Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 29, 2020

The Dodgers Restore Order To A Season Of Turmoil

Thirty-two years. There have been and still are longer title droughts in sports, but few felt so acutely by a team’s fans. In part that’s because in 1988, when Kirk Gibson homered to right off Dennis Eckersley to stun the Oakland A’s in Game 1, and Orel Hershiser turned in a pair of masterful pitching performances in Games 2 and 5, leading the Los Angeles Dodgers to the franchise’s sixth World Series title, the Dodgers’ faithful quite reasonably felt that partaking of late October baseball at Chavez Ravine was as much a part of being a fan as listening to Vin Scully doing play-by-play. That Series was the fifth in just fifteen years in which L.A. was the National League’s representative, and two other times in that span the team had made it to the NLCS before exiting the postseason.

What those fans could not have known, on the night they celebrated that ’88 title, was that their team would not play another postseason contest for seven years, would not win a single playoff game for more than a decade and a half, and would not advance past the first round until twenty seasons had passed. Before players in Dodger Blue again took the field to play for a championship, old rivals like the Yankees, Giants, and Cardinals notched multiple titles. Championship droughts of truly historic length ended in Boston and Chicago. Even fans of very young franchises in places like Miami and Phoenix, who could only watch major league games from afar in 1988, experienced the joy of a World Series triumph.

In recent seasons Los Angeles has once again – finally – been regarded as an elite franchise, included in every Spring Training discussion of teams that could still be standing come time for the World Series. The Dodgers were there in 2017, at the time unknowingly playing the role of easy mark to the cheating scheme of the Houston Astros. The following season L.A. was again denied, this time by a Red Sox franchise managed by one of the architects of the Astros’ crime. With a long run at the top of the NL West but no ring to show for that regular season dominance, thirty-two years hung like a lead lanyard around the necks of pitcher Clayton Kershaw, manager Dave Roberts, and all the others who comprise this generation of Dodger baseball.

Now, after the shortest regular major league campaign since 1878 and the strangest one ever, with one run through a unique postseason that weight has at last been lifted. In its place is the lighter than air feeling of unbridled joy at winning a title, an accomplishment players, coaches, and everyone associated with the 2020 Dodgers will carry with them forever. At 43-17, the Dodgers were the best team during the truncated regular season. Then L.A. swept through the first two rounds of the expanded playoffs, easily dispatching the Milwaukee Brewers and San Diego Padres. The Dodgers’ stiffest challenge of the postseason came in the NLCS, where they faced Atlanta, champions of the NL East. Down three games to one, and behind 2-0 early in Game 5, L.A. could have folded its tent, and perhaps other recent editions of the franchise would have done so. But this team seemed remarkably unfazed by adversity. The Dodgers rallied in that contest and then after holding Atlanta down in Game 6, again came from behind – twice – in the deciding Game 7.

Perhaps it was a product of the calm resolve displayed in the NLCS comeback, but against the Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series, no matter the score of a game or the standings in the race to four wins, L.A. almost always seemed to be clearly the better team. That was most true in the aftermath of easily the club’s worst moment of the postseason, the final thirty seconds of Game 4. In a contest that had already seen five lead changes, the Dodgers were one strike away from taking a commanding three games to one lead in the Series. Then light-hitting Rays reserve Brett Phillips hit a liner to right-center field, and for one decisive play the best team in the game did a convincing imitation of the Bad News Bears before Morris Buttermaker recruited his ringers. Two errors on the scorecard and one of the mental variety later, the Rays had an 8-7 walk-off win, and the Series was tied at two games apiece.

The outcome could have fundamentally changed the momentum of the World Series. Instead, the following night Mookie Betts led off the game with a double, the Dodgers scored before recording an out, and Kershaw produced his second strong outing of the Series, as L.A. bounced right back with a 4-2 win. One game later, they were champions.

In time this Series will be remembered, as it should be, for the Dodgers clear dominance. But even as MLB commissioner Rob Manfred was learning just how loudly even a pandemic-reduced crowd can boo, the baseball moment that was the center of attention (a qualification that purposely excludes Justin Turner’s selfish, reckless decision to take part in the post-game celebration after being pulled before the 8th inning following a positive COVID-19 test), was Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash’s lifting of starter Blake Snell with one out in the 6th. The 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner had struck out half the eighteen batters he had faced while yielding just a pair of singles.

Cash’s call was the object of derision by everyone from casual fans to seasoned sportswriters, especially when the Dodgers immediately jumped on reliever Nick Anderson. The move was scorned as clear evidence of overreliance on advanced metrics since it was made simply because Snell was about to face the Dodgers lineup for the third time in the game.

With the advantage of perfect hindsight, it’s of course easy to say that Cash should have ignored the statistics and trusted what he could clearly see with his own eyes, namely that his starter, who had only thrown 73 pitches, was having an outstanding night. But asserting that the Rays call to the bullpen cost the team the Series assumes an exceedingly long list of subsequent events had it not been made. More importantly, it ignores the fact that the Dodgers were every bit as reliant on the Great Game’s modern math. In both of his two Series starts Kershaw was pulled after facing just twenty-one hitters, the same number that Walker Buehler was allowed to pitch to in his sole outing, and three more than Julio Urias got to face when he started Game 4. The only one of those pitching changes that was even arguably based on the starter becoming ineffective was manager Roberts’s decision to pull Urias.

Replacing Snell was an awful move, but the process that led Cash to make his walk from the dugout to the pitcher’s mound was what got both the Rays and the Dodgers to the World Series in the first place. So if that moment showed the hazards of relying too heavily on analytics, the Series as a whole was proof of how modern metrics are fully imbedded in the Great Game, forming the basis for decision-making no matter the size of a franchise’s budget.

These days a gimpy Kirk Gibson, who could barely walk much less swing a bat, and who was hitting a paltry .154 in the 1988 postseason, would almost certainly never be sent to the plate to face the game’s top closer. Nor would Orel Hershiser have any chance of tossing two complete games in the World Series. The Great Game has changed in thirty-two years. But as the incomparable Scully might have updated his ’88 call had he been at the mic this time, “in a year that has been so improbable, the inevitable has happened.” For just like in that long-ago season, this year’s champions wear Dodger Blue.

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