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.

Attempted burglary

Manuel Margot is arrested in the bottom of the fourth by Patrolman Barnes Sunday night.

Manuel Margot missed home invasion by a hair in the bottom of the fourth. Or at least a hand.

Baseball’s first shot at stealing home in a World Series since the Anaheim Angels’s Brad Fullmer in the 2002 Series got thatclose to turning Game Five around in the Tampa Bay Rays’ favour Sunday night. And it wasn’t on the front end of a double steal attempt.

Catching Los Angeles Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw in a lefthander’s naturally disadvantageous vantage point, and with the left side of the infield unoccupied in a defensive shift, Margot thought burglary’s risk minimal with the reward promising to be great.

“t was 100 percent my decision,” the Rays left fielder said after the 4-2 Rays loss. “I thought it was a good idea at the time. I had a pretty good chance of being safe.”

Center fielder Kevin Kiermaier at the plate. Margot, who’d been taking leads as big as the law allows whenever he reached third all postseason long, jumped right after Kershaw heeded his first baseman Max Muncy and stepped off the pitching rubber.

Kershaw threw home, a little off line. Margot dove to the plate and almost made it. Dodger catcher Austin Barnes got a tag on his slightly raised sliding hand a split second before it touched the plate.

“I thought I was really close,” Margot said. “I really didn’t know where they touched me. [The Rays] didn’t challenge.” A challenge might have proven futile. What Margot did, though, was a kind of triumph despite his arrest for first degree burglary.

Kiermaier certainly thought so. “It was a gutsy move and it didn’t work out that time,” he said postgame. “Manny is a great baserunner. He’s not afraid to take risks. I didn’t have a problem with it . . . It takes a lot of guts to sit here and try that in the World Series. It just didn’t work out.”

Rays manager Kevin Cash wouldn’t object, either. “I think Manny felt he could just time him up . . . I think we try to do things and make decisions and allow players to be athletic,” he said postgame. “If Manny felt he had a read on it, for whatever reason, it’s tough for me to say yes or no, just because he’s a talented baserunner. He might be seeing something I’m not or can’t appreciate in the moment right there.”

Stealing home on a double-steal attempt is rare enough in the postseason. Stealing home straight, no chaser in the Series makes the double-steal as common as breakfast coffee. Maybe the most fabled attempt was Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson in Game One of the 1955 Series. The Hall of Fame catcher on the play eventually got to autograph a photo of it for President Barack Obama:

Yogi habitually autographed photos of that play with “He was out!” for the rest of his life. Robinson’s was only the fifth successful straight-no-chaser home theft in Series history. The other four?

Game Two, 1909—The Series billed heavily as a showdown between two of the Hall of Fame’s Inaugural Five: Detroit’s Ty Cobb and Pittsburgh’s Honus Wagner. The Dutchman generally out-played the Peach in the Series, but Cobb caught Pirates reliever Vic Willis so fixed on Tigers batter George Moriarty that the baby and his candy had a better chance against a thief than the Pirates did when Cobb stole home.

Game One, 1921—Yankees middle infielder Mike McNally doubled in the fifth, took third on a bunt, and helped himself to home on the house. He made it look almost so simple a man with a fractured leg could have gotten away with it. Sort of.

Game Two, 1921—Yankee legend Bob Meusel decided to return the favour. He had a little help from Giants catcher Earl Smith—when Smith dropped Al Nehf’s pitch around the plate–but, of course, you never look a gift Giant in the mouth.

Game One, 1951—Hall of Famer Monte Irvin led off in the top of the first with a two-out base hit and took third when Whitey Lockman whacked a ground-rule double. Giants manager Leo Durocher, who knew a few things about thievery (such as the telescopic sign-stealing scheme that enabled the Giants’ pennant race comeback and playoff force in the first place), decided Irvin should take the chance with Bobby Thomson at the plate. Yankee pitcher Allie Reynolds helped with his habit of looking down as he took the sign from Berra. Irvin stole home so readily it’s a wonder he didn’t take up bank robbery after his playing days ended.

There but for the grace of maybe four inches would Margot have pilfered his way into the books. Not only would he have had the mere sixth straight home invasion in Series history, his would have been the first such successful heist in any Series game later than Game Two.

