When COVID-19 forced an early end to spring training in the second week of March, no one knew how Major League Baseball would get to this point.
Owners and players could not agree on how an abbreviated season would look like, raising the possibility that the 2020 season would be wiped out entirely.
But the sides settled on a 60-game season and an expanded playoff format. Players reported for summer camp and pushed through a season like no other.
There were twists and turns, as the Cardinals and Marlins dealt with coronavirus outbreaks. Cleveland pitchers Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac broke protocols and paid the price, with Clevinger being traded away.
But MLB got through the season.
After all of it — the truncated season, battling outbreaks, rescheduling games, shortening doubleheaders, expanding rosters, setting up playoff bubbles in southern California and Texas then watching two teams reach the postseason despite losing records — the best two teams in baseball will square off in the World Series.
The Dodgers and Rays open the World Series on Tuesday at new Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. Payroll-wise, it’s a David-vs.-Goliath matchup, as the Dodgers were second in payroll this season, the Rays were 28th. That did not stop Tampa Bay from assembling a quality pitching staff with a high-end bullpen.
It should be a fascinating series, as the Rays make their second World Series appearance ever while the Dodgers return for the third time in four seasons — but still looking for their first title since 1988.
All eyes will be on Dodgers lefthander Clayton Kershaw, the three-time NL Cy Young Award winner who is 1-2 with a 5.40 ERA in two World Series appearances, But eyes should be on righthanders Walker Buehler and Dustin May, who have terrific stuff. Kershaw will start Game 1, and the Dodgers likely will work the rotation to make sure Buehler makes two starts. Lefthander Julio Urias could be the Game 4 starter. Tampa Bay should throw Tyler Glasnow, Blake Snell and Charlie Morton, with Morton set up to start a Game 7 if needed. Morton is the first pitcher in postseason history with three Game 7 victories. Lefthander Ryan Yarbrough could start Game 4. Either team could use the bullpen/opener strategy. Edge: Rays.
There’s a major ex-Twins factor in this World Series. The Dodgers have Brusdar Graterol, who was traded for Kenta Maeda in February. The Rays could have three former Twins in John Curtiss, Aaron Slegers and Nick Anderson, although Anderson, a Brainerd High School product, never made it past Class AAA Rochester. He had a 0.55 ERA during the regular season but has been touched up a little in October. Kenley Jansen, the longtime Dodgers closer, is not the pitcher he used to be. Los Angeles also has two nasty lefties in Jake McGee and Victor Gonzalez. Tampa Bay has more firepower in the bullpen, including righthanders Pete Fairbanks and Diego Castillo and lefthander Jose Alvarado. Edge: Rays.
The Dodgers’ Max Muncy hit .192 with a .720 on base-plus-slugging percentage during the regular season and has pretty much carried the struggles into the postseason. The Rays have Ji-Man Choi, who also didn’t have a good regular season but has hit better in the playoffs and is not afraid to draw a walk. Yandy Diaz could see time here, too. Edge: Rays.
Kiké Hernandez has played here most of the season for Los Angeles. But the Dodgers could put Chris Taylor, who is better offensively, at second during the World Series. Both are versatile defenders who could move around during games. Brandon Lowe was the Rays’ best offensive player during the regular season but has been awful in the playoffs. Mike Brousseau could play here, too. Edge: Rays, once Lowe finds his swing.
Five home runs in a week is a pretty good week. The Dodgers have one of the best offenses in baseball and Corey Seager is in the middle of it. The Rays might have to pitch around him. Willy Adames is solid defensively and provided some offense for the Rays during the regular season but is batting.132 in the postseason. Edge: Dodgers, and it’s not close.
Justin Turner has not hit well in the postseason but remains a tough out at the plate who can get hot at any time. Joey Wendle has been playing third in the postseason for Tampa Bay while Yandy Diaz gets time at DH and 1B. Wendle’s .225 postseason average is fourth-best among Rays regulars. Oof. Edge: Dodgers.
The Dodgers’ Will Smith is batting .222 with four walks and 14 strikeouts in 12 playoff games. He batted .179 with no walks in the NLCS, but he did hit a big three-run homer in Game 5 Veteran Mike Zunino has helped the Rays’ cause by hitting four postseason home runs while batting .216 with 18 strikeouts. Edge: Dodgers
The Dodgers will use A.J. Pollock in left but also has Joc Pederson to slide out there as well. Rays rookie Randy Arozarena has been the player of the postseason, swatting seven hom runs and putting up a ridiculous .855 slugging percentage. The Dodgers might elect to let someone else beat them. Edge: Rays.
Perhaps his winning home run Sunday will be the spark that fires up Cody Bellinger, who tailed off in 2020 after belting 47 homers in his 2019 NL MVP season. Kevin Kiermaier is a wonderful center fielder but is not hitting and is nursing a sore hand after getting hit by a pitch. Edge: Dodgers
Mookie Betts has hit, drawn walks and stolen bases. He broke the Braves’ hearts with two outstanding catches during the NLCS. He has been everything the Dodgers expected. The Rays’ Manuel Margot has not been shabby himself, hitting five home runs in the postseason. But he’s not in Betts’ atmosphere. Nobody is. Edge: Moooookie.
Pederson is using the postseason to forget about a poor regular season, batting .375 with one long home run and earning starts at DH against righthanded pitchers. Austin Meadows got healthy during the playoffs, but the former All-Star is batting .114 in 10 October games. Both players will get time in the outfield at times during the series. Edge: Dodgers.
The Dodgers averaged exactly one run a game more than they Rays during the regular season. While the Rays definitely have the arms to slow the Los Angeles offense, they are batting .209 as a team in the postseason and simply don’t have the depth the Dodgers do. Expect low-scoring games but for the Dodgers to generate more run-scoring opportunities — and cash in on them. Tampa Bay’s best chance is to push it to seven games and get the ball to big-game Charlie Morton. Prediction: Dodgers in six.