Hold Cash accountable for the right reason

Blake Snell (center) leaving the mound. Cash should answer for bringing Anderson in, not taking Snell out.

I didn’t want to go here now. I thought I’d taken care of that two essays ago. But since it seems the mob won’t let go, I guess I’ll have to. Even if I have an audience of ten. So I’m going there: Lifting Blake Snell was not the biggest mistake Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash made in World Series Game Six Tuesday night.

He lifted the right pitcher but relieved him with the wrong pitcher. That’s what turned the Rays’ early 1-0 lead—on Randy Arozarena’s one-out-in-the-first smash into the right field seats—into the 3-1 Series-losing defeat.

If you are one of my ten readers, you’ve already read it, so bear with me just in case there’s an eleventh reader lurking. Snell was dealing through five full. The cards began getting just a little shaky in the bottom of the sixth, and it’s not as though Snell hasn’t been there before.

Over his entire career, Snell has been the way, oh, just about every starting pitcher worthy of the job has been: He’s easier to hit the third time around the order than he is the first. Makes no sense without the numbers? Here we go again:

Blake Snell Around the Order BA OBP SLG OPS
First Time .205 .280 .312 .592
Second Time .234 .316 .396 .711
Third Time .247 .329 .413 .742

Snell opened the bottom of the sixth getting Los Angeles Dodgers left fielder A.J. Pollock to pop out to short right center field, with Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe ambling out for the catch. Then, on 1-1, Snell hung a slider in the middle for Dodger catcher Austin Barnes to line off the middle into center for a base hit. But he’d started Barnes with a fastball that was slower than his peak speed just a couple of innings earlier.

Remember: Snell finished his evening with nine strikeouts, an awful lot of swing-and-misses, and having struck out the side in the first and the third. He also hadn’t gotten past the sixth inning all year long. And his third-time-around-the-order numbers, analyst Eno Sarris reminds us (just in case we’d known before), are 23 percent worse than the league average for starting pitchers.

And looming on deck as he dealt with and lost Barnes was Mookie Betts.

The Mookie Monster. The guy everyone else is still screaming struck out twice against Snell earlier in the evening and only hit .200 against lefthanders this year. This truncated, irregular-season year. (Which is why his mere 64 plate appearances against lefthanders this year don’t really mean all that much.) Betts is also the guy who hits .297 with an .888 OPS against lefthanders lifetime. It’s practically even-up in the splits with his numbers against righthanded pitchers: .302/.897.

Since the commentators during Game Six made such a point of mentioning it, it’s only right to mention it here, too: From his years with the Boston Red Sox, Betts had the most direct experience of any Dodger against Snell. Here’s the part they didn’t mention so far as I knew in the moment: Betts hit .304 with a .370 on-base percentage against Snell lifetime entering this postseason.

Cash wanted a righthander to match up with the righthanded Betts, even with Betts’s near-even split. He had righthander Nick Anderson up and throwing as Snell started the sixth. He was hoping for a return engagement by the Anderson who was lights out in nineteen irregular season gigs (0.55 ERA; 1.35 fielding-independent pitching rate; 0.49 walks/hits per inning pitched rate; 26 strikeouts and no walks in sixteen innings). Not to mention the Anderson who struck six Yankees out in four and two thirds division series innings.

He got, instead, the Anderson whose American League Championship Series ERA was a ghastly 8.31 while striking nobody out, walking three, and surrendering seven hits; and, whose postseason total entering Tuesday night was a 6.75 ERA and a 1.88 WHIP.

Cash should have thought sooner and better of Ryan Thompson, the rookie who’d been lights out in six ALCS and World Series games with his 1.93 postseason ERA (and zero ERA in the Series) and 1.18 postseason WHIP (and 0.38 Series WHIP), and who’d worked a one-walk, one-strikeout, fifteen-pitch ninth in Game Five two nights earlier. If not Thompson, then Diego Castillo would have been a viable option even with his 3.38 Series ERA, but Thompson really was Cash’s best hand among the Rays’ righthanded bulls.

