Randy Arozarena

Quick on the overshift uptake, Randy Arozarena stole home straight up Thursday night. Yogi Bear never had it that simple stealing picnic baskets.

There are and have been men playing baseball who love their secondary skills almost more than they love what usually earns their keep. Randy Arozarena, Rays outfielder and batter extraordinaire, is one of those men. He can hit around the field and for distance, but he loves to run.

Give him an inch, or an abandoned side of an infield, and Arozarena’s more than happy do his part to turn a baseball game, even Game One of an American League division series, into a track meet. Give him almost all the third base side of the infield while he’s on third, and he’ll add grand theft home plate to his pleasures.

It’s not that he gets away with it every time he breaks out of his gates on the bases. He tied the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani for the American League lead in arrests for attempted theft with ten. As thieves go, Arozarena had a 67 percent success rate on the regular season. Rickey Henderson he ain’t. Yet.

The one that mattered most was the job Arozarena pulled in the bottom of the seventh Thursday night, after wringing a two-out, full-count walk from Red Sox reliever Nick Pavetta and taking third when Wander Franco doubled right behind him. Then the Red Sox shifted to the right side and brought lefthanded reliever Josh Taylor in to face lefthanded-hitting Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe.

With Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers playing in the proper shortstop location dead center between second and third, Arozarena might as well have been wandering into the Next-to-Last National Bank and discovering security officers sound asleep before sliding his stick-’em-up demand through the teller window.

Taylor seemed almost wholly oblivious to Arozarena ambling almost halfway down the third base line as he concentrated on Lowe at the plate. Apparently, the Rays’ advance scouting secured that tendency to use as opportunity presented itself. But Arozarena also read the room on his own and smelled the opportunity in front of him.

Maybe with two outs Taylor also felt there was no way Arozarena would be that brazen. Lowe fouled a 1-2 pitch straight back out of play. Taylor leaned in for his signs, straightened back up to throw—and Arozarena bolted for home the split moment Taylor came set in the stretch.

Yogi Bear never had that simple a time stealing picnic baskets in Jellystone Park.

“I noticed that the pitcher wasn’t really watching for me or covering for me,” Arozarena said postgame, “and I saw the third baseman was pretty far away in respect to where I was at. I was looking over to [third-base coach Rodney] Linares, telling him, ‘Hey, I’m going to go. I’m going to go.’ Peeked over and saw Cash give him the green light as well, so that’s when I decided to take off.”

Lowe stepped back out of the box as Arozarena hit the jets, and Taylor just cranked and threw home fast and futilely. Red Sox catcher Christian Vasquez had no chance as he sprang afront the plate to take the throw, wheeling around back on his knees to tag.

He’d have had a better chance apprehending John Dillinger without a pistol and handcuffs than he had when Arozarena shot across the plate in a safe dive—almost like Michael Phelps hitting the pool for yet another Olympic gold medal.

What looked in the moment like Arozarena just showing himself off—this is his second postseason and he already had ten postseason home runs plus an American League Championship Series MVP on his resume—proved insurance after all in the 5-0 Rays win.

That’s because the Red Sox were barely recovered from Arozarena’s heist when they suddenly loaded the bases in the top of the eighth on a leadoff single and a pair of one-out base hits bringing Rafael Devers to the plate against Rays reliever J.P. Feyereisen. One swing and the Red Sox might have been back in business, at maximum with their deficit cut to a single run.

But Feyereisen struck Devers out swinging on 1-2. He got former Ray Hunter Renfroe to foul out to first for the side. Then both sides went quietly in the bottom of the eighth and the top of the ninth.

Taylor didn’t comment after the game but Red Sox manager Alex Cora did. ““I think JT was actually paying attention,” Cora said of Taylor and the Arozarena theft, “but probably two strikes, he had Lowe with two strikes and probably the concentration was with the hitter. Just put him away, and Randy had an amazing job.”

Rays manager Kevin Cash credited Arozarena’s room reading. “We don’t practice that,” Cash said of the theft. “The game has evolved to where defending the hitter is so important. We do the same thing. It’s not the most comfortable thing in the world to pull the third baseman off, certainly with a left-handed pitcher who can’t see everything. But it ultimately comes down to his decision-making and his ability to react.”

