This is the end of the line. We’ve had our fill of playoff baseball — a large, tasty helping of dramatic and breathtaking moments with a side of controversy to boot. We’ve seen over-the-wall home run robberies and off-field feuds. We’ve witnessed storylines so ludicrous and unlikely that they may never happen again. In a year when nothing has seemed certain, playoff baseball has made good on its perennial promise of a truly enthralling October.
With an expanded 16-team format and the addition of a best-of-three wild-card series, this year’s MLB postseason was set up for unpredictability and upsets galore. The Miami Marlins and the Houston Astros exceeded all playoff expectations, with the former sweeping the favored Cubs in the wild-card round and the latter coming within one victory of an American League pennant despite winning fewer than half of their regular-season games.
This was built to be the year of the underdog, yet here we are at the checkered flag with two No. 1 seeds rounding the final turn. The Tampa Bay Rays and the Los Angeles Dodgers are the best of their respective leagues, and both teams could not be more deserving of their spots in the Fall Classic.
How the Rays got here:
A sweep of the Blue Jays followed by agonizingly close series wins over the Yankees and the Astros. American League Championship Series MVP Randy Arozarena has been one of the planet’s best hitters this postseason, while stellar defensive work has bailed this squad out more than once. Second-year pro Mike Brosseau was almost seriously injured by a 101 mph Aroldis Chapman fastball at his head during the regular season — the culmination of retaliatory beanballs by both teams. When the two met again in Game 5 of the AL Division Series, Brosseau hit a decisive eighth-inning homer that would ultimately seal the Yankees’ elimination. Absolutely poetic. We can ignore the whole “almost choking a 3-0 series lead to the Astros” situation that followed.
How the Dodgers got here:
Back-to-back series sweeps of the Brewers and the Padres before a seven-game National League Championship Series win against the Braves. The boys in blue did not look vulnerable until the NLCS, but the team with the best record in all of baseball proved its resilience to overcome a 3-1 series deficit. In Game 5, Will Smith No. 1 (Dodgers catcher) crushed a mammoth three-run home run off of Will Smith No. 2 (Braves pitcher) to give the Dodgers a 4-2 lead and stave off elimination. It was the first time two players with the same name had faced each other in the postseason, and what a spectacular at-bat it was. Cue the full effect of the Atlanta sports curse.
Why the Rays can win
The Rays have the superior bullpen, and recent years have seen relief pitchers play essential roles on postseason teams. Tampa Bay’s relievers allowed only 19% of inherited runners to score during the regular season, good for best in all of baseball. The Rays’ arsenal did cough up a few runs in the ALCS, but an in-form Tampa bullpen will be a nightmare for the Dodgers’ lineup during the World Series. At the plate, however, the Rays have been uncharacteristically cold. This is a team that relies on depth, and it will need players not named Randy Arozarena to produce in order to keep up with the Dodgers’ high-octane offense. If all goes well, the franchise’s first-ever Commissioner’s Trophy could be in store.
Why the Dodgers can win
Not all No. 1 seeds are created equal, and FiveThirtyEight agrees. The data analytics site gives the Dodgers a 69% chance of winning the Series, and their fanbase doesn’t expect anything less. LA is in full win-now mode, and the free agent signing of former AL MVP Mookie Betts to a whopping 12 year, $365 million deal made that statement to the rest of the league. The spending power of each team will be one of the main talking points, as the Rays’ $28 million salary total in 2020 is dwarfed by the Dodgers’ $108 million player payroll. The NL champions have a threatening lineup from top to bottom, but the hot bat of NLCS MVP Corey Seager is the most fearsome at the moment. He, Betts and Cody Bellinger have every chance at securing the LA baseball empire’s first title since 1988.
This World Series seems like one that will be decided in either four games or seven. The Dodgers are more than capable of a sweep if Tampa’s pitchers can’t find their rhythm quickly. At the same time, nothing is ever simple for the Dodgers in the playoffs. The underdog Mets, Cardinals and Nationals have all pulled off improbable upsets of the favored Dodgers in the past five years. The NL’s best team has suffered from a combination of bad luck and poor performance at vital moments. Will 2020, at long last, be different?
This situation is by no means unfamiliar for the Dodgers and their fans. This World Series is theirs to lose. Under pressure, that may be exactly what the Dodgers do.
Chanun Ong covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected].