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Image credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Well, we made it here. That’s something in itself, given the various points in the last seven months at which a completed MLB season, of any length, seemed doubtful. What’s more, we’ve ended up in a (seemingly) predictable place, the league’s two most formidable teams duking it out for the title. The Dodgers were probably the National League’s best team in every conceivable universe, their harrowing test wresting the pennant out of Atlanta’s grasp the latest reminder of just how little best means in baseball. The Rays prove that a different way, by having roughly four players the average fan could have named ahead of this season. That doesn’t make them any less good, just more the Rays—maybe the most Rays team in memory. There are so many ways to tell the story of this series, the culmination of the 2020 season, but mine will be to spotlight a type of storytelling that we lost in this strangest season: the fan-made sign.

Sure, we had attendance in the NLCS, as we will in the World Series. We don’t need to talk about that because it was terrible—whatever your view of the merits of breaking the attendance embargo, there was no fan atmosphere to speak of in the Rangers’ cavernous new stadium. So we’ll strive to provide that feeling to you here. First, the odds and pitching matchups:

What PECOTA Says

Los Angeles has a 75.5 percent chance to win the series, while Tampa Bay has a 24.5 percent chance to win the series.

Los Angeles Dodgers (43-17) vs. Tampa Bay Rays (40-20)

PROJECTED PITCHING MATCHUPS

Now, without further ado, here’s the story of the 2020 World Series, as told by fan signs we won’t get.

Arozarena is Arozarena is Arozarena

The ALCS MVP would also have won the award for the ALDS, had it existed. And for the ALWCS. We at BP have been on the Randy Arozarena beat all postseason, along with the rest of the world. This performance has transcended from the typical out-of-nowhere playoff star turn to virtuoso showing that will color the arc of the rookie’s career—if the Rays prevail and the 25-year-old is even marginally important to that outcome, you’re going to see Mr. Aroza-ctober headlines. There’s little else that can be said in the way of superlatives but to provide his stat line in 55 at-bats: .382/.433/.855. If you’re looking at that and fretting about the walk rate looking a little low, it’s possible you’re too jaded. This is October, short sample season in the short sample season of them all. We’ll have all offseason, hopefully a complete season after that (in which he will still be rookie-eligible) to determine what to make of him. For now, sit back for the end of the Arozarena ride. Stow all hats, sunglasses, and other items—exit velocity will be high.

Betts on the House

There are few guarantees in baseball or anything, this year has tattooed into memory, but one is that there will be a moment this series where Mookie Betts does something that makes everyone collectively say “how did the Red Sox let this happen?” Between Betts in right field and Cody Bellinger in center, the NLCS basically became a competition to see who could make the most improbable-looking grab. It was enough to make you forget that this is each MVP’s second job, except for that game-winning Bellinger home run, those 10 postseason Betts runs in part manufactured on his impeccable baserunning. The term embarrassment of riches is one of those things that can be a little hard to grasp, us not being privy to the insides of owners’ bank accounts, but the Dodgers help define it with their offense. Two MVPs not being enough, the team’s best batter this regular and post-season is set to earn some more hardware of his own.

Laying Siege-r

For all the deserved attention Arozarena has gotten, Seager has been his counterpart the whole postseason, with a backing in the 60-game season the rookie never had a chance to get. Seager’s postseason OPS is 1.123 (it was .943 in the regular season, good for a 139 DRC+ and 2.2 WARP). It’s hard not to think he’s finally hit his ceiling, as every long-tenured Dodgers position player must, giving testament to the windy road recovery from injury presents and neat narratives often crunch. Seager had Tommy John surgery just into the start of the 2018 season and returned last year clearly compromised at the plate, obviously never finding his groove. He found it, in his own time, and is ready to factor into the greatest-ever challenge to the Rays’ tactical pitching plan. Bellinger bats sixth, just ahead of A.J. Pollock, who two offseasons ago got a five-year, $55 million guarantee. Just like Seager, Pollock struggled in 2019 to return from a frightening injury (a staph infection and further complications) and found himself written off by some. The Dodgers have underdog stories, it’s just that the Rays are made of them.


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Mess with the Bull, Get the ‘Pen

Nick Anderson, Peter Fairbanks, Diego Castillo, Ryan Thompson, and John Curtiss—it’s not the composing members of America’s next favorite boy band, rather the majors’ most fearsome and flexible relief unit. The variety of backgrounds, approaches, and track records (Anderson went from independent league to construction to closer; Thompson is a sidearmer with a motion wholly out of vogue; Curtiss has been ousted from Minnesota, Anaheim, and Philadelphia, three of the most relief-inept organizations in recent memory) might make an overarching philosophy hard to discern had manager Kevin Cash not spelled it out as “a whole damn stable full of guys who throw 98 mph.” They’re magic eye misfits; the longest track record any has as an elite reliever is Anderson’s incredible run last season. His DRA nearly quintupled (from 0.75 to 3.65), and he was still 25 percent better than league average. Of the five pitchers listed here, none had a DRA- above 82, a mark fellow relievers Aaron Slegers and Josh Fleming also fell below. It doesn’t matter that it’s ephemeral, that whoever the Rays are next year the bullpen will almost certainly be remade. The Rays are mortals, but we’ve long known bullpens are playoff ambrosia. Calypso’s table brims, and you can lull yourself into forgetting the odds, forgetting all manner of things.