Maybe you should listen, too, to Anderson himself. “Workload, 2020 season, the whole thing is just crazy, honestly,” he told reporters post-Game Six. “Not having a normal routine, lifting, the season, everything — it’s been crazy. I didn’t feel as good as I would have liked to, but it’s the big leagues; you’re not going to feel good every time. I was still confident. It wasn’t the situation, it wasn’t being in the World Series or anything like that. Not a lot of gas.”

Anderson himself admitting he wasn’t feeling a hundred percent or maybe even seventy-five percent. Cash read Snell properly as Snell began tiring but he read Anderson not at all. Thompson wasn’t even a Game Six rumour, never mind a topic.

The screamers roasting Cash for hooking the hot hand didn’t stop think about the hotter hand. Not in the moment, not when Betts ripped a double down the left field line, not when Anderson wild-pitched Barnes home with Series MVP Corey Seager at the plate, and not when Betts slid home ahead of a throw down from first on Seager’s hopping ground out.

Please, let’s not go there again about “heart” and “character” and “fortitude.” Do you really want to be reminded how often men and teams stand and play proud, with all the heart, character, and fortitude you can ask for, and then some . . . and still get sunk crossing the Jordan to the Promised Land?

Do you still really want to let Snell hang in there to face the Mookie Monster? The net result might tell you yes, but the deepest and most objective look says no. Cash’s mistake was Anderson. Lucy, that and only that is where the manager and his front-office overseers got some splainin’ to do.

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.

A calm, objective look at the Mookie Monster

Mookie Betts about to take a low-five from third base coach Dino Ebel after his sixth-inning Game One bomb.

The Mookie Monster is catching more than a few waves of adulation and hype lately. Making three National League Championship Series-altering or sustaining catches in the final three games, then doing something even Babe Ruth never achieved in a single World Series game, does that for you.

“He does things on a baseball field that not many people can do,” says Game One winning pitcher Clayton Kershaw, “and he does it very consistently, which I think separates him from other guys.”

On Tuesday  night, Betts let a couple of other Dodgers take the defensive spotlight gladly in return for drawing one walk, stealing two bases, and hitting a home run. Ruth drew three walks, off one of which he stole second and third, in Game Two of the 1921 World Series.

This Series is only one game old, and Betts hit as many home runs Tuesday night as Ruth hit in the entire ’21 Series—one. No, we’re not comparing Mookie Betts to Babe Ruth just yet, other than to say he has something else in common with the Bambino.

Betts, too, is a former Boston Red Sox star. Betts was traded away while Red Sox Nation was still seeing him in prime time; Ruth was sold before Red Sox fans got to see his complete transition to full-time position playing and his two prime periods—in a very different game—of 1920-24 and 1926-31. And Red Sox Nation isn’t the only baseball outpost still wondering just what the Red Sox were thinking when dealing Betts.

The Ruthian mythology held for too long that then-Red Sox owner Harry Frazee dumped Ruth purely to finance his musical hit No, No, Nanette. (How a 1919 sale finances a 1925 stage production should have escaped thinking people.) Frazee did need money, but not for one of his theatrical productions. He also didn’t need the headaches that came with Ruth, behaving even then like a law unto himself.

Fast forward a century. A very different Red Sox ownership is about as financially challenged as the Saudi royal family. They’re facing Betts hitting free agency after the 2020 season and making little apparent effort to sign him. Betts himself spoke often enough about pondering his market value in that 2020 free agency class. The Red Sox didn’t want to lose him for nothing in return.

Fair enough. But why the Red Sox made no effort to keep their arguable franchise face will be debated at least as long as the old and discredited Curse of the Bambino endured. No matter what the Red Sox didn’t do otherwise last winter to keep the team from collapsing to the basement even in a pandemic-altered year, the Olde Towne Team isn’t likely to go even half as long before its next World Series triumph as they did between selling Ruth and 2004.

“The Red Sox’s payroll issues were not inconsequential,” writes The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, never mind that allowing that the Red Sox doing nothing to re-tool their pitching staff probably did as much to sink them as trading Betts. “The team needed to infuse young talent. But every rational argument club officials make pales in comparison to the importance of keeping a homegrown star, a franchise player, a role model for your organization and a potential Hall of Famer.”

