The narrative was that the Dodgers were seeing their doppelganger in the Tampa Bay Rays in this World Series. Two teams with similar visions and philosophies, installed by the same executive, Andrew Friedman, and they just happened to be the two best teams in baseball.
It is a best-of-seven, of course, and past results do not necessarily predict future performance. But among the things we learned in Game 1 of the 2020 Fall Classic: Narratives can have huge holes.
Clayton Kershaw is exhibit A, of course, his brutally efficient six innings (two hits, one run, eight strikeouts in 78 pitches) calming all of those Dodger fans fearful of what they would get from Postseason Kershaw.
Here’s a hint: When he doesn’t have to go further than he should because of a lack of trust in the bullpen, he’s usually fine. Getting eight runs of support helps, too.
As for the other narrative, it’s just one game but it seemed less like two doppelgangers on the same field and more like big brother reminding little brother than he needs to grow into his ambition.
Oh, little brother can run with the big kids, all right. You don’t win the American League East, and knock the Yankees out of the postseason, if you can’t. The Rays have pitching talent, including a whole stable of hard-throwing relievers and they engage in the same sort of pursuit of endless depth as do the Dodgers.
Their general manager, Erik Neander, joined Friedman’s Tampa Bay organization as an intern, and he and his lieutenants have taken that David-outsmarts-Goliath philosophy and run with it, even in an age when everyone has fully functional analytics departments and most use the same innovative tactics that make fans of a certain age squirm. (Or scream.)
But the Rays don’t have Mookie Betts. The trade for Betts in January, and the 12-year, $365 million extension the Dodgers gave him in July, may go down in franchise history as the moves that put the Dodgers over the top not only this year but for years to come.
Goodness knows the Rays saw enough of him when he was in Boston; Betts carried a lifetime .310 batting average and .892 OPS against Rays pitching into Tuesday’s Game 1, with 16 home runs, 46 RBI and 20 stolen bases in 97 games. Should we be surprised, then, that Betts became the first man to homer, steal two bases and score two runs in a World Series game Tuesday night?
Or that Betts became the first player to walk and steal two bases in one inning in a World Series game since 1921, when a fellow named Babe Ruth did so for the Yankees against the New York Giants.
Have Boston fans stopped weeping yet? That encompasses two of the worst transactions in Red Sox history in one sentence.
And while Betts’ opposite field home run on the first pitch from reliever Josh Fleming in the sixth wasn’t Ruthian, it is this entire package – and an approach that the ring is what matters most – that may take this team where it has longed to go.
One difference between these teams is an indication the Dodgers are at a later stage of growth than the Rays. Tampa Bay is platoon heavy and especially left-handed heavy. For instance, outfielder Austin Meadows and first baseman Ji-Man Choi sat against Kershaw; Meadows got into the game in the seventh, while Choi was announced as a pinch-hitter and pulled back when Dylan Floro was replaced by Victor González.
This is where the Dodgers were two years ago, when Cody Bellinger was benched against left-handers in the World Series. Then, Dave Roberts used his “line change” moves in mid-game whenever a left-hander replaced a right-hander, or vice versa.
Now, it’s most of the same names every night, with Joc Pederson the only one who might come out against lefties.
“Those guys over there, they play a lot of matchups,” Dave Roberts said of his Tampa Bay counterpart, Kevin Cash. “So to kind of play the matchup game with ’em and counter certainly is beneficial. And you can see that by their position player depth as far as their roster construction. But certainly having the guys that we have that hit left and right, it’s pretty nice.”
The Rays will have their opportunities in this series, certainly. One may be as early as Wednesday night’s Game 2, which will likely be a bullpen game for the Dodgers with Tony Gonsolin starting – at least that’s what Roberts said after Tuesday’s game.
But the innovation and creativity are equal on both sides, and one side has more talent. And so, Kershaw was asked, when that talent is playing up to its capability, can another team beat the Dodgers?
“I mean, if we play at our best, no,” he said. “I think we are the best team and I think our clubhouse believes that. There’s going to be certain times where we get beat, and that happens. But as a collective group, if everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing and playing the way they’re supposed to. I don’t see how that can happen.”
Especially if Mookie Betts has anything to say about it. That’s what Tampa Bay is up against.
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter