I'm ready. Ready for Mookie Betts to play right field. Ready for Tyler Glasnow's fastball. Ready for Corey Seager's swing and Willy Adames' glove and Dustin May's hair and Ji-Man Choi's smile. Yes, ready for another trip with Clayton Kershaw in the World Series pressure cooker. We made it through the shortened season, through the controversial 16-team playoff bracket, through a losing -- and controversial -- team nearly making it here.
It's going to be the strangest of World Series in one way: the first neutral-site World Series, to be played at the Texas Rangers' new Globe Life Field. It is still the World Series, however, and we will have fans in stands. And after everything that has happened since March, we ended up with the two best teams in baseball playing for October glory. In fact, for only fourth time in the wild-card era (since 1995), the teams with the best record in each league will meet in the World Series.
The Los Angeles Dodgers are back for the third time in four seasons, the first team to do that since the New York Yankees in 2000, 2001 and 2003. It's the 63rd instance in major league history that a team has reached three World Series in a four-year span -- most of those overlapping Yankees teams -- and only two teams among the group did not a win a World Series, the 1907-09 Tigers and 1911-13 Giants. The Dodgers will be the heavy favorite, but a few days ago, they were all but dead before rallying from a 3-1 National League Championship Series deficit to beat a tough Atlanta Braves team. Maybe that will ease the burden of expectations. It's almost like free baseball.
The Tampa Bay Rays are back for the second time in franchise history and the first time since 2008. They opened the season ranking 28th in the majors in payroll. The only team to reach the World Series since 1998 with a lower ranking? The 2008 Rays. They are a team seemingly without stars playing a team full of them. The Dodgers traded for Betts in the offseason; the Rays traded for an obscure rookie outfielder from the St. Louis Cardinals named Randy Arozarena. The Dodgers' NLCS roster included 12 players who have been All-Stars in their careers, for a total of 26 appearances. The Rays' roster features four All-Stars with five appearances.
First to four wins takes home the trophy. Here's a guide to the 2020 World Series:
What the Rays have on the line: The first World Series victory in franchise history and proof that a small-market team with a small payroll can overcome not only the mighty and rich Yankees and Boston Red Sox in their division (not to mention New York in the playoffs), but the best of the National League as well. It is the ultimate reward for the franchise that kicked off the modern analytics movement -- Tampa Bay was an early adopter of the shift, for example -- and it has baseball's fifth-best overall record since 2008.
What the Dodgers have on the line: They have won eight straight division titles. They won 104 games in 2017, 106 games in 2019 and more than 70% of their games this regular season, with the shortened schedule perhaps denying them the opportunity to chase down the 2001 Seattle Mariners' and 1906 Chicago Cubs' record of 116 victories. They remain without a title, however, and this great era of Dodgers baseball will leave fans with an empty feeling unless L.A. wins a World Series.
And given everything about this season, getting here was not easy. "2017 happened, 2018 happened, we fell short. Now we are back," Dodgers infielder Enrique Hernandez said. "The past is in the past. This one feels super special because it is in front of us and it is happening. I am not going to take anything away from the other two, but this one is extremely special; we were able to stay COVID-free throughout the whole season.
"We took care of business in the regular season, we took care of business against the Brewers, we took care of business against the Padres, we took care of business against the Braves. It was a little harder than we thought it was going to be, but I am glad we pulled it off. Being down 3-1 then coming back and winning in seven games, it's something that I will never forget. It is special for sure."
Player with the most on the line: We all know Kershaw's story. He is one of the best pitchers of all time, 175-76 in the regular season, with a 2.43 ERA, three Cy Young Awards and five ERA titles. He is going to be in the Hall of Fame. In the postseason, however, he is 11-12 with a 4.31 ERA. In two World Series, he is 1-2 with a 5.40 ERA. He has had too many crushing moments along the way. At this point in his career, greatness is no longer expected or even required for the Dodgers to win. Just pitch well enough and win that ring.
Who is Randy Arozarena? The 25-year-old rookie outfielder for the Rays is the hottest hitter on the planet. Acquired from the Cardinals in the offseason, he missed the start of the season after a positive COVID-19 test, debuted on Aug. 30 and hit seven home runs in September, and he is now having a breakout postseason. In 14 games, he is hitting .382/.433/.855 with seven home runs and 14 runs scored. He is just the fourth player with at least seven homers in the postseason before the World Series, matching Daniel Murphy of the 2015 New York Mets and B.J. Upton of the 2008 Rays, and one short of Carlos Beltran's eight for the 2004 Houston Astros. True, Arozarena had an extra round, but he didn't hit any home runs in the Wild Card Series against the Blue Jays. He homered three times against the Yankees in the American League Division Series and four times against the Astros in the AL Championship Series. His 47 total bases are already tied for second most in a single postseason, behind the 50 David Freese had for the 2011 Cardinals, the year he won MVP honors in both the NLCS and World Series.
"I think what Randy did was pretty miraculous," Rays manager Kevin Cash said after the ALCS.
That almost feels like an understatement, especially when considering the rest of the Rays hit .183 in the series. Born in Cuba, Arozarena left the country five years ago on a small boat, landing in Mexico after an eight-hour ride across choppy waters. He found his way to the developmental academy of the Toros de Tijuana club, where he had to share cleats and batting gloves with another prospect. The Cardinals spotted him playing for the Toros' version of a minor league team and signed him in 2016. He made his major league debut with the Cards in 2019.
"Everybody is just in awe every time he steps into the box," Rays catcher Mike Zunino said.
Arozarena has hardly been a one-trick pony. For a young player, he has done a pretty good job of controlling the strike zone (although he doesn't walk much). Five of his seven postseason home runs have come on fastballs, a testament to his bat speed, but he also has hit one off a slider and one off a curveball. Three came with two strikes. Four have gone to right-center and one to right, so he has displayed power to all fields. For what it's worth, both Murphy and Upton went homerless in the World Series. (Beltran's Astros failed to get there.)
Arozarena is the surprise, but here are five others who will play key roles:
Mookie Betts: With spectacular catches in Games 5, 6 and 7 of the NLCS, he cemented his legacy as one of the greatest defensive right fielders of all time. In fact, as good as the Dodgers are on offense, and as deep as the pitching staff is, their defense raises them to another level. They ranked second in the majors in defensive runs saved at plus-29 -- and the Rays were fifth at plus-24. We should see plenty of great defense in this series.
Cody Bellinger: The 2019 NL MVP has struggled in the postseason in his career, but maybe his game-winning home run in Game 7 will spur him on to a big series. He is hitting .196 in 48 career playoff games but .250/.365/.545 this postseason.
Kenley Jansen: The longtime Dodgers closer was pretty solid in the regular season, but after a shaky appearance against the Padres in which his velocity was way down, manager Dave Roberts said Jansen was no longer an automatic call for the ninth inning. Indeed, he got demoted to mop-up duty in the 15-3 drubbing of Atlanta in Game 3 of the NLCS. But he was much sharper in Games 5 and 6, with two straight 1-2-3 appearances -- although Roberts stuck with Julio Urias for the final three innings of Game 7. At some point, Jansen will likely have to close out a closer Dodgers lead.
Tyler Glasnow: He is going to get the ball in Game 1 for the Rays and is capable of dominating with his upper-90s heater and wipeout curveball. He does give up some home runs (six in 19⅓ innings in the postseason) and, oh, the Dodgers led the majors in home runs in the regular season and just tied a single-series playoff record with 16 homers.
Peter Fairbanks: Nick Anderson is the Rays' most dominant reliever, but Cash has used him at any point in the game when a critical situation develops (and usually against the meat of the opponent's order). So while Anderson has one save in the postseason and Diego Castillo has two, Fairbanks leads with three -- after the rookie didn't have one in the regular season. Fairbanks throws 100 mph with a funky over-the-top delivery, and the Rays picked him up last year from the Rangers after he had two Tommy John surgeries. Now he is closing out playoff games. Baseball is ridiculous.
Don't expect any pitchers' duels: We might see some low-scoring games, but don't look for games in which both starting pitchers go deep into the game. Of the 47 postseason games played before the World Series, only four times did both starters pitch at least six innings. Only twice did a starter go more than seven innings -- Kershaw and Trevor Bauer, both in the wild-card round when they were spinning shutouts.
The Rays, in particular, have a short leash with their starters. In their 14 games, Glasnow's two six-inning outings were the longest. Only Blake Snell, with a 105-pitch, five-inning effort in the ALCS, topped 100 pitches. Given the quality and depth of both bullpens, expect quick hooks, even if the starter has pitched five strong innings. In other words, it will be a different style of play than last year's World Series, when seven of the 14 starters went at least six innings and half went 100-plus pitches, as well.
Mr. Clutch: Charlie Morton -- the rare free-agent signing for the Rays when he agreed to a two-year, $30 million contract before the 2019 season (with a 2021 option) -- was the winning pitcher in Tampa Bay's Game 7 of the ALCS, making him the first pitcher with three Game 7 wins in major league history. Morton also was the winning pitcher in the 2017 ALCS with the Astros (five scoreless innings) and the 2017 World Series (one run in four innings of relief). Toss in the 5⅔ scoreless innings against the Astros and that's a 0.46 ERA in his Game 7 appearances. Guess how the Tampa Bay rotation likely lines up:
Game 1: Glasnow
Game 2: Snell
Game 3: Morton
Game 4: Ryan Yarbrough
Game 5: Glasnow
Game 6: Snell
Game 7: Morton
Morton finished third in the 2019 AL Cy Young voting, but Zunino said his Game 7 performance against the Astros was particularly noteworthy.
"This is the best I've seen Charlie in the time I've been able to catch him the past two years," he said. "Had everything working, had a great mix. It was the game plan to keep a four-pitch mix. ... The knowledge he brings with what he wants to accomplish. Seeing him do that on the biggest stage is a lot of fun."
The Rays know if the series goes the distance they will have the right guy on the mound in Game 7.
Who do the Dodgers start? The Dodgers have five starting pitching options, with Kershaw lined up for Game 1. After that, it gets a little murky. Urias threw 39 pitches in Game 7 of the NLCS (on three days' rest). Tony Gonsolin pitched two innings and 41 pitches. May actually started Games 5 and 7, throwing 55 and then 18 pitches. Walker Buehler started Game 6 on Saturday, so if he started Game 2 on Wednesday, it would be on short rest. It's an intriguing decision. If the Dodgers start Buehler on short rest, they can then get him and Urias two starts apiece in the series, with a rotation like this:
Game 1: Kershaw
Game 2: Buehler (short rest)
Game 3: Urias
Game 4: May/Gonsolin
Game 5: Kershaw
Game 6: Buehler
Game 7: Urias
Roberts also could turn Game 2 into a May/Gonsolin bullpen game, start Buehler in Game 3 with five days' rest, push Kershaw back to Game 6 for an extra two days' rest and have Urias available in relief in Game 7 like he was in the NLCS, with a rotation like this:
Game 1: Kershaw
Game 2: May/Gonsolin/bullpen game
Game 3: Buehler
Game 4: Urias
Game 5: May/Gonsolin/bullpen game
Game 6: Kershaw
Game 7: Buehler
The ballpark: So, it's hard to call Globe Life Field a pitchers' park after the Dodgers and Braves just combined for 25 home runs in seven games, but it is a big park, especially to the power alley in right-center. It certainly played as a tough home run park in the regular season, so that could be a key element.
This is especially true for the Rays, who don't have the offensive depth of the Dodgers and have relied so much on the home run so far in the playoffs -- 71.9% of their runs have come via the long ball (compared to just 41% in the regular season). The Rays just don't have a long-sequence offense, and they led the majors in strikeouts, so they need to win low-scoring games in which they hit home runs. If the park takes some of that power away, it could be a short series.