Their loss is the Dodgers’ gain, even if the Red Sox did get some decent young talent in return and rid themselves, while they were at it, of the rest of David Price’s contract before Price’s decline added further miseries. Betts already had a taste of World Series conquest in 2018, even though he didn’t hit well at all while playing solid defense that postseason.

“He does all the little things right,” said Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger to Rosenthal, Bellinger having delivered a couple of key postseason hits and defensive gems himself. “You can really learn from that when a guy’s that good and wants to win and continues to do the small things that go unnoticed by a lot of people. It’s really special.”

The guy Betts is being compared to most now hasn’t even gotten more than one quick postseason taste in his rookie season. The Los Angeles Angels aren’t exactly in the poorhouse financially. They’re in the poorhouse in baseball terms, though, since they seem almost terminally unable to build a team their franchise player and the game’s best all around, still, can be proud of.

Once the Mookie Monster cranked his act into overdrive starting in NLCS Game Five, the concurrent subject became Mike Trout, his lack of postseason credentials, and even why Trout is therefore an overrated hype. The foolishness there only begins with the roll of Hall of Famers who either never got to strut in the postseason, came up too short when they got several chances, but still shook out as their generations’ best.

It only continues with ignoring that Trout wasn’t responsible for such ultimately backfiring moves as the Albert Pujols contract—which became an albatross mostly because of Pujols’s injury issues impacting his once-unshakable plate discipline—and the utter failure to develop credible pitching on both ends of the game. That may or may not have only begun with doing little to nothing to keep Zack Greinke beyond his second-half 2012 rental.

Trout’s loyalty to the organisation that brought him forward is nothing but admirable in a business for which loyalty is and has always been a disposable commodity. The only difference between pre- and post-free agency “loyalty” is that pre-free agency teams were under no such obligation and liberal to the point of libertine when it came to “loyalty” to most of their players.

A guy doesn’t sign an extension equivalent to the economy of a small country if he thinks he’s been done dirty off the field. Even nice-guy Trout has his limits, though. He said not too subtly this year that he’s tired of the Angels losing. But when the game’s all-universe player says he’s fed up with falling short and shorter, will the Angels listen at last?

The show Betts is putting on this postseason is as staggering as the 99 Cent Store-budget Tampa Bay Rays bumping, grinding, flying, and diving their way to the American League’s best irregular season record and into the World Series in the first place. But if Betts’s partisans really want to go there with the Trout comparisons, well, you asked for it.

Betts has seven seasons in the Show. Here they are next to Trout’s first seven. First, looking conventionally:

First Seven Seasons BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
Mookie Betts .301 .373 .522 .895 135
Mike Trout .310 .420 .579 1.000 178

Well, I tried to warn you. And, in absolute fairness, Betts’s line is astonishing for a leadoff hitter, which I’ll take a different crack at shortly.

Now—sorry, can’t resist—look at the pair using my Real Batting Average metric, which I think gives you the complete look at a player at the plate. (It also does what the traditional batting average fails to do: treats hits as they should be treated, not treating all hits as having equal value—which they don’t.) Total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances:

Real Batting Average PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Mookie Betts 3875 1786 395 26 33 21 .583
Mike Trout 2012-2018 4538 2171 684 86 43 63 .671

Again, Betts has a remarkable profile for a leadoff hitter. But granted that distinction versus a guy who bats second much of the time and third almost as much of the time, the Mookie Monster isn’t quite the Millville Meteor just yet. (Since you went there: Betts does have a Most Valuable Player award—to Trout’s three that should have been four.)

On the other hand, it might be a lot more prudent and accurate to compare Betts to the first seven seasons of another leadoff man of certain renown.

Real Batting Average PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Mookie Betts 3875 1786 395 26 33 21 .583
Renowned Leadoff Man 4445 1639 674 24 20 23 .535

The leadoff man of certain renown is Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson. Did you figure for even one milli-second that there but for the grace of his life of crime on the bases would Henderson come up short of Betts? That the Mookie Monster in his first seven seasons is actually better at the plate than the Man of Steal?

