Manuel Margot took his shot at a Jackie Robinson moment. Clayton Kershaw kept his cool. And the Dodgers kept their lead on the way to a 4-2 win in World Series Game 5 on Sunday.
Margot was thrown out trying to steal home in the fourth inning, Kershaw to catcher Austin Barnes, representing the end of a once-promising scoring threat for the Rays and redemption for the Dodgers after they lost Game 4 the night before on a botched play at the plate.
• A rare feat: The history of WS steals of home
This time, the Dodgers executed flawlessly.
“I was surprised,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “We don’t see that very often, or at all, with a savvy player like Clayton.”
“It was my decision. It was 100 percent my decision,” said Margot, a former San Diego Padre who has had more looks at Kershaw than most of his teammates. “I thought it was a good idea at the time.”
Kershaw had been in trouble all inning after Margot became the fourth straight Rays leadoff hitter to reach base, then stole second and took third on an error charged to second baseman Chris Taylor. A walk to Hunter Renfroe put runners at the corners with no outs, but Kershaw reclaimed some measure of control by retiring the next two hitters -- including Willy Adames on Kershaw’s 205th career postseason strikeout, tying the all-time record he'd break the next inning -- to bring Kevin Kiermaier to the plate. Clinging to a 3-2 lead, Kershaw was one out away from escape.
With his back to the runner at third, Kershaw raised his arms above his head and prepared to deliver a pitch. Dodgers first baseman Max Muncy yelled as Margot broke for home, and Kershaw managed to quickly step off the rubber -- avoiding a balk -- and fired home to Barnes for the out. When Kershaw released the baseball, Margot was already 52.3 feet down the line, according to Statcast, but he was out in a close play.
The Rays did not request a replay review.
“I thought I was really close,” Margot said.
Was it worth the gamble?
Analytics help provide something of an answer.
With Margot standing on third, the Rays' win expectancy was 42.1 percent. If he was successful, it would have gone up to 54.2 percent, but instead dropped to 35.6 percent when he was called out. In total, it was a cost of .065 wins, compared to a potential benefit of .121 wins. Based on a cost-benefit calculation by Tom Tango, MLB's senior data architect, the risk was worth it if Margot thought he had at least a 35 percent chance of being safe.
“I was a little surprised,” Kiermaier said. “It was a gutsy move, and it didn’t work out that time, but Manny is a great baserunner, he’s not afraid to take risks. I didn’t have a problem with it.”
When Rays manager Kevin Cash was asked whether he thought it was the right move, he said, “I think we try to do things and make decisions and allow players to be athletic and be the athletes they are. And if Manny felt that he had a read on it, for whatever reason, it's tough for me to say yes or no, just because he's a talented baserunner.”
Here’s another question: Did the neutral environment help Kershaw’s cause? Perhaps.
The Rays were the home team on Sunday, but instead of playing in front of a raucous home crowd that would have been aiming to rattle Dodgers pitchers, the teams played in front of a limited audience at Globe Life Field in Arlington. A large home crowd at The Trop could have made it more difficult for Kershaw to hear Muncy’s warning, and on a play that close, even a fraction of a second could have been the difference.
It also helped that Kershaw and Muncy had talked about the possibility of that play. In fact, Kershaw said, he has had conversations about such a gamble with a number of Dodgers first basemen over the years, instructing them to yell at him to step off and trust that Kershaw would execute in a calm manner without committing a balk.
“I was fortunate enough to see one or two guys in the past break hard. Not necessarily trying to steal, but they broke hard, so I knew what to expect when I saw him,” Muncy said. “As soon as I saw [Margot] break, I sprinted straight towards Kersh and said, 'Home! Home! Home!’ He knew what to do from there.”
“Instinctually, I just kind of did it,” Kershaw said. “That was a big out for us right there.”
According to the FOX broadcast, Kershaw had executed that tricky play before. Opposing runners are now 0-for-3 against Kershaw when trying to steal home in his career.
One of them is a not-too-distant recent memory. On Aug. 23, 2015, when the Dodgers played an Interleague series against the Astros in Houston, Carlos Gómez gave it a try.
Just like Sunday, there were runners at the corners with two outs and Kershaw was pitching with a one-run lead. And just like Margot, Gómez was out.
“I don't know if it really happened fast or slow, but I heard Muncy say step off and I stepped off and threw it home,” Kershaw said. “I'm glad we got an out there."
With his failed dash home, Margot became the first runner thrown out in the World Series attempting to steal home since the Twins’ Shane Mack on a failed squeeze play in 1991 -- with John Smoltz on the mound for the Braves. The last time a runner was thrown out on a straight steal of home in the World Series was the Cardinals’ Lonnie Smith in Game 6 against the Brewers in 1982.
The last successful steal of home in the World Series was the Angels’ Brad Fullmer in 2002, when he pulled off a double steal with Scott Spiezio, who was on first base. Before that, one had to go all the way back to the Cardinals’ Tim McCarver in 1964, also on a double steal, following a throw down to second base. Dramatic, but not as dramatic as seeing a runner take off from third while the pitcher still has the ball.
For a successful steal of home like that in the World Series, one has to go all the way back to one of the most iconic moments in baseball history, when Dodgers star Robinson scampered home and scored in a cloud of dust in front of Yankees catcher Yogi Berra in Game 1 in 1955.
“[Margot] should keep his head up in this, that wasn’t the reason we didn’t win the game tonight,” Kiermaier said. “We had our opportunities, and I hope he knows that.”
Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram and like him on Facebook.