Photo Credit: © Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Thoughts on last night’s fittingly bizarre World Series conclusion

The weirdest baseball season of our lives fittingly had a very bizarre ending.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, far and away the best team in baseball this season with their 43-17 record, beat the Tampa Bay Rays by a score of 2-1, winning the World Series four games to two, earning their first championship since 1988.

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On paper, it seems like L.A. winning the whole thing was the most predictable outcome — but last night’s conclusion was far from predictable.

Where to begin? I guess I’ll just go chronologically.

It started off when Randy Arozarena clubbed a solo dinger off of Tony Gonsolin to give Tampa Bay an early 1-0 lead. The homer was Arozarena’s 10th of this post-season, which is two more than he has over the course of his regular-season career in 42 games played. Hilariously enough, Arozarena is still eligible for Rookie of the Year in 2021. He’ll look great as an Expo.

It looked like the Rays were going to kick the door in early. Gonsolin looked pretty shook. He allowed a single to Austin Meadows and walked Brandon Lowe but got Manuel Margot and Joey Wendle to work out of the threat. In the second, Gonsolin allowed a double to Kevin Kiermaier and a walk to Ji-Man Choi, putting Arozarena in a position to give Tampa a huge lead.

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Dave Roberts opted to pull the plug on Gonsolin. He brought in reliever Dylan Floro who struck out Arozarena on three pitches. After that, it was L.A.’s bullpen vs Tampa Bay’s ace.

Blake Snell was absolutely dominant. There’s no other way to put it. He made L.A.’s lineup look like little leaguers.

Snell cruised through five innings, striking out nine batters while surrendering just one hit to Chris Taylor. In the sixth, he got AJ Pollock out and then allowed a one-out single to Austin Banes, L.A.’s No. 9 hitter. And then out came Kevin Cash.

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That was the end of the line for Snell. The Algorithm says he can’t face the order for a third time and Cash went with it. Though he was absolutely dealing and appeared to be on his way to a historically-good World Series start, the Rays did what the Rays do — go with the numbers.

Reliever Nick Anderson came into the game and promptly imploded. Mookie Betts smacked a double and then Barnes scored on a wild pitch. L.A. then took the lead when Corey Seager grounded out and Betts dashed home.

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Though it was only 2-1, it really did feel as though the game was over here. Tampa just looked like they had the wind knocked right out of them. When Anderson was on the mound, he had a ‘why the fuck am I in the game right now’ look on his face. The Rays at-bats the rest of the way just seemed lifeless.

I mean, I get taking the process-oriented approach. I get that the numbers suggest that facing an order for the third time will generally put the batters in a favourable situation. But this isn’t Matt Shoemaker on the mound. This is Blake Snell, a Cy Young winner. In a do or die game, you have to let arguably the best arm in baseball do his thing.

As I said, it looked like Snell was on his way to an all-time great World Series performance. One of those ones that really cements a legacy, like Madison Bumgarner for the Giants in 2014 or Randy Johnson for the Diamondbacks in 2001 or Jack Morris for the Twins in 1991. He was at 74 pitches and didn’t look like he had broken a sweat.

Betts, Seager, and Justin Turner, the guys Snell was set to face with Barnes on first, had gone a combined 0-for-6 in the game with six strikeouts. I’m not sure seeing Snell for a third time would have made much of a difference.

That said, I don’t think it’s fair to take this and draw an overarching ‘analytics are bad’ conclusion.

It’s absolutely fun to dunk on the Rays and their Galaxy Brain computer nerd shit because they’re an annoying, rinky-dink, poverty ass franchise and their way of conducting business and treating the game like a thought experiment becoming the norm probably isn’t good for the health of baseball in general, but chalking this World Series up as an “L” for analytics is disingenuous.

The Dodgers are the big-budget version of the Rays. Andrew Friedman, who built this team in L.A., was hired by the Dodgers for the work he did using a SABR-slanted approach to turn the Devil Rays, the biggest joke in baseball, into an actual team that could actually win games on a shoestring budget.

In L.A., Friedman showed what can be executed when good analytics work in concert with a massive financial investment. The Dodgers can find under-the-radar talent like Chris Taylor and Max Muncy, they can internally develop elite players like Corey Seager and Julio Urias, and they can go ahead and acquire Mookie Betts because they’re willing to pay him $392 million.

But there’s obviously a line to what analytics can accomplish, and we saw last night what that line is. The Algorithm’s Cash’s in-game decision to not allow his ace to be an ace ultimately backfired. There are times you have to just use your brain and let the players play. This was one of those times.

In the bottom of the eighth inning, we saw exactly why the Dodgers went out and paid Betts the money that they did and we were reminded that, ultimately, the Rays are just a store-brand version of the Dodgers. With L.A. up 2-1, Betts smashed a solo homer off of Pete Fairbanks to give the Dodgers some much-needed insurance.

If there was any sign of life on Tampa Bay’s bench — and, by this point, I’m not sure there was — this killed it.

