By the time this article is published, the first two games will have already been played in this year’s World Series matchup between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Rays. Nonetheless, the meeting of these teams features two storylines that are worth covering.
Before getting into these stories, the paths to the World Series by the pennant winners deserve mention as well.
Both teams come in as the best record-wise from their respective conferences. The Rays went a very impressive 40-20, while the Dodgers finished their season with an even more impressive record of 43-17.
In the Wild Card round, the Rays played their division rivals, the Toronto Blue Jays. The Blue Jays proved to be no problem for the Rays in this best of three series, winning Game One 3-1 and Game Two 8-2. Rookie designated hitter Randy Arozarena led the offense for the Rays in both games, while pitchers Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow dominated in their respective starts.
The next round for the Rays featured another division rival in the New York Yankees.
Game One of the series went handily to the Yankees, as they won 9-3. Thanks to some early offense in Game Two, the Rays were able to hold on and win by a score of 7-5. The two teams split the next two games with the Rays winning Game Three and the Yankees taking Game Four, which set up a win or go home Game Six.
Game Six proved to be a game between aces, as Glasnow and Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole faced off. A solo shot to right field by Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge in the top of the fourth inning broke the game’s scoring drought to push his team up 1-0. At the bottom of the fifth, Rays leadoff hitter Austin Meadows responded with a home run of his own to tie up the game.
And in dramatic fashion, Mike Brosseau delivered a solo home run at the bottom of the eighth inning against Yankees star closer Aroldis Chapman to give the Rays the go-ahead run. That run was all the Rays needed, as they squeaked out the 2-1 victory.
In the American League Championship Series, the Rays took on the controversial Houston Astros, who were proven to have cheated in their 2017 World Series run and part of the 2018 season. At the outset, the series looked to be an easy one for the Rays, taking a commanding 3-0 lead.
The Astros inched forward, however, taking Games Four, Five and Six, shifting the momentum in their favor and looking like the second team ever to come back from down 3-0 since the Boston Red Sox did it in 2004.
But the Rays came out aggressively, scoring the first four runs of the game thanks to a first inning two-run homer by Arozarena, a solo homer in the second inning and a sac fly in the sixth by Mike Zunino. The bullpen staved off any serious comeback attempts, giving the Rays the 4-2 win and their franchise’s first pennant since 2008.
The Dodgers, like the Rays, had no problem getting past their first-round matchup, the Milwaukee Brewers. Winning the first game 4-2 and shutting the Brewers out 3-0 in the second game, the Dodgers continued their streak of dominance against the San Diego Padres.
In a pivotal moment in Game Two with the bases loaded at the top of the ninth, Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly was able to get the final out of the game to prevent the Padres comeback. In Game Three, the Dodgers offense put up 12 runs to complete the sweep.
For all the dominance in the first two rounds, the Dodgers came out looking nothing like their usual selves against the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series. After four games, the Dodgers found themselves in a 3-1 hole, with their only win coming largely due to a statistical anomaly when they knocked in 11 runs in the first inning of Game Three.
Down 2-1 in the top of the sixth of Game Five, the Dodgers badly needed a break, and they found one when catcher Will Smith hit a three-run homer off Braves pitcher Will Smith. Another two-run home run by shortstop Corey Seager all but sealed the game and let the Dodgers live another day.
The Dodgers got all the runs they needed in the first inning of Game Six, thanks to back to back home runs by Seager and third baseman Justin Turner and an RBI single from centerfielder Cody Bellinger. Strong pitching from Walker Buehler and the Dodgers bullpen brought about a 3-1 victory, setting the stage for Game Seven.
Game Seven saw clutch play from both sides, keeping the score 3-3 through six innings. Bellinger, however, took matters into his own hands by sending a shot into deep right field with two outs in the seventh inning. Julio Urías finished out the game by pitching a shutout three innings, giving the Dodgers the victory and their third pennant in the last four years.
One big storyline to follow is the Rays’ underdog status. While the difference in regular season records is marginal, the payrolls between the two teams are not. The Dodgers rank second in total payroll at over $107 million, while the Rays are third to least in the League at a comparatively meager $28 million.
According to this Reddit post, the average payroll ranking of World Series winners from 1992 to 2016 is a hair above six. Using Sportrac, I looked at the payrolls from 2017 to 2019 to find that the winners of the World Series during this time came from the top seven save for the Astros in 2017.
So, payroll certainly is important, but the Rays have shown all season that their roster construction is worth much more than on paper. Nonetheless, for the Rays to beat the financial Goliath in the Dodgers would be an incredible feat.
The second storyline to follow is whether or not the Dodgers can finally break through to win a World Series. For the past three seasons, the pattern for this team went as follows: They dominate the regular season and at least a couple of playoff rounds, only to crumble on the biggest stage or just short of it.
Only the Buffalo Bills teams in the 1990s come to mind when looking at the Dodgers’ dominance. As the hackneyed expression goes, third time could be the charm this year (although it wasn’t for those Bills teams).
This World Series matchup carries higher stakes than usual, with one team trying to overcome a massive gap in payroll and the other trying to rewrite its legacy as a team that is not a perpetual playoff disappointment but rather a group of winners.