The Boys of Pandemic Summer

The Mookie Monster, after hitting his eight-inning Game Six blast.

They don’t have to say “wait till next year!” for the eighth straight year. Crowning a season that once threatened not to hit the field at all, the Los Angeles Dodgers have reached the Promised Land—for the first time since the near-end of the Reagan Administration.

They threw several mountains off their shoulders while Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash, whose club fought the Dodgers gamely and exuberantly, assumes one that may or may not take three decades plus shake away. No, it’s not exactly the one you think it is.

But first, the credit where due. To the Dodger bullpen whole and Julio Urias especially for turning the Rays off Tuesday night, after Randy Arozarena—the rookie whose season was delayed fighting COVID-19, who arose first in September, then made this postseason his personal possession—hit the first pitch of his one-out, top-of-the-first plate appearance the other way into the right field seats.

Credit Mookie Betts—Mr. Everything, whom the Boston Red Sox decided they could ill-afford, for reasons that may make sense in worlds of flight and fancy but not necessarily on the third stone from the sun—with seizing the moment once Cash made his right-to-wrong move in the bottom of the sixth, doubling to set up second and third—for Austin Barnes to come home on a wild pitch and Betts to have third with eventual Series MVP Corey Seager at the plate.

And, with running home like a thief ahead of Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi—the guy who split and leaped his way into whatever Tampa Bay hearts still beat—throwing down the line on Seager’s hopping ground out up that line.

Credit the Mookie Monster again with leading off the bottom of the eighth by catching hold of Rays reliever Pete Fairbanks’s 0-2 slider hanging just enough under the middle of the zone and hanging it over the center field fence.

Credit Urias, the seventh pitcher on the night of the running of the Dodger bulls, with two and a third’s closing relief so spotless the young man would have a future making and advertising disinfectant if he didn’t have such a splendid one as a major league pitcher.

Now hold the Rays responsible for spending too much of this Wild Series forgetting how to hit with runners in scoring position, including and especially their 0-for-4 and leaving six men aboard total in Game Six.

And, now hold Cash to account for the bottom of the sixth.

Yes, his lefthanded starter Blake Snell was dealing big through five and a third. Including two hits, no walks, and nine strikeouts that including striking out the side in the first and the third. Yes, Snell looked none the worse for wear opening the sixth getting A.J. Pollock to pop out on the inning’s first pitch and surrendering a followup base hit to Barnes.

Remember what you were taught about looks not being everything? Snell’s entire career shows he’s less effective by a considerable distance when he faces a batting order the third time around. The first time, they other guys have hit .205 against him. The second time, they hit .234. The third? They’ve hit .247. The OPSes against him are .592 the first go-round, .711 the second, and .742 the third.

Betts may have hit only a .200./313/.218 against lefthanders in 2020, but for his career he hits .297 against them with an .888 OPS. Want to know the difference when he hits against righthanded pitching? Five points in the batting average, nine in the OPS. You may not have known those things off the bat, but Cash probably did. He probably also knew that Betts—the Dodger with the most previous experience facing Snell—hit .304 with a .370 OBP against the lefthander prior to this postseason.

With Betts scheduled next following the Barnes single, and Seager right behind Betts, Cash didn’t want Snell getting murdered on the spot at his most historically vulnerable if he could help it. No matter how good Snell looked getting to this point. Even Snell knows it through his obvious disappointment at being hooked.

“I felt good,” the lefty said postgame. “I did everything I could to prove my case to stay out there, and then for us to lose, it sucks. I want to win, and I want to win the World Series, and for us to lose, it just sucks. I am not going to question him. He’s a helluva manager, so I am not going to question him. And I can only look forward to what I am going to accomplish this offseason. But we came up short, and the only thing I can focus on is what I can be better at next year.”

The real problem wasn’t Cash hooking Snell but whom he had ready to follow. If he wanted the righthander-to-righthander match with Betts possibly feeling a little too familiar with Snell by this moment in a World Series elimination game, Nick Anderson—who’d been lights out on the irregular season but vulnerable enough this postseason (6.75 ERA, 1.88 walks/hits per inning pitched rate entering Game Six)—wasn’t his best choice.

Cash would have been better served with Ryan Thompson, who’d worked an efficient ninth in the Rays’ Game Five loss and who hadn’t surrendered a single run in three appearances and two and two thirds innings Series work entering Game Six. But Thompson didn’t seem to be a rumour, never mind a topic Tuesday night.