Lowe Cost Championship

Oh, we’re not exactly meant to be rooting for the Rays here. To be clear, that doesn’t entail rooting against the players—except with brief exceptions, such as in the series the Rays just prevailed, most fans don’t want to see a team’s incredibly dedicated professionals suffer such disappointment—but every year people root against franchises. What else is Yankees hate? This is a simple reminder that Tampa Bay’s brand of baseball, rather than New York’s or Los Angeles’, is the one that is toxic to the sport in its most enjoyable form. Even without delving into the ways shoestring payrolls and efficiency fetishization have made the team basically incongruous on a yearly basis and alienated any potential fanbase, it’s obvious management’s creativity in searching for ways to win nevertheless has powered many trends fans consider anywhere from aesthetically displeasing to entirely deleterious to the game’s growth—the demise of the starting pitcher, the shrinking of a team’s position player pools, the advent of the opener, the omnipresence of the shift, the delaying of fully capable players’ careers for service time reasons. 

Brandon Lowe was far and away Tampa Bay’s best regular season hitter, his 127 DRC+ more than 20 points clear of any other batter with at least 100 plate appearances. He’ll be a low-cost member of the Rays’ core for years to come after agreeing to a six-year deal and two club options ahead of the 2019 season. That sort of deal for a player with no or little major league experience (at the time, Lowe had 58 days of big-league service time) has become commonplace, but it was pioneered by the Rays and Evan Longoria. The former cornerstone was a major part of the 2008 pennant run and was, a decade later, unceremoniously shipped to San Francisco when the team saw a way to move on from a contract which had become laborious. It’s necessary for the Rays; just business. For all those who have chosen the Rays as their temporary fandom—an eminently reasonable decision, especially given the verve with which they play—it’s worth remembering that Rays fans don’t stick with the team because they know their team only sticks with people when they’re getting a bargain.

Blue Wave

The Dodgers play in Los Angeles. If they had normally attended World Series games at Chavez Ravine this year, you’d see this sign. In the case of the boys in blue, the wave needs to be a high water marker. It’s a privilege for a fan to see their team in the playoffs every year. It changes not that the Dodgers’ inability to take home the championship has worn on the fanbase, hardened it to prepare for the worst even when the on-field product implies the best-ever shot, being one of the most talented and complete squads in major league history. Even after a heartening comeback from a 3-1 deficit, there are plenty of reasons for concern: The Rays’ pitching staff is fully rested despite having also weathered a seven-game stress test; the Dodgers are down to two-and-a-half stretched-out starters to the Rays’ three. Plus, Kershaw/Buehler/Urías is probably a wash against Glasnow/Snell/Morton, especially given Buehler’s obdurate blister. If the Dodgers are going to pull it out they’ll do it with their core competency, the best offense in the league.

Bang Better

Despite its longer lacuna, it’s unquestionable the 2017 World Series loss haunts Dodgers faithful more than the 2018 reprise. Even before the revelation of the Astros’ cheating, there are few words more painful to any true believer than “Game 7 loss.” The Astros thought 2020 was their revenge tour—they were wrong. William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” but he also said, “Given the choice between the experience of pain and nothing, I would choose pain.” The Dodgers made it, just not right. Now they have the chance to finally make it right.

Along the Meadows and Fairbanks, Where the Rays Roam

The Rays are not the best team in this matchup. The odds tell you that. Your heart tells you that. The Rays know that. They don’t need to be the best team. This is baseball. It matters who you are right now, and the Rays of right now are as always the league’s most precisely tuned instrument. Fortuna’s ear is easy to catch, and the Rays have their lyre. They can use it to make one of the odds. 

Left’s Not Time’s Fool

It all bends back to Clayton Kershaw, as always paddling upstream to prove he’s not past his own bend. There is nothing I can say, no accounting of the luck that has befouled Kershaw and the franchise he’s been the decade-long face of, likely to alter your perception of the narrative that bears on the southpaw’s legendary career. The regular seasons give us the data to know he is one of the greatest pitchers of all time; the numbers in the postseason are asynchronous. Kershaw will almost certainly have two starts to catch that wave. If the Dodgers don’t prevail he may as well meet the narrative in combat with a butterfly net. Kershaw needs the ring that the Dodgers need, that every great team’s run needs to mean anything to a huge proportion of baseball fans. After another season showing he’s still great, if not what he once was (his 70 DRA- was right in line with his ‘18 and ‘19 seasons, and his 1.5 WARP placed him just outside of the top 20 most valuable pitchers), we know that Kershaw is an admirable foe for sluttish time. He will have the gilded monument no matter this series’ outcome, but this is his last, possibly final chance to change the inscription. There’s only so much you can do to stop time.

Baseball is always freezing time in abstract as we watch it ravage players in specific. The 2020 season has been a welcome-iftense distraction, this year more than ever ending too soon. Players have sacrificed and risked for their careers, their livelihoods, their fans, to arrive us at a World Series that feels worthy of its billing. We have that, and it’s only fitting Clayton Kershaw is here again, made weak by time and fate but strong in will.

Here is my prediction: The Dodgers win in six and, even if he’s the third- or fourth-most deserving player in the effort, Kershaw wins the World Series MVP. The only way to beat the odds is become them, and the Dodgers’ effort will finally bear fruit before MLB leaves us for its six months in darkness.

Thank you for reading

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Gary Durbin
10/20
November, December, January, February, March. Only five months in darkness. But you may be a prophet and the coronavirus keeps baseball from starting in April, always the cruelest month.
Ginny Searle
10/20
no prophecy here I hope; I'm just a little too fond of the Persephone myth.