The truly bad news for the Rays after Margot was cuffed and stuffed was Dodgers first baseman Max Muncy checking in at the plate in the top of the fifth, with two out and the Dodgers leading 3-2, and wrestling Rays starter Tyler Glasnow to a full count before blasting a fastball down Broadway almost halfway up the right field seats.

Kershaw, who passed fellow future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander to take the top seat on the all-time postseason strikeout list Sunday night, didn’t catch on to Margot’s burglary attempt until just about the last split second.

“That has happened to me before,” Kershaw said, filing his postgame police report. “I wasn’t really anticipating it, but I have talked to first basemen in the past. Muncy, I have talked to him about it as well like, ‘Hey, I look at him but when I come set I don’t really see the runner, so you got to yell at me if they start going.’ And he was yelling at me, step off step off step off. So instinctually I just did it. It was a big out for us right there.”

Beats a burglar alarm.

To err is human . . . and ties a Wild Series

Brett Phillips hits the single heard ’round the world Friday night in the ninth . . .

The unhappiest place on earth Saturday night simply had to be wherever Kenley Jansen, Chris Taylor, and Will Smith were after World Series Game Four ended. If you still find them there today, please resist the temptation to pound pairs of goat horns onto their heads. No matter how many real, aspiring, or alleged prose poets insist on leading you there.

Until further notice—and the way this Wild Series is rounding, bumping, and stumbling into shape, further notice could come as soon as Game Five—Jansen, Taylor and Smith were the three most deeply wounded or sick men on the planet who aren’t suffering COVID-19. They don’t need gasoline poured onto the flames inside their souls, even if Jansen might be more worthy of a critique than Taylor and Smith.

But Brett Phillips may also have been the single highest young man on the planet who needed no alcohol or marijuana to get there, among a crowd of Tampa Bay Rays teammates who probably thought they were somewhere near Phillips’s cloud after what he triggered in the bottom of the ninth.

“The Rays are going to ask for the biggest hit in the life of Brett Phillips,” purred Fox Sports play-by-play man Joe Buck, just before Jansen turned and delivered on 1-2. Nobody says Jansen intended to help Phillips answer in the affirmative. And Phillips, the Floridian who grew up a Rays fan in the first place, wanted nothing more than a simple line-moving base hit.

The ones you should feel for truly are Taylor and Smith. Jansen got into trouble not just by failing to make the pitch that ended up ending Game Four but by failing almost inexplicably to back up home plate, when his proper presence might have choked the Rays off at the pass enough to send the game to extra innings instead of an 8-7 Dodgers loss. Might.

The husky righthander intended anything but throwing Phillips a grapefruit to line softly but surely past the Dodgers’ right-side infield shift and into right center field for a base hit when the Rays were down to their final strike and a 3-1 Series deficit, with Clayton Kershaw looming to start Game Five.

But Taylor didn’t see the ball shoot off Phillips’s bat intending to let it carom off the fingers of his glove when he ran in to play the hop and had his eye just long enough on Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier rounding third that he cheated himself out of a clean play. And Taylor didn’t hit his cutoff man Max Muncy past first base with a perfect strike just so Muncy’s relay down the line to Smith could bounce off the edge of Smith’s mitt at the split second the catcher began turning to make a sweeping tag at the plate—unaware that trail runner Randy Arozarena wasn’t even close to scoring yet.

Smith certainly didn’t intend for Muncy’s relay to ricochet behind his right side and all the way to the track behind the plate area. He simply didn’t see Arozarena tripping into a tumblesault halfway down the third base line, scrambling back toward third, before realising the ball escaped in the first place.

“Obviously, Will can’t see that Arozarena fell,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts postgame. “Unfortunately, it was like that ‘unperfect’ storm. Just unfortunate.” The manager may have his flaws, but understatement isn’t one of them. This “unperfect” storm became a tsunami in almost a blink.

Arozarena recovered, dove, and pounded his hand on the plate nine times before he finally stood up with his team the winner. That ball might never have gone all the way back, though, if Jansen had backed up the plate the way pitchers are trained to a fare-thee-well to do.

