Randy Arozarena's outstretched hands touched the plate, then lingered. Again and again, Arozarena emphatically slapped that plate with his right hand while brightly beaming at the celebrating teammates surrounding him.
Having just scored the final run in one of the wildest wins in World Series history, Arozarena and the Rays had plenty of reason to savor the moment. Thanks to Brett Phillips' two-out, two-strike heroics and the Dodgers’ damning defensive difficulty in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 4, Tampa Bay had just completed a come-from-behind 8-7 victory at Globe Life Field in Arlington on Saturday night to even the best-of-seven set at two wins apiece.
“Baseball’s fun,” Phillips said afterward. “Wow.”
Wow is right.
Late lead changes, second-guesses galore and a World Series-record eight straight half-innings with a run scored created by far the most compelling game yet of this Fall Classic.
But no moment will be remembered more than Arozarena’s mad scramble to the dish for the second run of a true punctuation play.
“That was a really exciting game,” Arozarena said afterward. “It was incredible. It was one of those games where both teams were going back and forth and both teams were fighting. We’re both fighting to try to win the World Series, and nobody gave up.”
To understand and fully appreciate the emotion of the moment, one must first understand the stakes and the setup.
The stakes were stark: The Dodgers were on the cusp of becoming the 47th team to take a 3-1 lead in a best-of-seven World Series. Of the previous 46 to do so, 40 -- including 11 of the past 12 -- had won it all. With future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw due to take the mound in Game 5 on Sunday night, one could see the script of Los Angeles’ first World Series title since 1988 beginning to write itself.
But a Tampa Bay team accustomed to an upstart role ripped up the script again and again in Game 4, ultimately taking advantage of its right to the last at-bat as the home team at the neutral site.
With early home runs from Justin Turner and Corey Seager off Ryan Yarbrough and a continuation of the two-out awesomeness that has pervaded their postseason, the Dodgers had taken leads of 2-0, 3-1 and 4-2 on this night. But the Rays always had an answer, whether it was the rookie sensation Arozarena setting a new postseason record with his ninth home run in 18 postseason games (after hitting seven in 23 games in the regular season), Hunter Renfroe going deep with a blast to the second deck or Brandon Lowe, who had already shaken off a deep postseason slump with a two-homer performance in Game 2 on Wednesday night, providing this Series’ first lead change with his three-run blast off Pedro Báez in the bottom of the sixth.
“They were the best team all year in the American League,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said of the Rays. “Those guys fight.”
Lowe’s opposite-field poke had given Tampa Bay a 5-4 lead, but it -- like every lead in this ballgame -- was short-lived. Los Angeles answered back in the seventh. Rays manager Kevin Cash had summoned his Swiss Army setup man Nick Anderson, and Roberts, with runners at second and third and two outs, picked pinch-hitter Joc Pederson. Roberts won that particular chess match. Pederson’s sinking line drive nicked the outstretched glove of second baseman Lowe in shallow right to fall in for a two-run single that gave the Dodgers a 6-5 lead.
But in the bottom of the seventh, Roberts stuck with Báez, and Kevin Kiermaier connected with a changeup over the middle of the plate for a game-tying solo shot.
So the Dodgers took the lead again off Anderson in the eighth, when Seager’s two-strike, two-out bloop into the left-field grass scored Chris Taylor from second to make it 7-6.
“It’s not the most comforting feeling,” Cash said. “They get the early runs. We answer back. Then they answer again. We just couldn’t stop them, and that’s a credit to how talented that club is. Top to bottom, they’re so thick and challenging.”
That added up, incredibly, to seven two-out runs for the Dodgers in this game, continuing a preposterous postseason pace in which 60.6% of their runs have come in such a scenario -- the highest percentage of any postseason team in history with at least 10 games played.
How does a team like Tampa Bay respond to a loaded Los Angeles club that routinely rips pitchers’ hearts out?
With a little two-out, two-strike magic of its own, of course.
The Rays’ rousing ninth was sparked by Kiermaier’s one-out, broken-bat single off star-crossed Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen. Though Jansen was able to retire Joey Wendle on a lineout to left for the second out, Arozarena stepped in and gave him a disciplined seven-pitch at-bat, finally taking ball four low to keep Tampa Bay's hopes alive.
That’s when Phillips, an Aug. 27 trade acquisition from the Royals who had entered the game as a pinch-runner in the eighth and hadn’t batted since Oct. 7, came to the plate. He fell behind in the count, 1-2, on two questionable strike calls. Undeterred, though, Phillips sent Jansen’s characteristic cutter sailing into the right-center-field grass.
“I didn’t give up one hard hit,” Jansen said afterward. “What can I do?”
For Kiermaier, hustling on contact, to score from second on that play was a given. Nothing else about it was ordinary. Center fielder Taylor booted the ball, giving Arozarena a fighting chance to score all the way from first. But Arozarena stumbled between third and home as Dodgers first baseman Max Muncy cut off Taylor’s off-target throw and fired a quick relay to the plate.
Just when it appeared Arozarena would be trapped in an inning-ending rundown -- too far to retreat back to third but not close enough to the plate to score -- Muncy’s throw came in to catcher Will Smith's right, away from the play, and Smith couldn’t corral it. Because Arozarena almost certainly would have been out at either third or home had Smith made the catch, his miss resulted in the second error of the sequence.
“Will wouldn’t have had any idea that Randy fell down there,” third baseman Turner said. “He was trying to catch the ball and put a quick tag down. Obviously, if he would have known that [Arozarena] fell, he would have taken his time and made sure he caught it and then started the rundown.”
And with Jansen not backing up the play, Arozarena was able to recover and hustle home with the headfirst slide that completed the third-biggest win probability swing in World Series history (behind only, coincidentally enough, Kirk Gibson’s epic walk-off homer for the Dodgers in Game 1 in 1988 and Cookie Lavagetto’s walk-off double for the Dodgers in Game 4 in 1947) and set off Tampa Bay’s hair-Raysing hullabaloo.
“Once I saw Randy slip, I thought, ‘Oh shoot, at least we tied it up,’” Phillips said. “And then he missed the ball. I didn’t know what happened, and then he scored. And the next thing I know, I’m airplane-ing around the outfield and getting dog-piled.”
Precariously close to a daunting deficit, the Rays had given themselves new life.
And now it’s a new World Series.