History is vast and expansive, which is convenient when one is trying to find precedent to support a hypothesis based on hope.
Heading into the 2020 World Series, it’s difficult to build a logical case as to why the heavily favored Los Angeles Dodgers won’t end their three-decade-plus title drought with a win over the solid-as-a-rock Tampa Bay Rays.
This is where history helps. Because the reality is that when a seven-game series is contested between two good teams, it is typically the more talented group that comes out the winner.
Over 100 years of baseball history supports that premise — think about any of the various Yankees dynasties, from Ruth to Jeter; or those star-studded Oakland A’s squads of the mid-’70’s; or even the Big Red Machine, when they swept the pre-Reggie Yankees in 1976. Talent usually prevails.
However, “typically” and “usually” don’t mean “always,” and that’s where history comes in handy. With over one hundred Fall Classics in the books, we don’t have to look too hard to find examples of teams that came together at the right time and overcame significant talent differentials to win a championship nobody thought possible.
In fact, if we return to Los Angeles’ last World Series title back in 1988, we see a terrific historical marker. The Dodgers were far from a dominant club in ’88, but rode a wave of momentum and good luck, not to mention a dominant (near unhittable) Orel Hershiser, to earn their way into The Series.
The Dodgers had beaten an overconfident Mets team in the NLCS to advance, and waiting for them was an absolutely loaded Oakland A’s roster (think young Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Dave Stewart, Dennis Eckersley). The A’s showcased power, speed, great starting pitching and a lockdown closer. No one gave the Dodgers a chance, and when they entered the ninth inning of Game 1 down a run with Eckersley on the mound, all seemed to be going according to expectations.
Then the one-legged Kirk Gibson’s homer for the ages changed everything and the next thing you know Gibson’s sub, Mickey Hatcher (Mickey Hatcher??) was getting a hit every time he stuck his head out of the dugout. World Series MVP Hershiser did the rest, and the Dodgers won in five.
That unexpected Dodgers title was such a clear and obvious gift from the Baseball Gods, that Dodgers fans have been forced to pay the price with zero championships ever since. Has that tax from 1988 now finally been paid in full? Playing in their third World Series over the past four years, will the Dodgers finally close the deal?
Well that’s why they play the games, but before we clue you in on the upcoming outcome, we can’t resist one more historical example.
The year was 1969. A former expansion team known mostly for losing had shocked the world and advanced to the World Series, sweeping Hank Aaron’s Atlanta Braves in the first-ever NLCS to get there.
Waiting for the upstart New York Mets were the Baltimore Orioles. The O’s had no weaknesses and had won 109 regular season games. They had Frank Robinson and Brooks Robinson. Boog Powell and Don Buford. They played good defense, had a respected manager in Earl Weaver, and only three years earlier had shocked the world by sweeping Sandy Koufax and the favored Dodgers to win the first World Series in franchise history.
The Mets had pitching, of course, led by wonder boy Tom Seaver, who would soon collect his first Cy Young Award, but were otherwise a collection of spare parts that had somehow caught lightning in a bottle over the summer of ’69.
The problem for the Mets, was that while pitching was clearly their greatest strength, the Orioles had arms, too. Mike Cuellar (who would outduel Seaver in Game 1 and lead everyone to believe the Mets’ bubble was about to burst), Jim Palmer, Dave McNally and a deep bullpen appeared every bit the equal of the Mets staff.
Despite no discernible advantages, the Mets rode kismet, the “different hero every night” approach (hello, Al Weis), and the left arm of Jerry Koosman to a World Series Championship in five games. “Miracle” Mets was a most appropriate moniker when we look back at the magnitude of that upset, and the Amazin’s are another example of why we should never rule out the underdog.
Which brings us to 2020.
Despite a dearth of superstars, the Rays are a most deserving American League champion. They played .667 ball during the shortened regular season, swept the Wild Card round against a “nothing to lose” Toronto team, and then outlasted the big market Goliaths from New York and Houston to get here.
One of the most fundamentally sound clubs in MLB, Tampa can hit, hit for power, take the extra base, pitch and then close you out with a deep, hard throwing pen. Manager Kevin Cash has shown he knows how to get the most out of his roster, and uses his players’ ability to play multiple positions to his advantage, making it difficult for the opposition to gameplan on any given night.
The problem for Cash and the Rays, is that every accolade we note above can also be attributed to his opponents in the Fall Classic. And then some.
The Dodgers had an even more dominant regular season than the Rays, and showed mettle in surviving a strong Padres club in the NLDS before coming back from down 3-1 in the NLCS against the Braves. There are no easy outs in the L.A. lineup, they play better defense (statistically anyway) than the Rays, and can go arm-for-arm against Tampa when stacking up both their rotation and their pen.
The Los Angeles roster is as deep as Tampa’s, and like the Rays, they have multiple players with the ability to move around the diamond effectively. Such flexibility gives Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts the potential to adapt easily to different situations as the game progresses.
While Roberts will never be confused with Gil Hodges when it comes to strategic acumen, the Dodgers gain another advantage thanks to the DH being in use every game during the 2020 series. Not having the pitcher bat negates Roberts’ penchant for poor decision-making whenever the pitcher’s spot in the batting order approaches.
We still see Roberts giving at least one game away when he mismanages his substitutions and loses the DH slot with a late double-switch, but will that be enough to swing the series in Tampa’s favor?
In a seven-game sampling, a manager throwing one game away can certainly be the difference-maker, but despite the Roberts Factor, it says here the Dodgers will rise to the occasion and bludgeon their past any managerial miscues to a couple of high scoring wins.
While L.A. has the vastly superior offense, we give the rotation edge to the Rays — Tyler Glasnow, Blake Snell and Charlie Morton for two games apiece is awfully strong, even if Cash does have too quick a hook at times. Normally the team with the pitching edge gets the nod in a playoff series, but once again the Dodgers are also darn deep on the hill.
Countering with some combination of Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw, Jose Urias, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin, even Roberts can look good cobbling together a starting rotation. That being said, the most interesting matchup to watch may be in the bullpens.
Both clubs have deep and effective pens, but the X-factor will be who has the more resilient collection of arms in reserve. These teams have been playing damn close to every night for almost a month now, and the wear and tear on relievers who aren’t used to this type of pounding is significant. This should prove to be another edge for Cash and the Rays, since we absolutely expect Roberts to go to the well one too many times with his running-on-fumes closer, Kenley Jansen.
The Rays appear to be the team of destiny here, and are the far more likable franchise, winning big despite the third-lowest payroll in all of baseball. But the Dodgers don’t just spend money, they spend it well.
Here’s hoping we get one more Game 7 before the 2020 MLB season comes to its successful conclusion, but the Rays will fall one game short of realizing their dream season when the last out is in the books.
Dodgers in 7.