If the Los Angeles Dodgers go on to win this World Series, remember that 1 inch — the 1 inch that Manuel Margot needed to complete the first steal of home in the World Series since 2002. Instead, he was the third out of the bottom of the fourth inning as Clayton Kershaw escaped a first-and-third jam with an infield popup, a strikeout and Margot’s failed theft attempt. The Dodgers maintained their 3-2 lead, added a run on Max Muncy‘s home run and held on for the 4-2 victory.
Now the Dodgers are one win away. The previous 46 times the World Series was tied after four games, the Game 5 winner went on to win 30 times (65%). Eight of the past 14 times, however, the team behind in the Series won the final two games, including the Nationals last year.
As we take a day to reload after all the action from Saturday and Sunday, let’s go through five keys to victory for each team.
Los Angeles Dodgers
1. Two games to win one. Look, you don’t want it to go seven games, but Dave Roberts can manage Game 6 knowing he has another game in his back pocket — with Walker Buehler ready on regular rest and coming off two terrific starts (allowing just one run over 12 innings).
Tony Gonsolin will start Game 6. He hasn’t been great in the postseason with a 9.39 ERA in three games, with Roberts cutting his leash shorter and shorter with each outing: 88 pitches in Game 2 of the NLCS, 41 pitches in Game 7 and then just 29 pitches and four outs in Game 2 against the Rays. Still, he was very good in the regular season with a 2.31 ERA, two home runs in 46⅔ innings and a 46-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The Dodgers’ offense has been scoring enough runs. I don’t think you necessarily have to pull Gonsolin as quickly as Roberts did in Game 2.
With 15 pitchers on the roster, however, Roberts can certainly construct a bullpen game and still keep everyone in good shape for Game 7. He also knows he likely has Julio Urias available in relief of Buehler for Game 7 if necessary. Dustin May did throw 30 pitches in Game 5 and looked much better than he had in his past couple of appearances. Do you save him for Game 7? Maybe you use him only like Roberts did in Game 5 — later in the game with a lead, leaving some of the other relievers as the first guys out of the pen if Gonsolin gets a quick hook.
2. Consider starting Austin Barnes at catcher. When Blake Snell started in Game 2, the Dodgers rolled out their usual lineup when facing a lefty, with Will Smith behind the plate, A.J. Pollock at DH, Enrique Hernandez at second base and Chris Taylor in left field. Now, for what it’s worth: The Dodgers are 6-2 when Barnes has started at catcher this postseason (including 3-0 in the World Series) and 6-3 when Smith starts. That’s small sample size stuff and some of that is the pitcher they have caught. Barnes, for example, has caught all of Kershaw’s innings.
Most importantly, Barnes is the better framer. According to ESPN TruMedia data during the postseason, Barnes has an expected called strike number of 119 and an actual called strike number of 129, so he’s plus-10. Smith has an expected called strike number of 235 and 225 actual called strikes, so he’s minus-10. Furthermore, with Smith catching, Gonsolin has allowed eight runs in 7⅔ innings. You also can question some of Smith’s pitch calls, especially the four-seam fastball that Pedro Baez threw to Brandon Lowe in Game 4 on a 2-2 count that Lowe hit for a three-run homer. Baez was in the game there specifically because his changeup is a good weapon against lefties, but with two strikes they went with the fastball instead.
L.A. can keep Smith’s bat in the lineup as the DH. So maybe you lose Pollock’s bat, but that’s not a big deal given that he’s hitting .231/.286/.282 in the postseason. The risk is that if you have to hit for Barnes or if he gets injured, the Dodgers aren’t carrying a third catcher (because they needed those 15 pitchers!), so they would lose the DH if Smith had to catch. But they’ve gone with that strategy several times this postseason.
Roberts alluded to the possibility of Barnes catching on Monday. “Yeah, it is a thought,” he said. “I love both of our catchers, what Austin does behind the plate. It is on the table and we will put a lineup out there that gives us the best chance to win.”