Except that, between such things as thinking players dropping bunts for free base hits onto the open expanses and thinking thieves like Arozarena accepting when handed that big a larceny invitation, maybe those defensive overshifts might begin dissipating at last.

The Red Sox erred in handing Arozarena that much leeway even trying to defend against Lowe. They couldn’t afford that on a night they swung futilely against four Rays pitchers including rookie starter Shane McClanahan, who went five scoreless scattering five hits while the Red Sox went 1-for-7 with men in scoring position on the night.

And, on a night the Rays pecked and powered their way to the division series-opening win against Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez (who lasted only five outs) and Pivetta (Arozarena’s home steal went on Pivetta’s jacket), with three other Red Sox relievers plus the Rays’ stingy defense keeping them off the board despite more than a few hard hit balls.

My command wasn’t great at all on every pitch,” Rodriguez said postgame about Cora’s decision to pull him in the second inning. “So I’m not surprised. This is the playoffs. And you’ve got to go out there and do your job. If you don’t do it, you’re coming out of the game.”

It doesn’t look as good as you might think for the Red Sox in Game Two, either. Oh, you might think they’ll be back on track with Chris Sale scheduled to start, but Sale hasn’t prevailed against the Rays all year long.

With one theft of home Arozarena also came close to wiping out the memory of what he did to lead off the bottom of the fifth, swinging on a full count and sending Pavetta’s fastball just off the middle into the left field seats for the fourth Rays run. Making Arozarena the first man ever to hit one out and steal the plate in the same postseason game.

Pinocchio, you’re a real man now.

Arozarena’s come very far from that fateful October 2019 afternoon when, as a member of the Cardinals, he foolishly videoed Mike Schildt’s sore-winner rant and sent it viral enough, after those Cardinals blew the Braves right out of that postseason—only to get bludgeoned out themselves by the eventual World Series champion Nationals.

Three months later, the Cardinals traded Arozarena with Jose Martinez to the Rays for a couple of minor league spare parts. Martinez was supposed to be the big catch. But he faltered in the pan-damn-ically short 2020 season, after missing most of “summer camp” with COVID-19 himself, before the Rays dealt him to the Cubs at that year’s trade deadline.

I don’t know if the viral video—which he took down almost as fast as it went viral—helped compel the Cardinals to throw Arozarena in on that deal as much as their surplus of outfielders in the organisation did. But the Rays have no complaints yet.

He’s become their Mr. October. He’s picked up right where he left off last postseason. The only shock now would be if the Red Sox aren’t tempted heavily to swear out a warrant for his arrest on charges of grand theft.

The Blake and Brandon Show

Blake Snell, meet Sandy Koufax.

Realistically, the Tampa Bay Rays didn’t have to come into World Series Game Two wearing hazmat gear Wednesday night. Losing Game One didn’t mean rolling over and playing dead for the Los Angeles Dodgers no matter how formidable the Dodgers looked winning.

Especially on a comparative off night for the Mookie Monster, an on-night and then some for slumping Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe blasting his way out of the funk, an off-night for the Dodgers’ bullpen, and an off-the-charts night for Rays starting pitcher Blake Snell concurrent to a kind of typical night for the Rays’ bullpen.

All of which collaborated on a Series-leveling 6-4 Rays win in Globe Life Field that inspired the pandemically-mandated sparse live human crowd to make enough noise that they sounded like 111,000 instead of the approximate 11,000. Didn’t  that sound refreshing after an irregular season full of cardboard cutouts in the seats and canned noise in the ballparks?

Snell, the tall lefthander who sometimes resembles a tree waving in the heavy wind when he delivers, made World Series history in Game Two. He became only the second pitcher ever to pitch four no-hit innings with eight or more strikeouts in a Series game. He joins a Hall of Fame lefthander named Sandy Koufax, who did it in Game One of the 1963 Series. Rather splendid company to join.

What else did Snell have in common with Koufax? Going four and two-thirds innings before surrendering their first hits and staked concurrently to a 5-0 lead.

