” Roberts said. “We competed, and so did those guys, so we don't play the blame game here.”
Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes, who is not known for his hitting -- big performance in Game 3 notwithstanding -- referred to Los Angeles' offense with a phrase you hear a lot in baseball: pass the baton. That’s what the Dodgers did after Seager reached base on the Game 3 hit-by-pitch. He passed the baton to Turner, who doubled and passed the baton to Muncy, who singled home both runners for the game-breaking hit in Los Angeles' 6-2 win. By night’s end, the Dodgers had scored all but one of their runs on hits with two outs and two strikes.
“It’s every single at-bat,” Roberts said, “just fighting.”
That’s been true even when it appears an opposing pitcher is on his way to a quiet inning. According to Elias, 14 of the Dodgers’ 57 two-out runs have come in innings in which the first two hitters were retired.
Yes, more postseason rounds mean more opportunities to tally runs. But even as a percentage, the Dodgers’ two-out production is on pace to be the best ever. For teams that played at least 10 games in a postseason, here are the highest percentages of two-out runs in history:
2020 Dodgers: 60.6%
1992 Braves: 59.3%
2008 Red Sox: 58.7%
2010 Giants: 57.6%
1975 Reds: 56.3%
(Source: Elias Sports Bureau)
Going into this year, the record for two-out runs in a single postseason belonged to Roberts and the 2004 Red Sox, who played 14 games and scored 46 of their playoff runs that year with two outs. (But, no, that run was not one of them. When Roberts pinch-ran in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, stole second base and scored the run that kept Boston from being swept by the Yankees, there was nobody out.)
What has been impressive about the 2020 Dodgers is the many different ways in which they have cashed in with two outs. Twenty-two of the 57 two-out runs this postseason have scored via home runs. But that means 35 runs have scored by some version of small ball, including at key junctures over the past two nights.
Take the seventh inning of Game 4, when Pederson salvaged a rally that was on the verge of fizzling when he came off the bench and lined a go-ahead two-run single that ticked off the glove of diving Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe for a 6-5 lead.
“There’s no let-up in that lineup at all,” Lowe said. “They’re going to score runs no matter what the score is, no matter if we just scored five. It’s an extremely tough lineup, and they’re an extremely good team. That’s why they’re here and they’ve done what they’ve done this year.”
An inning later, with the game tied again at 6, the Dodgers’ small ball almost got too small. After Chris Taylor led off the inning with a double, Hernández tried to bunt him over but popped out. After Betts grounded out for the second out of the inning, however, Seager came through with another huge base hit in a postseason full of them for the National League Championship Series MVP. The Dodgers had another lead, 7-6.
Roberts and Turner both used a phrase to describe the Dodgers’ offensive philosophy that you’re more likely to hear associated with football: Move the ball forward.
“We’ve been really good with two outs. We’ve been really good with two strikes, I think,” Turner said. “We’ve put together tough ABs and battled and got a lot of two-strike hits as well. It’s a credit to the guys coming in and fighting and battling and not trying to do too much. Move the ball forward and put something in play, and good things happen.”