Maybe you didn’t before, but you ought to now. Especially since Betts has a slightly better knowledge than Henderson of what to do when his bat takes unexpected time off and becomes a one-man version of the Rays’ collection of aerialists, acrobats, high-wire walkers, and tumblers.

It’s enough to make the Dodgers’ spanking new $396 million man the biggest bargain of the year. Just don’t ask Betts. All he’s ready to do is tell you the most important thing he did in Game One, and it wasn’t the jolt he hit the other way that landed in the right field seats in the bottom of the sixth. For him, it was the double steal that led to him scoring on an offline throw from first base an inning earlier.

“I think it just kept the line moving,” he told reporters. “It was a good play there, and I’ve gotta give credit to the hitters that came up after for driving in runs and keeping constant pressure. It just showed that we don’t have to hit home runs to be successful.”

Not even when it’s the aggregation that led the National League in bombs this irregular season and last full season. It ought to make for one hell of a World Series show going forward.

The Rays off script, the Dodgers on top

Clayton Kershaw opened the 2020 World Series with more than a flourish.

Somehow, no matter what the pandemic threw down in baseball’s way, we managed to arrive at the World Series. Somehow, the game’s 99 Cent Store from Tampa Bay bumped, pole vaulted, and sky dove to a Series against the game’s Amazon from Los Angeles.

In Globe Life Field, the brand-new playpen of the Texas Rangers. Where the turf is artificial, the roof makes it resemble the hangar for a Boeing 747, and you can just can all the hoo-ha about the wonders of a neutral-site World Series.

The Dodgers entered with a sort-of home field advantage.They’ve been playing at Globe Life from their National League division series forward. With the pandemic-inspired divisional geography schedule on the irregular season, the Rays never got to play the Rangers even once.

They’ve been been playing there from their division series forward. With the pandemic-inspired divisional geography schedule this irregular season, the Rays never got to play the Rangers even once. And the Dodgers sure took advantage of that inadvertent home-field advantage of a sort Tuesday night.

They waited out a hard labouring Rays starter Tyler Glasnow, aided and abetted by Rays manager Kevin Cash forgetting his well-tested plot, then flipped their merry-go-round to cruising speed from the fourth through the sixth innings, and beat the Rays in Game One, 8-3.

Clayton Kershaw did more than his share starting for the Dodgers. With the continuing questions about his overall postseason life of bad fortune, Kershaw brought the best of his new self to bear, his sliders out-numbering his fastballs, striking out eight through six and getting nineteen misses on 38 swings against him for the highest single-game whiff rate of his entire major league life.

“Kershaw was dealing,” Cash said postgame. “You see why he’s going to the Hall of Fame one day.”

What nobody could see clearly was why Cash pushed his luck with Glasnow labouring to survive, his eight strikeouts negated by six walks—including the leadoff pass to Max Muncy opening the bottom of the fourth to start the Dodgers’ fun—and with only a 2-1 deficit against him when he came out of it.

Will Smith grounded Muncy to second almost right then and there. But Cody Bellinger—the man who rang the Atlanta Braves bell so resoundingly in the seventh National League Championship Series game—hit the first pitch into the Dodger bullpen in right center field. After walking Chris Taylor to follow and wild-pitching Taylor to second, Glasnow was lucky to escape with his and the Rays’ lives on a pair of back-to-back strikeouts.

That’s where Cash moved against his own successfully established grain. The Rays live and prosper on not letting the other guys get third cracks at their pitchers and thus keeping their pitchers from falling into position to fail or get failed. They play that game better than most and rolled the American League’s best irregular season record for their trouble.

Cash withstood the alarms blasted after he lifted Charlie Morton in American League Championship Series Game Seven after five and two-thirds efficient innings when trouble brewed with the Rays up 3-0. The move aligned perfectly to the Rays’ usual M.O. and it paid off with a pennant.

On Tuesday night, though, he left Glasnow in for the fifth despite 107 pitches to that point. With Ryan Yarbrough throwing in the Rays bullpen, Glasnow walked Mookie Betts on four straight balls following an opening strike. Over the past three seasons including a 34-start span, Glasnow had only thrown 100 pitches or more in a game three times, and Tuesday night wasn’t exactly one of his prime outings.