Instead of saving the Dodgers’ hides and sending Game Four to extra innings, perhaps, Jansen inexplicably went toward the third base line almost in a jog. He stood next to it as Smith finished the ball-less sweep tag on a runner yet to arrive, and only as Arozarena finally shot toward the plate as Smith scampered back in a futile bid to retrieve the ball did Jansen run toward the plate.

Then he ran past it, and around the back of it while Arozarena landed with the winning run. He probably wanted to run through the clubhouse, out of the building, and into that Texas night and oblivion if he could have found it. Instead, Jansen faced the press, credited the hitters for doing their jobs, but couldn’t let himself own the backup lapse.

“Yeah, I mean, you know I tried to see, you know, what could I do,” Jansen said postgame. “I could’ve run a little bit more and then just see the play. But like I say, we came up short today, tomorrow’s another day and we’re going to come out there and give everything we’ve got and try to win ballgames.”

This oft-bruised relief pitcher usually faced up to disaster without flinching or ducking during a too-heavy host of Dodgers postseason calamities past. Now, he couldn’t bring himself at last to admit he’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time, when a little more hustle might have given the Dodgers at least one more inning to play, one more inning to make a Series advantage. Might.

How long before it really sinks in for one and all that the possible most insane finish to any World Series game ever came down to the last man sitting on the Rays’ bench? A guy who’d played in parts of four major league seasons, barely hit above the notorious Mendoza Line, and never hit a game-winning anything until the Rays were down to their final Game Four strike?

“When these guys were in the [2008] World Series,” the happy hero said postgame, “I was in eighth grade watching them. And now to be a part of it, helping these guys win a World Series game, it’s special.”

And how long before the “double Buckner” riffing on social media dissipates? Bad enough the late Bill Buckner was given too many years of unwarranted hell despite his moment of horror meaning only that his Boston Red Sox would get to play a Game Seven. Jansen, Taylor, and Smith’s moments of horror mean only that this Series is tied.

Jansen (74) could barely admit he’d blown it by not backing the plate when Smith lost the relay throw.

Nor was this quite ancient Dodgers catcher named Mickey Owen letting a Game Four-ending strike three become a passed ball, enabling Tommy Henrich to reach first starting a game-winning rally giving the Yankees a 3-1 Series lead instead of tying the Series at two each.

Short memories may be alien to Joe and Jane Fan who often leave you wondering what they crave more, the hero sandwich or a glass of goat’s milk. But they’re absolute requirements for a baseball player’s professional survival, as one reporter surely knew when asking Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner postgame just how that ninth-inning calamity could have happened while describing it in perfect thumbnail.

“You pretty much saw it,” Turner replied with a slightly dazed expression, before repeating the thumbnail in his own words and returning to standard boilerplate: show up, do the work, figure out a way to win tomorrow. Lucky for both teams that there would be a tomorrow.

The Dodgers thought for a moment that they’d send Clayton Kershaw out to the Game Five mound with a 3-1 Series advantage and just nine innings away from the Promised Land at last. Now Kershaw will pitch the biggest game of his life just to break a tie and leave Roberts to ponder whether to go for a bullpen Game Six or shove every one of his chips to the middle of the table with Walker Buehler starting on short rest.

As God and His servant Stengel are my witnesses, I swear to you that Rays manager Kevin Cash didn’t have Taylor misplaying Phillips’s line single or Smith mishandling the relay throw home in mind when he said and meant that, “eventually,” his team would get some bounces going their way.

A-ro-za-rena (as Buck pronounced it while he rounded third), his record-setting bombardier with nine this postseason, after a leadoff deficit-halving launch in the fourth, bouncing back up from that trip-and-tumble to shoot home with the game-winning run? Not even close to a flicker in Cash’s thinking.

“We’d tied the ballgame,” the manager said postgame, “so you’re feeling better, and then you’re sitting there saying, ‘My gosh, can this go any worse?’ There was so much that went through that game right there that I probably don’t even have the best recall right now.”

