2 very different teams balance World Series

October 22nd, 2020

This is going to be a close, tense World Series. You feel that already, don’t you? Sometimes, you just know. How else would a season filled with so much craziness end?

That would be a World Series of punches and counterpunches, a World Series that would be decided in the final innings of Games 6 or 7. That’s the easiest conclusion to draw after watching the Rays and Dodgers for two nights.

If you’re keeping score at home, the Rays tied the Fall Classic at a game apiece by defeating the Dodgers, 6-4, in Game 2 on Wednesday night at Globe Life Field in Arlington.

Two games have delivered what we thought they would: breathtaking home runs, 100 mph fastballs and two teams that appear to be soaking up every single moment on Major League Baseball’s biggest stage.

And the more we watch them, the more we realize how different they are, yet how closely matched they are, and the whole thing is so fascinating. These two teams are really good, but they’re really good for entirely different reasons.

Let’s count the ways:

1) One has a rotation; the other, not so much
The Rays invented the concept of the “opener” in 2018, in part because quality starting pitching is really expensive and the Rays have one of MLB’s three lowest payrolls. Turns out, a traditional rotation could be Tampa Bay’s biggest advantage. In , and , the Rays have three starting pitchers they trust to get the game into the fifth or sixth inning.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers are down to two trusted starters -- and . The Dodgers won Game 1 behind a strong six innings from Kershaw, but Los Angeles went with a bullpen game Wednesday and watched seven pitchers allow 10 hits. Buehler will start Game 3 on Friday, but the Dodgers will call on to make his second start of the postseason in Game 4 and then probably would have to bullpen Game 6.

2) Which brings us to the bullpens ...
Because of the rotation uncertainty, the Dodgers are carrying 15 pitchers and trying to play a matchup game inning by inning when anyone other than Kershaw and Buehler are pitching.

Meanwhile, the Rays map out their bullpen strategy four hours before first pitch. In Game 2, their most frequently used closer, , entered in the fifth inning in what manager Kevin Cash saw as a high-leverage situation. Anderson got four outs, then Cash turned to three relievers -- Pete Fairbanks, and -- for the final three innings. Any of the four might be closers on 25 other teams.

3) If you don’t like Tampa Bay’s lineup today, wait until tomorrow
Cash used 59 lineups in 60 games during the regular season and has continued moving players here, there and everywhere during the postseason. He platoons at catcher, first base, third base and designated hitter to get favorable matchups. In Game 2, he used 13 position players, including a ninth-inning special in which he inserted a pair of pinch-runners, Hunter Renfroe and Brett Phillips, into the game.

The Dodgers have players capable of playing various positions, but the core of their lineup is built around a nucleus that changes very little.

4) Even the most talked about players are a study in contrasts
Both changed teams last offseason. Only one of them you’d ever heard of.

is one of baseball’s biggest stars and one of its highest paid players. If the Dodgers win this World Series, his arrival in Los Angeles in a trade with the Red Sox will be seen as the move that got the Dodgers over the hump.

The Rays were thrilled when they acquired outfielder in a trade with the Cardinals in January. But he’d played just 19 games in the big leagues, and no one could have imagined how he would take over the postseason after being called up on Aug. 30.

5) We promised we weren’t going to make a thing of payroll or attendance comparisons, but ...
The Dodgers have been ranked second, fourth and third in MLB payroll the past three seasons. They led the Majors in attendance for seven straight seasons before 2020.

As for the Rays, their payroll has been 28th, 30th and 30th the past three seasons. No team has operated more smartly or efficiently than the Rays, who pride themselves on seeing things in players other teams don’t. Players like , and have been tremendous acquisitions who were not seen as steals when the trades were made.

As for the Dodgers, they’re likewise brilliant at identifying talent and have their own reclamation stories in , and . But the Dodgers can afford to acquire and keep a star like Betts, to make sure an ace like Kershaw never plays elsewhere, and to avoid the ebbs and flows that smaller-payroll teams experience.