3. Don’t change anything at the plate. The Dodgers have outhit the Rays .264 to .228. They have more home runs (11 to 8), more doubles (9 to 5), more walks (23 to 14) and fewer strikeouts (50 to 54). Heck, they even have more stolen bases. They’re going to stick to being selective and making the Rays’ starters (Snell in Game 6, Charlie Morton in Game 7) run up their pitch counts. Corey Seager has deservedly been in the spotlight for his monster playoff numbers, but cleanup hitter Muncy has quietly been a key, thanks to 20 walks and a .461 OBP in the postseason. He’s hitting .389/.522/.611 with a team-leading six RBIs in the World Series. If the Dodgers are to close it out, it is likely because Seager and Muncy keep getting on base or doing some important damage.
4. Repeat to yourself: We’re not worried about the ninth inning. I have a feeling that with Blake Treinen getting the save in Game 5, he is now Roberts’ choice for the next save situation. Look, Kenley Jansen did run into some bad luck in Game 4, with two soft hits and the misplay in the field. But he’s a tightrope walker these days, and his stuff just isn’t what it used to be. In the postseason, he has a swing-and-miss rate of 27.1%. Guess what, though? Treinen’s rate isn’t that much better at 30.3%, and while he got the save Sunday, he has allowed six runs in 11⅓ innings in the postseason. Brusdar Graterol is another high-leverage option, and his swing-and-miss rate in the postseason is also 27.1%. All are viable candidates. If you save Treinen for the ninth, that means you might need Jansen or Graterol or Victor Gonzalez or Baez at a key moment earlier in the game. All are reasonable options, even if Dodgers fans are convinced Roberts will make the wrong choice no matter what.
Roberts didn’t tip his hand after Game 5 when he explained his choice to go with Treinen over Jansen. “They’re both great choices,” he said. “I just felt that Margot, I liked Blake right there. Gave up a grounder [for a single]. And then the lefties, and then another righty. I just felt like we’ve leaned on Kenley. We haven’t done three [days] in a row in quite some time. We’ve done three in a row with Blake. I just liked it right there. But Kenley is high leverage. And they’re both unbelievable guys in high leverage.”
(I’m reminded of what made Bruce Bochy so smart when the Giants won in 2010, 2012 and 2014. His top relievers in those years — Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla, Brian Wilson, Javier Lopez, Yusmeiro Petit, plus some Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner — combined to allow 13 earned runs over 125 innings, a 0.94 ERA.)
5. Do not use Clayton Kershaw. He has done his job this postseason, going 4-1 in five starts with a 2.93 ERA and 37 strikeouts and five walks over 30⅔ innings. If the series does go to seven games, however, I fear Roberts will be tempted to use the future Hall of Famer, just like he was in Game 5 of the division series last year against the Nationals. Roberts may even think back to Game 7 in 2017, when Kershaw came on in relief against the Astros after starting Game 5 and tossed four scoreless innings. Do not do it. Do. Not. Do. It.
1. You’re down, but not out. Just play — and plan — with urgency. Look, the easiest scenario for Game 6 is your starting pitcher crushes it like Stephen Strasburg did last year for the Nationals when he pitched 8⅓ innings in a 7-2 victory. That’s not how it will work for the Rays, however. No starter has gone more than six innings this postseason. Snell’s longest outing this postseason is 5⅔ innings. Morton’s is also 5⅔.
So manager Kevin Cash will have to factor in that even if Snell and Morton are great, he probably needs eight innings over two days from his pen. Anything less than that is a bonus. So who can go multiple innings? Who will he use to get through that difficult Seager-Justin Turner-Muncy part of the order that has been particularly lethal? One thing we know: The Rays will have a plan.