He did mean things like ten Rays hits including three homers and seven official runs batted in. He did mean bounces on balls the Rays put into play, including the broken-bat balloon shot Kiermaier—whose seventh-inning homer re-tied the game at six—lofted just past onrushing Dodgers second baseman Enrique Hernandez with one out in the ninth.

Maybe the only thing Cash could have predicted was Phillips having the fortitude not to let two strike calls that should have made the count 3-0 and not 1-2 rattle him. Subsequent replays including from straight above showed both those called strikes missing either side of the plate by a yarn thread. Veteran hitters are known to fume, sulk, or scream over such calls.

Phillips didn’t challenge plate umpire Chris Guccione. He didn’t demand immediate accountability from the Elysian Fields archangels. He just reset in the batter’s box, refused to take his eyes off Jansen’s incoming meatball just a little in off the middle at the belt and hit a no-doubt line drive that caught Taylor—moved from left to center field in a seventh-inning double switch—a little too far back before he ran in to play the ball.

The whole thing happened so swiftly it was easy to think that Phillips’s bat flew right out of his hands after he connected, instead of him dropping the bat almost by-the-way as he started running; and, that Smith actually lost the ball when he spun for the tag try. You might clean up at the sports book in the future if you bet on people remembering it just that way.

It might make you forget Turner setting a Series record in the top of the first, when he hit one out for the second straight Series game in the same inning. It might make you forget Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager meeting Arozarena in a five-way tie for the most single-postseason bombs in the third, with a blast so high and far that Rays starting pitcher Ryan Yarbrough didn’t even bother to turn and watch.

It might make you forget Seager tying Arozarena lasted exactly one full inning before Arozarena led off the fourth by hitting Dodgers starter Julio Urias’s first service over the right field fence to stand alone with nine. It might make you forget that the Rays’ oft-saluted bullpen actually had their worst struggle of the Series, after coming into Game Four with a collective ERA under two when taking over for Yarbrough’s games.

It might even make you forget what would have been the most surrealistic play of the night until Phillips hit that soft ninth-inning liner. When Muncy drove Seager home with the third Dodger run, tried advancing to second on the futile throw home, but overslid the base, popped right back up, and stumbled into Rays shortstop Willy Adames, who wrapped his arms around Muncy somehow as the pair fell back—with the ball still in Adames’s glove and Muncy’s foot off the base for the out.

This was also the night the Dodgers set a new single-postseason record by scoring their 54th run on two outs, and a night on which at least one run scored during nine consecutive half-innings, especially in the bottom of the sixth—when Brandon Lowe, whose Game Three looked as though his ferocious postseason slump returned, hit Dodgers reliever Pedro Baez for a three-run homer and the first Rays lead since winning Game Two.

Cash met the postgame press with the kind of wicked grin you expect to see from the joker who just snuck into a swanky cotillion and swiped the most choice bottle of hooch from the wet bar when everyone else was too busy preening to notice. Then a reporter asked him where in the Rays playbook was the play on which you tie and win off a double-ricochet pair of errors.

“We worked on that a lot in spring training over the last couple of years,” Cash said while rubbing the corner of his right eye. “We hadn’t put it in, but I’m glad it was able to play in our favour tonight.” Then he flashed the same hooch-swiping grin with which he started and laughed.

If Jansen, Taylor, and Smith laughed even once in Game Four’s aftermath, it was that they might not weep. For Taylor and Smith, especially, you might want to think about saving a hug for them instead of a slug. There are, after all, two more Series games to play at minimum.

Mortal men on immortal fields show their mortality only too often at the worst possible moments. We should call it being human enough. Unfortunately, in sports, the fans have their own perverse code: to err is human, to forgive is not always fan policy.

“Eventually, we’ll get some bounces”

Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier after watching Austin Barnes’s Game Three home run land on the other side of the fence Friday night.

All of a sudden, the Tampa Bay Rays look as human as an American League East champion can look. With two Los Angeles Dodgers manhandlings against them and a few too many vulnerabilities brought further into the light, they don’t even look like a World Series team going into Game Four.

Their vaunted bullpen and its deft management? Invisible in Games One and Three. Manager Kevin Cash almost inexplicably left them out of those games until it was too late to keep veteran starting pitchers Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton from being riddled.