Cash still didn’t make a move after the walk to Betts. Room enough for the Dodgers to boot the merry-go-round. Glasnow walked Corey Seager after Betts stole second without a throw on a low pitch. He struck Justin Turner out, somehow—except that Betts and Seager delivered a near-textbook double steal.

Then Max Muncy bounced one right to Rays first baseman Yandy Diaz. Diaz threw home. This was supposed to be one of those plays the Rays’ usually larger-than-life defense executes with an arm missing and half asleep. Except that Diaz’s throw arrived up the third base line and Betts slid into the plate while Seager took third and Muncy stood safe at first.

“The at-bat with Muncy right there,” Cash said post-game, “just was hoping it felt like [Glasnow] was the best guy to get a strikeout.” Not on a night when only 58 of Glasnow’s 117 total pitches were strikes. Glasnow himself acknowledged trying to rush things a little too much in the beginning, but once he adjusted that he thought his mechanics were off.

“I have to execute pitches better and hold runners better,” he said, admitting the latter is probably his weakest attribute. “Later in the game, I wasn’t really able to throw anything for a strike except the heater. I think the changeup, I probably should have thrown that a little bit more . . . That curve ball, later on, I really didn’t have much feel for it.”

Smith knocked Seager home and Muncy to third with a jam-shot single to center. Finally Cash brought in Yarbrough, a good relief pitcher but a young man whose career to date includes that he’s vulnerable pitching with one out and rare (for him) inherited runners but better when he starts an inning clean.

The lefthander got rid of the lefthanded Bellinger on a pop up to third, but righthanded Chris Taylor lined Muncy home with a clean single to left and pinch-hitter Enrique Hernandez sent Smith home by shooting a base hit between short and third.

Yarbrough escaped with no further damage. Cash sent Josh Fleming out for the sixth. The Mookie Monster sent his first pitch into the right field seats. An infield pop out later, Turner and Muncy doubled back-to-back. Fleming didn’t surrender another run through his next two innings worth of work but that came under the too-familiar heading of taking one for the team.

Not that the Rays left things uninteresting on their end. They chased Kershaw’s relief Dylan Floro with one out in the seventh. Manuel Margot singled right through the middle infielders and Joey Wendle drove on to left center that Bellinger gave a great chase until the ball hit off the heel of his glove, setting the Rays up with second and third.

Then Cash sent Ji-Man Choi to bat for Willy Adames. Dodger manager Dave Roberts brought in lefthander Victor Gonzalez to face the lefthanded Choi. Cash pulled Choi for division series hero Mike Brosseau. And Brosseau lined Margot home with a single to right with Wendle stopping at third. He didn’t stay long. Kevin Kiermaier—whose fifth-inning solo home run was his first hit since being hit by a pitch in ALCS Game Three—lined a single to right to send Wendle home.

It was the final Rays homecoming of the night, but it almost wasn’t. Rays catcher Mike Zunino lined a missile right through the box that Gonzalez snatched just sticking his glove to his right, the ball’s force spinning him right into position to throw and double up Brosseau scrambling back to second. A hair off line or the glove missing by a hair and that missile might have been an RBI single with the Rays still swinging. Might.

The Rays tried to flip their own merry-go-round switch and the Dodgers succeeded in throwing a stick into the motor belt, with Pedro Baez and Joe Kelly finishing up throwing the spotless final two innings.

It was also a night to make history. Kershaw nailed his 201st lifetime postseason strikeout, moving him into second place behind his fellow likely Hall of Famer-to-be Justin Verlander. Betts became the first player in World Series history to homer, steal, and score twice in the same Series game. Cash became the first Little League World Series player to manage in the World Series when he grew up.

“It’s great to get the Series going with a win,” said Kershaw to reporters after the game. “That’s the biggest thing, for us, is to get going. Get that first game—it’s always important to get that first game of a series. Just for me, personally, it’s awesome, you get to pitch well and get a win in a World Series. Like I said, I’m just thankful for another opportunity.”