Sometimes you throw the book into the fireplace. Sometimes you stay with it. Sometimes you make the right move and get blown up. Sometimes you make only half the right move. Lifting Snell was the right half. Prepping and bringing Anderson in showed only too clearly how the wrong half died.

Yes, I regret the decision because it didn’t work out. I thought the thought process was right,” Cash said postgame, knowing he’ll be second-guessed for it for the rest of his life and then some. “I totally respect and understand the questions that come with it. Blake gave us every opportunity to win. He was outstanding. They’re not easy decisions . . . Didn’t want Mookie or Seager seeing Blake a third time. There was no set plan. As much as people think, there’s no set plan.”

It was only half right.

And it wasn’t even close to the worst managing decision any postseason ever saw. It wasn’t Charlie Dressen picking fastballing Ralph Branca over curve balling Carl Erskine with fastball-hitting Bobby Thomson checking in at the plate and the 1951 pennant playoff on the line. It wasn’t Tommy Lasorda deciding it was safe to pitch to Jack Clark with first base open and the Dodgers one out from forcing the 1985 National League Championship Series to a seventh game.

What was all right was the Dodgers in their triumph exorcising eight previous seasons in which their regular-season, National League West-owning dominance got cut off at the postseason pass every time, including back-to-back World Series losses that began to make even those among themselves and their fans who don’t believe in extraterrestrial trickeries begin wondering if they were . . . you know . . .

No. Let’s not go there. Not now. Let’s stay with the current program. With Hall of Famer to be Clayton Kershaw pitching like a Hall of Famer this postseason, his manager making bloody well sure he couldn’t be left in a position to get blown up after stout effort, and savouring that brief postgame spell of heavy, hard breathing relief before joining the party.

With the entire team’s pick-up/dust-off/start-over approach to Game Five after that Three Stooges-meet-Hitchcock Game Four loss at the eleventh-last second in the eleventh hour. With the exuberant Betts and Seager leading the Dodger packs at the plate and stolid Justin Turner keeping them glued, focused, and ready to rumble.

With Betts, period, hell bent to cross the Jordan after the Dodgers dealt for him and David Price in February. “I was traded for to help get us over the hump,” Betts told reporters, “so I used that as my fuel.” He put whatever was left of the Rays’ fire out with gasoline, is all. Seager may have won the Series MVP award. Betts probably made himself the Series MVP in hearts and minds.

Now let’s hold Turner to account for a phenomenal mistake when the Dodgers finally crossed the Jordan.

He had to be lifted from the game in the eighth inning when the Dodgers got word he’d tested COVID-19 positive Tuesday, after a prior test on Monday’s off day proved inconclusive. Assorted officials league and team asked him to isolate himself for prudence and safety sake. Turner wasn’t going to let a little thing like a COVID-19 positive keep him from the party.

Not brilliant. Hadn’t baseball put itself through enough contortions from the sublime to the ridiculous to get anything resembling a season in at all? How brilliant did it look for one of the Dodgers’ signature leaders to come out that irresponsibly and possibly put an entire band of world champions and their families at risk?

How brilliant, too, would it have been if the Rays somehow found one more dose of eleventh-hour unreality and forced a Game Seven—would Turner’s action have delayed that for who knows how long until the rest of the Dodgers plus the Rays tested clean? Remember the irregular season, when even single positive COVID-19 tests meant for postponements.

Remember, too, as The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and other commentators do, that enough with the Dodgers are higher risk. Manager Dave Roberts has survived cancer; relief pitcher Kenley Jansen—who fought and beat COVID-19 in July—has a heart condition; at least one Dodger player has a pregnant wife.

Dear Lord, wasn’t it hard enough for the Boys of Pandemic Summer even in a pandemically-truncated irregular season to get back to the Promised Land at long enough last without that? Nobody forgets Turner the longest-tenured Dodger who isn’t Kershaw or Jansen, Turner who played on six previously-frustrating NL West champions. But tenure usually carries responsibility with status.

The Dodgers’ ancestors of 1955, winning at last what proved the only World Series triumph Brooklyn would ever know, had nothing on this. This may be the first time in the long, glory-to-surreality-and-back history of the World Series, in which the winners needed as many prayers after they returned to the Promised Land at last as they did in the three decades plus it took them to get there.

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