Their penchant for hitting only when it’s timely? They’re 5-for-18 with runners in scoring position all Series long. They’re 4-9 in the two games they lost and 1-for-9 in the game they won. Figure that if you can.

The Rays better figure it and fix it fast enough, unless they’d like Game Five to be their elimination game—with Game One winner/maestro Clayton Kershaw scheduled to start—if they can’t solve Julio Urias and the Dodger pen in Game Four.

Morton admitted he was off his game starting Game Three. “I think I could have done a better job of slowing it down a little bit, especially early,” said the veteran righthander Friday night. “I just never got into a groove. I never really felt comfortable out there, which, even in playoff games, I’m able to eventually get there if I don’t have it early, and I just never did. Just combine that with who [the Dodgers] are with the bats and it made for a rough night.”

The Rays bumped, ground, nudged, bopped, and snuck their way through all three previous postseason sets, in two of which they needed to go the distance, and in an American League Championship Series they were in danger of blowing after shoving their way to a 3-0 series-opening lead.

At the end of that Game Three the Rays resembled a club of flying squirrels. At the end of this Game Three they barely resembled Bullwinkle J. Moose.

They’d previously manhandled the AL East, never mind being aided and abetted by the Boston Red Sox’s complete collapse and the Baltimore Orioles’s inability to sustain the success of a 12-8 record by 15 August. They even had a deceptive 8-2 irregular season against that beastly Empire Emeritus.

Cash planned to stack his Game Four lineup with four righthanded hitters at the top against the lefthanded Urias and seven overall. The top four would be Yandy Diaz (first baseman), Randy Arozarena (designated hitter), Mike Brosseau (third base), and Manuel Margot (left field).

Pay attention: Diaz and Margot are the most deceptively-prolific World Series hitters between both teams. Both have .400 Series batting averages and .900+ Series OPSes. They’re also carrying the emptiest .400 averages you’ll see. Diaz has a walk, no extra base hits, and no runs driven in. Margot has one extra base hit, three walks, five strikeouts, one walk, and three runs scored. More men on base ahead of them, please, Rays.

And Arozarena, whose home run hitting has been setting records and raising rackets, has one problem with his postseason power—only four of his eight home runs all postseason long either tied a game or put the Rays ahead. The deeper the postseason’s gone, the fewer fastballs the fastball-flogging Arozarena’s seen.

The only decent one he saw in Game Two took a long flight—with the Rays five runs behind and an out from the loss. The rookie’s being exploited for his inexperience at forcing pitchers to throw him something hittable or turning on any breaking ball with any considerable hang time in the zone.

Tying Nelson Cruz, Carlos Beltran, and Barry Bonds with eight bombs in a single postseason, or passing Derek Jeter for hits by a rookie in a single postseason (23), is well and good. But Arozarena knows what means more. “What really means more is the win,” he told the Tampa Bay Times, “to hopefully get some victories for the team.”

Lefthanded swinging second baseman Brandon Lowe will bat behind Margot. Everyone who thought his two-bomb/three-steak Game Two meant his horrific preceding postseason slump was history got disabused for the time being in Game Three. He went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, including one in the sixth with Meadows aboard on a base hit. His lone contact out was a fly to not too deep right for the second out of the ninth.

“We seem to be a much better club when we get early leads,” said Cash after Game Three. “Whatever we can do to get some runs early.” The Series bears him out so far. They scored first in Game Two and won. The Dodgers scored first in Games One and Three and won.

“There’s nothing left,” said Morton, “but to show up [Saturday] and bounce back.”

“Guys have been hitting the ball hard lately,” the manager said. They did in Game Three—when Walker Buehler wasn’t striking them out from here to eternity. “The luck hasn’t been there, but that’s all part of it. We have to stay consistent and put our work in. Eventually we’ll get some bounces.”

Eenie-meenie, chili-beanie, the spirits are about to speak!

Eventually had better pull up to the Game Four docks for the Rays Saturday night. Otherwise, it’s going to be the sad song these Dodgers sang for seven consecutive postseasons previous: “Eventually, we’ll win a World Series.”  The roof will be open at Globe Life Field. The Rays can’t afford to let it fall in.