No matter the plan, the Rays need to grab an early lead for a change. The Dodgers have scored first in four of the five games. “We are going to get aggressive tomorrow,” Cash said Monday. “If we can somehow get a lead and limit them, we’ve got some of the big guys in the back end of the bullpen that are ready to go. That is kind of our MO. That is what makes us special at times, especially from the pitching department. … It just hasn’t happened yet because they are up 1-, 2- or 3-0 by the second or third inning every night it feels like.”
2. Snell and the fifth inning. The 2018 Cy Young winner is making his sixth postseason start of 2020, and the overall numbers look pretty solid: 2-2, 3.33 ERA, 28 strikeouts in 24⅓ innings. But it’s really a tale of two Snells. Through the first four innings he’s allowed three runs in 20 total innings (1.35 ERA) and two home runs. From the fifth inning on, he’s allowed six runs and three home runs in 4⅓ innings. In Game 2 against the Dodgers, he tossed 4⅔ no-hit innings but then gave up a walk, a two-run home run, a walk and a base hit and couldn’t finish the fifth.
So Snell’s limit appears to be four innings or 75 pitches before he hits the wall. The Rays obviously know this and have had a pretty quick hook with him, but what if he’s sailing along like he was in Game 2? Does Cash take him out if he’s pitching well and the Rays have a small lead? Does he try to get a few extra outs from Snell to save the bullpen — even a little — for Game 7? If it’s the third time through the order, does Cash go to the bullpen no matter what? The numbers this postseason seem to justify that, even if the eye test says Snell is pitching well.
3. Be realistic about your expectations for Nick Anderson. Anderson was dominant in 2019 and allowed just one run in 16⅓ innings in the regular season this year, so it’s understandable that Cash keeps trying to milk longer outings from him — but it simply hasn’t worked. Anderson has allowed a run (or two) in six straight appearances and in seven of nine in the playoffs (including three home runs). Yet seven of those appearances have been for more than three outs. He isn’t necessarily throwing a lot of pitches, making two appearances in the World Series in Games 2 and 4 while throwing 19 and 23 pitches. He has had at least two days of rest in each outing except one since the wild-card round, so I’m not necessarily sure if it’s fatigue or something else. Whatever the reason, Anderson just hasn’t dominated.
What it all means is Cash can’t just count on using Anderson, Diego Castillo and Peter Fairbanks, like he did in Game 5 against the Yankees. He’s already adjusted to that by using Aaron Loup in high-leverage moments; as the primary lefty in the pen, he’ll certainly be one guy to navigate through Seager and Muncy. But barring Snell and Morton going deeper than expected, Cash will likely need one of the deeper relievers — Ryan Thompson, John Curtiss, maybe Ryan Yarbrough — to get some big outs.
4. Get some hits with runners in scoring position. The Rays are hitting .192 in the postseason with runners in scoring position (although they’ve been a little better at .233 in the World Series). Yes, they’ve hit 33 home runs in 19 postseason games, but the Dodgers hit home runs too. The Rays are going to have to produce some runs the old-fashioned way.
One key here: Getting somebody on base in front of Randy Arozarena. Rays leadoff hitters — Cash has started six different guys there — are hitting just .173/.271/.320 in the playoffs and have scored just four runs. Yandy Diaz has a .409 OBP from the leadoff spot, but he only starts against lefties. Austin Meadows started there in Games 2 and 3, but he’s hitting .154 in 39 playoff at-bats with 16 K’s and one walk. Heck, if Arozarena is going to be batting with the bases empty, maybe you just hit him leadoff.
5. Run the bases … smarter. While I love the idea of the Rays using their speed to put pressure on the Dodgers — like Margot’s bunt single in Game 5 — their exploits on the bases have been a net negative. Margot’s attempted steal of home was daring and exciting, but in the end it didn’t work. Arozarena got thrown out trying to advance on a ball in the dirt earlier in the game. Overall in the postseason, the Rays have just four steals and have been caught stealing five times. So keep up the aggressiveness … just make sure you don’t get thrown out.
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