Bellinger going deep looked like a man who shook off the shoulder dislocation his NLCS bombing brought when it happened during the dugout celebration. He took no chances this time.”I said it before the game,” he told reporters post-game. “If I hit one today, I’m not touching anyone’s arm. I’m going straight foot.”

Since he hit the first Dodger bomb of the Series, Bellinger got to lead the first such dance. Appropriately. And you thought last year’s World Series champion Dancing Nationals knew how to bust moves and cut rugs.

Ask not for whom the Bellinger tolls

You call that a bat flip??

If Cody Bellinger’s going to be the long distance October hero, he’s going to have to work on those bat flips. The billiards cue-like toss he offered up in the bottom of the seventh Sunday night would get him laughed out of the parlours of our Jose Bautistas and Willson Contrerases.

Hit what proves to be the pennant-winning home run in the bottom of the seventh? C’mon, bro, don’t hold back. Give us the real deal. Give us that flip that needs a meal and a stewardess on board. Show Contreras his upper deck-high flip was just a little ring toss by comparison. Trust us, Cody, it won’t hurt.

Especially not after Mookie Betts, who thought nothing of breaking into the happy dance after scaling back-turned up the right field wall to snatch a possible triple from Marcell Ozuna Saturday, forgot to bust a move or ten after he flat robbed Freddie Freeman of a home run with another running, back-scaling, up-the-wall catch in the fifth Sunday night.

It wouldn’t have hurt, annoyed, angered, or outraged anyone any deeper than the Atlanta Braves wounded themselves when they TOOTBLANned* their way out of a fourth-inning rally that might have put them beyond the Los Angeles Dodgers’ reach in National League Championship Series Game Seven.

Bellinger’s eighth-pitch drive into the right field seats off Atlanta reliever Chris Martin was at least as dramatic as the seventh-inning blast he launched in Game Seven of the 2018 NLCS. It won’t supplant Kirk Gibson’s legless Game One-winning launch in the 1988 World Series. Bellinger has an entire World Series to come to show he has that kind of drama in him.

Nobody would put it past him. Yet. He picked the perfect moment to shake off a season during which he waged war with his own plate mechanics and an NLCS during which it looked like he’d spend his entire time running into the same kind of hard outs that drove Houston’s Alex Bregman out of his gourd in the American League Championship Series.

Be very afraid, Tampa Bay Rays. These Dodgers have a few boppers to match your own Randy Arozarena. They hit a staggering sixteen home runs as a team in the entire NLCS. That’s as many as some teams hit in an entire month.

Bellinger was preceded by Enrique Hernandez, pinch hitting for Joc Pederson to lead off the bottom of the sixth, against A.J. Minter, the rookie Brave who opened so magnificently in Game Five (striking out seven of nine batters). Hernandez worked Minter to an eighth pitch and sent it over the left center field fence to tie Game Seven at six.

You Rays may also need all of your band of defensive aerialists, acrobats, high-wire walkers, and human cannonballs to counteract one all-in-one Betts. The Dodgers can slap and flap the leather with the best in the business, but they’re not exactly the Flying Wallendas or even the 1969 Mets. Except for the guy wearing number 50 patrolling right field.

Who will offer absolution to the left side of the Braves infield that got themselves caught on the wrong side of a two-for-the-price-of-one baserunning mishap that may have been Sunday night’s true game-turner?

If it comforts Dansby Swanson and Austin Riley any, their fraternal flop didn’t exactly put paid to this NLCS the way Babe Ruth’s beyond-insane, out-by-five-miles stolen base attempt ended the 1926 World Series in the St. Louis Cardinals’ favour. Close enough but not quite the coffin nailer enough will try to secure it.

Swanson and Riley are the guys you really feel for after the Dodgers’ nerve-exposing 4-3 win. They picked the absolute wrong night to become two Lonnie Smiths for the price of one. No, I rescind that, right here and now.

In that 1991 World Series, inside the Richter-scale-busting racket of the old, gone, distinctly unlamented Metrodome, Smith got fooled just long enough by Minnesota Twins keystone Chuck Knoblauch and Greg Gagne, catching Smith’s sight running from first and performing a pantomime double play . . . when Terry Pendleton ripped a rocket into the left center field gap that should have sent Smith home with a scoreless tie-breaking Game Seven run.