Koufax struck Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle out and got Roger Maris to pop out behind the plate. Then, he surrendered three straight singles before striking Hector Lopez out pinch-hitting for Hall of Famer Whitey Ford. This being 1963, the days of wine and roses, and nobody thinking pitchers threw inhuman pitch volumes, Koufax went all the way, struck a then-Series-record fifteen out, and probably threw about 160-180 pitches or so before he was finished.

Snell got Cody Belllinger to ground out to third baseman Joey Wendle behind shortstop in an infield shift and struck A.J. Pollock out swinging on one of his biting sliders. Then, he walked Enrique Hernandez, threw a 2-1 pitch to Chris Taylor that disappeared over the right field fence, walked Mookie Betts, and surrendered a base hit to Corey Seager on a hanging slider.

This being 2020, the days of whine and coronavirus, and especially about thirty times more smarts about pitching and what individual arms and bodies will or won’t allow, Rays manager Kevin Cash remembered his usual script and got Snell out of there in favour of Nick Anderson.  Anderson struck Justin Turner out after starting behind 2-0 for the side.

And more than somewhere in this favoured land, the sun is shining bright, the band is playing somewhere, even in isolation. But the old-school grumps fume not just over the “early” lift of Snell—whose 88 pitches in four and two thirds a) might have been 189 pitches if he’d gone nine in theory; and, b) were less efficient than Clayton Kershaw throwing ten less in an inning and a third more in Game One—but the “early” arrival of Anderson.

Isn’t he the actual or alleged closer? Who the eff brings his closer in in the goddam fifth? An older grump, to whom purists were as anathematic as bunts when it came to trying to, you know, win, has your answer.

Casey Stengel thought absolutely nothing of reaching for fresh pitchers as early as needed if the other guys got ornery enough. He did it with Joe Page to send that skintight 1949 pennant race to the absolute final day; he did it with Bob Turley in Game Seven of the 1958 World Series. “Casey’s reasoning,” his biographer Robert W. Creamer recorded, about that’ 49 game when Allie Reynolds walked his way into third-inning trouble before surrendering an RBI hit, “was that it was a ninth-inning situation. He needed a stopper, right now.”

Just ask Buck Showalter and Mike Matheny. Showalter blew a trip to a 2016 American League division series and Matheny lost a 2014 National League pennant because you were “supposed” to save your closer for the “save” situation. Even if he’s damn well the best pitcher on your staff that year.  Edwin Encarnacion’s Toronto Blue Jays and Travis Ishikawa’s San Francisco Giants would still like to thank Showalter and Matheny for going by The Book.

Koufax got off a lot more easily than Snell. Taylor’s blast made Game Two’s score the same as Koufax’s final score, 5-2. The ’63 Dodgers staked Koufax’s lead in the second inning with a double, two singles, and a three-run homer (John Roseboro), and in the third with an RBI single.

STATS Perform records that Snell was the 62nd pitcher in World Series history to take a no-hitter into the fifth and only the second who didn’t make it out. The first? Ralph Branca,  in 1947 Series Game One. After four no-hit innings of his own, the Brooklyn righthander got pricked by Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio with a leadoff single. Then it was walk, hit batsman, two-run double (by Johnny Lindell), walk, and day over for Branca as the Yankees went on to win.

The Rays Wednesday night had Snell in the black right out of the chute, especially against this year’s collection of Dodgers who make a normal point of abusing lefthanded pitching to the point of human rights violations. They had a .990 team OPS and one home run every 14.7 at-bats entering Game Two.

Tighten your slack, dial long distance.

Lowe picked an even better moment to break himself out of the horrific postseason batting slump that belied his standing as possibly the Rays’ best irregular season hitter. He batted with one out in the top of the first, got himself into a juicy 3-1 count against the Dodgers’ rookie opener Tony Gonsolin, and hit one over the center field fence.

If Dodgers manager Dave Roberts’s plan was to get two innings out of Gonsolin, the Rays reminded him of the best-laid plans that go to waste in the second. Manuel Margot walked on five pitches, stole second with Joey Wendle at the plate, tagged to third on Wendle’s deep center field fly out, and Roberts went to the pen sooner than probably planned.