One thing that gets kind of glossed over in this game is the Dodgers’ pitching. While the whole narrative seems to be that Tampa lost the game, there isn’t enough talk about how L.A. won the game.

After Gonsolin’s rough start in which he allowed one earned run on three hits and a walk over one-and-two-thirds innings, the Dodgers were unhittable. Six different pitchers combined to go seven-and-one-third innings scattering just two hits.

Maybe Snell could have willed the Rays to a 1-0 victory. Who knows! Instead, it’s the Dodgers and their random committee of pitchers who put together the dominant, complete game, one-run outing. When you think of an incredible World Series-clinching pitching performance, this sure as hell isn’t the line you expect to see…

Urias ended up being the star of the show because he picked up a Bumgarner-Esque seven-out save, in which he struck out four batters, two that were looking in the ninth inning. He had a similar showing to close out the NLCS against Atlanta and Roberts trusted him to do it again, opting to leave Kenley Jansen and Blake Treinen in the bullpen.

And then things started to get really weird.

Shortly after the final out was recorded and the Dodgers won the World Series, the broadcast (I was watching on FOX rather than Sportsnet) flipped to this breaking news bulletin…

This was… jarring!

My immediate thought as the guy came on the screen based on his tone was that somebody had been killed, but, instead, it was that Justin Turner had tested positive for COVID-19 and was removed mid-game. This, as far as I remember, wasn’t mentioned at all during the game. I don’t even recall a mention of Turner being pulled or a word about Edwin Rios filling in at third.

Next up, we got flipped back to Rob Manfred coming out to award and World Series and address the fans on what a success the 2020 season had been…

There were only 10,000 fans in attendance at this game but holy shit did they go the extra mile to boo Manfred into oblivion. I’m surprised he even managed to get through quip. It looked like he was going to just walk off and go find a place to hide.

Shortly after, Manfred presented Seager with the World Series MVP and did a quick interview on Turner’s positive test. It sounded like he was either blackout drunk or was about to have a stroke…

I mean, after the way this year started — with the brutal labour battle between the league and the players that got in the way of any tangible planning for how to execute the season and the early struggles of on-the-fly-decision-making with tests not getting done properly and teams like the Marlins and Cardinals not following protocol and games getting postponed and so on and so on and so on — there was simply no way Major League Baseball was going to walk away from this thing without a massive PR folly.

The Turner thing is difficult. It’s a bad look on him, undoubtedly, to test positive and go back on the field and celebrate with the team. I mean, it probably doesn’t matter because he had been around the team in the dugout already and the virus had surely already spread. But, to me, the issue is more on MLB, whose testing process had results coming in mid-way through Game 6 of the World Series.

Over at Defector, Albert Burenko wrote a good post on who really is to blame as shit hit the fan… 

The problem is that institutional baseball all along has been making this shit up as it goes, at every turn subordinating even minimally responsible pandemic precautions to its commercial imperatives of staging a season and postseason and crowning a World Series champion on television, at all costs. It was making shit up months ago when the first positive player tests showed up and it flagrantly invented ad hoc protocols on the fly for the purpose of performing a theater of pandemic rigor without disrupting the schedule too much. It was making shit up when it allowed Miami Marlins players to decide, via group text message, to play a game on the same day they’d learned that day’s scheduled starting pitcher and two others had tested positive for COVID-19. It was making shit up when it sent the Athletics and Mariners out to play a doubleheader in a cloud of poisonous wildfire smoke so thick outfielders had trouble tracking fly balls and the players had to play in masks. Who even could make the deeply arbitrary choice to flex institutional authority at the absolute pinnacle of Justin Turner’s professional life, when every seat of power in the sport had happily abdicated responsibility any number of times for the express purpose of producing that moment? Could anyone? Does the institutional authority even exist?

Naturally, Manfred threw Turner under the bus today, stating that he didn’t act responsibly upon learning about his positive test…

But why the fuck is he in this situation? Why is a player getting a positive test mid-way through a game? This is just narrative-framing to have a player’s lack of individual responsibility overshadow the league’s generally mediocre approach to handling this whole thing.

It’s hard to take MLB seriously when their idea of a bubble involved selling tickets to 10,000 fans.

The really crazy thing to ponder is what would have happened if Tampa Bay had won Game 6. What if Turner got pulled and Urias blew the save and MLB had to deal with the report about Turner’s positive COVID test with a Game 7 on the horizon?

What would they have done? Would they still have played Game 7? Would they have delayed it for a few days? Would they have cancelled the whole thing, knowing full well how pissed off their broadcast partners would have been? Would they have tried to cover it up? Would Turner have had to sit out while everyone else played? I mean, fuck, did Manfred call in a favour and have Cash pull Snell hoping that it would tank the game so they wouldn’t have to deal with any of this?

We might never know. But what I do know is that this — this absolute chaos — is the fitting end to the weirdest season of baseball I’ve ever experienced.