Corey Seager pronounces Austin Riley and the Braves’ fourth-inning rally DOA.

Unfortunately for Swanson, Riley, and the Braves, the Dodgers weren’t trying any trickery Sunday night. They were down 3-2 in the fourth and trying merely to hang in and find a way to revive and prosper. They weren’t even expecting Swanson and Riley to be on second and third in the first place.

They got there because Dodger reliever Blake Treinen—in to clean up a small mess left behind by Tony Gonsolin that resulted in the third Braves run—wild pitched them from their original first and second stations. And they’d gotten those courtesy of Gonsolin serving Ozzie Albies an RBI single.

Now Treinen got Braves left fielder Nick Markakis to ground one to Dodger third baseman Justin Turner playing well enough down the line. Turner fired home and caught Swanson dead about six feet from the plate. Catcher Will Smith threw back to Turner, who took a flying leap like Superman taking off in flight to tag Swanson—with Riley, perhaps insanely, trying for third anyway after initial hesitation.

The problem was Dodger shortstop Corey Seager backing up the Swanson rundown. Trying to take the base under guard that heavy might get you points for chutzpah but DOA otherwise. As Riley was when he got tagged and bagged. As the Braves were from that point forward.

“It was huge,” lamented Braves manager Brian Snitker post-game. “It’s hard to score runs in the postseason. The infield’s back so you see the ball up the middle. That’s where normally we’re a really good baserunning team. We just did the fundamental things wrong.”

How can you say the Braves died with a 3-2 lead? Center fielder Cristian Pache grounded out to shortstop to finish killing that fourth-inning rally. Then Dodger relievers Treinen in the fifth, Brusdar Graterol in the sixth, and Julio Urias in the seventh through ninth kept the Braves to one lonely baserunner (a sixth-inning walk to Albies) the rest of the game.

The Braves will too often note and too long remember that they slapped an early 3-0 lead out of Dodgers opener Dustin May and then Gonsolin. They’ll remember May walking Ronald Acuna, Jr. and Freeman on eight consecutive pitches and Marcell Ozuna singling Acuna home in the top of the first. They’ll remember Swanson greeting Gonsolin rudely by hitting a 1-1 pitch over the left field fence leading off the second.

But they’ll also remember the Dodgers solving starter Ian Anderson’s changeup early enough to lay off it and start hitting some hard balls around, just biding their time until they could pry through. They’ll remember Smith hitting Anderson’s inside curve ball for a two-run single in the third. They’ll never forget Hernandez and Bellinger ringing the bells.

“It’s just the mentality we have,” Seager said postgame. “Show up that day, win that day. This team does a very good job being in the moment. You gotta stay in that moment, be in the moment and let the chips fall where they may. Right now, they’re falling our way.”

Entering Game Seven the Braves scored one less run all irregular year long than the Dodgers scored. Exiting Game Seven and the postseason they still ended up scoring one less run overall—but six less in the NLCS. They may remember trading Game Three and Four blowouts and reaping the sweet fruits of Bryse Wilson shaking off an irregular season’s 4.02 ERA to pitch like a Hall of Famer starting Game Four.

They may also remember they’ve been pushed out of postseasons with far heavier blows than they took Sunday night. But they might also want to remember that they shook off that nasty 13-1 blowout by the Cardinals in last year’s division series to take a second consecutive possession of first place in the National League East, no matter how bizarrely truncated 2020 was.

The Braves will be back. Count on it. They may even have forged the beginnings of a beautiful postseason rivalry with the ogres from the National League West. It’ll just have to keep until next season. Sure it would have been lovely to see the Braves tangle with the Rays in the World Series. Southeast rising.

But won’t it be a little more fun to think that the Tampa Bay Davids might have a shot at taking down the Los Angeles Goliaths? With or without these Dodgers’ recent snakebitten history, that ought to be fun, fun, fun—until or unless Daddy takes the slingshot away.

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* TOOTBLAN—Thrown out on the bases like a nincompoop. Invented originally for former Chicago Cubs infielder Ryan Theriot, whose baserunning skills were described politely as less than average.