Dylan Floro escaped trouble the hard way. Margot running on contact when Willy Adames grounded one to short was a dead pigeon at the plate. Floro really dodged trouble when Adames took off for second as ball three to Kevin Kiermaier went down and well enough away, heaving heavy relief when Seager kept the tag on Adames as he came off the base in his slide and the initial safe call was overturned.

Floro held fort in the third with a lot of help from Seager, who threw Kiermaier out on a grounder and caught Mike Zunino’s pop back in shallow left field. Roberts played the matches then and brought lefty Victor Gonzalez to take care of lefthanded Rays designated hitter Austin Meadows, who popped the first pitch to shallow left where Turner and Seager ambled out to short left but Seager raced past Turner for the catch.

The Rays struck again in the fourth. A one-out walk to Randy Arozarena, whose home run bat seems to have cooled off considerably over the first two Series games, and a force out at second thanks to Dodger second baseman Enrique Hernandez bobbling Ji-Man Choi’s first-pitch grounder. Roberts lifted Gonzalez for rookie Dustin May, and Margot more or less snuck one through the open right side away from the infield shift for a base hit.

But there was nothing sneaky about Wendle banging a two-run double past Betts and off the right center field wall. Then Lowe wrecked May and the Dodgers again in the fifth. With two outs, and Joe Kelly throwing in the Dodger bullpen, Meadows lined a long line single to right center and Lowe launched an 0-2 fastball off the top of the left field fence and gone.

The middle infielder carrying a grotesque 6-for-56/19-strikeout slump into Game Two couldn’t have broken out of that mire better if he’d sent three line drives right down Dodger throats. “Yeah, those felt really good,” he told reporters post-game. “It felt great to kind of get back and contribute to the team. They’ve been doing so well for the past month. It felt really good to get back and actually start doing stuff again.”

“Lowe” in his case rhymes with “wow,” which is what his bombs induced out of teammates and spectators alike. All he had to do to fix himself was touch base with his longtime hitting counselor Hunter Bledsoe and heed Bledsoe’s reminder to take the slack out of his batter’s box posture.

“The reason Brandon has a cool moment like this is because of the fact that he’s unwilling not to,” Bledsoe himself told ESPN’s Jeff Passan. “People can pout. They can blame. He just works, man. And at the end of the day, regardless of what happens, it’s a hard game. And you can trust in that. It might not be on the time schedule we want, but eventually it will pay off.”

Wendle’s sixth-inning sacrifice fly off Kelly provided the sixth Rays run. Dodger catcher Will Smith made it 6-3 when he rocked Anderson for a one-out launch over the left field fence in the bottom of the sixth. Seager spoiled Pete Fairbanks’s otherwise fine relief outing with a leadoff blast in the bottom of the seventh. But Rays lefthander Aaron Loup cleaned up with two outs the second of which caught Bellinger, of all people, looking at strike three just above the dead middle of the plate.

Loup got the first two outs of the ninth without breaking a sweat. He struck late-game entry Edwin Rios out and retired late-game Dodger catcher Austin Barnes on a fly out to left. Then Cash went to Diego Castillo and Taylor looked at two strikes before swinging for strike three and the game. Did you know this was the first time a relief pitcher ever nailed a one-out World Series save coming into the ninth with two outs and nobody on?

Dodger fans spent a lot of the evening wondering why Roberts didn’t open with Julio Urias. That’ll be Urias completely fresh to start Game Four, after Walker Buehler starts against Charlie Morton in Game Three. Roberts has had his blindspots during his postseason managing life but he’s not entirely addlepated.

Before anyone else gets any more ornery about Cash lifting Snell in the fifth, listen to Snell himself. “I’m not gonna be mad at Cash. He’s got to manage. I’ve got to play,” he said post-game. “But I know I have to do things better, to make it harder for him to come out and pull me. I made it easy there with the walk, the homer and then the walk. You know, you can’t blame him for that. He’s trying to win a World Series game.”

If Cash ends up having to try winning a Game Six, that’ll be Snell fresh and ready to go. That’ll also be Roberts and the Dodgers likely, for now, to face a choice between opening with Gonsolin or with May. Think about that, too.