Charlie Morton had just done a difficult thing in getting Mookie Betts, a superstar with one of the lowest whiff rates in Major League Baseball, to swing through strike three for the second out of the third inning in Game 3 of the World Series. But when facing a deep and dogged Dodgers lineup, another difficult task always lies in wait.
And so when Morton plunked the next batter, Corey Seager, with a pitch, he created just enough of an opening for the Dodgers to deliver. Twelve pitches later, Justin Turner had doubled, Max Muncy had driven in a pair with a single and the Dodgers were well on their way to a 6-2 victory over the Rays on Friday night at Globe Life Field in Arlington.
The relentlessness of a Dodgers team that now has a 2-1 edge in this best-of-seven Fall Classic (an edge 68.4% of Game 3 winners after a 1-1 tie in the World Series have used as a springboard to take the title) was on full display in this game. It was there in Walker Buehler adding to his growing October legend with six brilliant innings in which he allowed just one run on three hits with 10 strikeouts, and it was there in an offense that mangled Morton with a blitz of two-strike, two-out excellence.
“We’ve put together tough ABs and battled,” said Turner, who had opened the scoring off Morton with a two-out solo homer in the first. “Move the ball forward and put something in play, and good things happen.”
That the Dodgers have the superior of the two lineups in this Series is a matter of objective fact. They scored exactly one more run per game (5.82 vs. 4.82) than the Rays in the regular season. And while nobody ought to be taking stats from a 60-game season as gospel, their adjusted weighted runs created plus (122) was only barely below the standard set by the famed 1927 Yankees (126).
It is incumbent upon the Rays to diminish that disadvantage and to, well, raise their offensive numbers, which to date in this postseason have been more underwhelming (.208/.288/.402 team slash line) than their deep advancement would lead you to believe.
Yet until Randy Arozarena hit a garbage-time solo shot off Kenley Jansen in the ninth inning of Game 3 (giving him a record-tying eight home runs and a record-setting 23 hits in this postseason), Los Angeles' pitching had found a way to neutralize the rookie who only recently emerged as the focal point of Tampa Bay's attack. And while the Rays did manage an early eruption when the Dodgers tried to bullpen their way through Game 2, such outbursts have been few and far between.
Dodgers starters have held the Rays to a .133 (6-for-45) average -- the lowest mark allowed by a team’s starters through the first three games of a World Series since the Red Sox in 1915 (.129), per STATS LLC.
“We’ve been tested with these arms,” Rays catcher Mike Zunino said. “We’ve got to stay consistent, continue to put our work in and eventually we’ll get some bounces.”
A Rays team with the highest strikeout percentage in baseball this season did a lot of swinging and missing against the 26-year-old Buehler, who became the first pitcher in World Series history to strike out 10 batters in an outing of six innings or fewer and who now has a sparkling 1.28 ERA in his past nine postseason starts.
“The more you do these things, the calmer you get,” Buehler said. “I don’t want to keep harping on it, but I enjoy doing this, and I feel good in these spots.”
The Dodgers, on the other hand, do some of their best work with two strikes. And two outs. Their 50 two-out runs in this postseason are the most in history, as are their 36 runs scored with two strikes.
Five of their six runs in this particular win came with two strikes and two outs.
“Obviously, there’s two outs, but you can still build an inning [by] not giving away at-bats,” Betts said. “That's just the recipe for that. That's how you win a World Series.”
The Dodgers followed that recipe in Game 3 first with Turner’s first-inning solo swat. It was his 11th postseason home run with the Dodgers, tying Duke Snider’s franchise record. And the Turner double and Muncy single that changed the tone of the third also both came with two strikes and two outs.
In the fourth, the Dodgers demonstrated their ability to separate with small ball. Singles by Cody Bellinger and Joc Pederson put runners on the corners, and Austin Barnes brought a run home with a perfectly executed safety squeeze toward first. Betts then drove in the inning’s second run with, yes, a two-strike, two-out RBI single.
When Barnes, the No. 9 hitter, later went deep with a solo homer off John Curtiss (with two strikes and two outs, naturally), it spoke to the depth and flexibility of Los Angeles’ loaded lineup.
Even in their Game 2 defeat, the Dodgers had twice brought the tying run to the plate against the Rays’ bullpen. They are the toughest of tough outs, as the ordinarily reliable Morton, who had been 5-0 with a 0.70 ERA in five previous postseason starts for Tampa Bay over the last two years, can attest.
“I never really felt comfortable out there,” Morton said. “Just combine that with who they are with the bat, and it made for a rough night.”
Buehler was routinely able to put batters away, while Morton wasn’t. That was the difference in Game 3.
And the difference in the Series so far is that the Dodgers keep putting the pressure on at the plate. The Rays must find a way to do the same.