In the brief time I was around Josh Donaldson, I managed to collect a few of “baseball-life” lessons that I squirrelled away in the back of a notebook as well as the back of the brain. Some of it was kind of rocket-sciency because, well, that’s how Josh talks hitting. He has a PhD in it: as in 'Pretty Hard to Dispute.' But there is one thing he told me after a loss in which he had grinded out – and I mean grinded – at bats in one of those stupid summer games where bugger-all is working for you.
“Fouled off some tough pitches,” I told him.
Because that’s a good thing, right? Battled like hell and didn’t give in etc., etc., etc. The honest tradesman grafting and grinding for every inch and then finally succumbing, secure in the knowledge he’d given it his all and that the baseball gods – with their sense of justice – would surely reward him on the morrow, that the game rewards those with a promise of a brighter tomo…
“Any idea how many of those I fouled off I would normally barrel up?” he said.
Translation: I was missing my pitch, you jackass.
OK, it’s not Camus – as in Albert Camus, the French philosopher name-checked by Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker in one of his recent post-season interviews – but it was a reminder that it’s always good to check your pre-conceived notions; that what you see when you watch a high-performance athlete isn’t always what they see.
So I thought of him (Donaldson, not Camus) as I watched the Los Angeles Dodgers foul off pitch after pitch after pitch in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series win over the Atlanta Braves — when they saw a simply stupid average of 4.6 pitches per plate appearance — and I started to question the accuracy of my sense that these Dodgers are less Hollywood and more hard-assed, that they’re something more than glamour boys. Resilient, as opposed to resplendent.
Nah. I’m giving in to the pre-conceived during this World Series. I just can’t get past the payroll thing. Yes, Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman cut his teeth with the Rays and developed a keen understanding of the use of analytics but it still seems a bone of contention in L.A. as it is accepted reality with the Tampa Bay Rays. It’s almost like a front: the Dodgers the spoiled rich kids fiddling with analytics because they have the money to clean up the mess made whenever the thing blows a gasket; the Rays the poor kids who need to squeeze out every single, tiny, advantage.
And the fact is you’d be hard-pressed to take many of the Rays position players over their Dodgers counterparts, especially the way they’re hitting now. Pitching? Yeah, we can argue that chiefly because the Rays have much less warped history around their pitching than do the Dodgers – you know, Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen and all that stuff. But let’s be real: baseball people have felt for years – years! – that the Dodgers were destined to win a World Series.
The Rays? Destined to re-locate, maybe.
So, yes, while it is true that this is a meeting between the teams in each league with the best records, albeit over 60 games, and it is true that’s only the fourth time it’s happened since the wild-card format was born in 1995, it is still the Dodgers vs. the Rays. I called this matchup on Baseball Central when the pandemic ended and, yeah, I’m sticking with my predicted outcome. I hope J.D. understands.
With the World Series set to begin Tuesday, these six players could have a significant impact on how the series unfolds…
JEFF BLAIR’S PICK: Rays in six games.
SIX TO WATCH
1. Randy Arozarena, LF, Rays
Without him the Rays wouldn’t be in the World Series because, well, nobody else has hit. N-o-b-o-d-y. Brandon Lowe, Yandy Diaz and Willy Adames have combined to slash .109/.268/.124 — in the entire month of October. Austin Meadows is 4-for-35 (114) and Rays TV analyst Orestes Destrade thinks COVID-19 and injuries have turned this into a write-off for him: he looks heavier and that might be impacting his bat speed.
Since the wild-card era started in 1995, only the 2019 Houston Astros and 2016 Cleveland Indians had a lower team average coming out of their league championship series. Both ended up losing the World Series. Oh: the Rays are also hitless in their last 14 at-bats with runners in scoring position.
All Arozarena has done is lead all players in post-season runs (14), hits (21) and extra-base hits (11). The Rays have scored a total of 57 runs — he has scored or driven in 21 of them. No wonder he was named most valuable player in the American League Championship Series. I see Clayton Kershaw hanging a curve... I see Arozarena killing it. He’s .383/.433/.855 in 60 plate appearances this month, so let’s not do the Dave Roberts thing and out-think the narrative.
2. Mookie Betts, RF, Dodgers
Ooh, going out on a limb here, right? The guy who signed a 12-year, $365-million contract extension after his market-rattling trade from the Boston Red Sox has made shining defensive play after shining defensive play in right field and has a chance to – in his first year – write himself all over the franchise’s first World Series win since 1989.
It’s true that Betts’ offence in the post-season hasn’t matched that defensive excellence. He hit .269 in the NLCS and has been more consistent than exceptional – just kind of there compared to, say, Corey Seager. But he knows the Rays from his time in the AL East with the Boston Red Sox: he’s 7-for-23 with a home run against Blake Snell and 6-for-20 against Charlie Morton and 3-for-9 against Tyler Glasnow.
He’s won a World Series before and knows none of the sphincter-tightening fear of a Dodgers player in the post-season.
3. Ji-Man Choi, 1B, Rays
Look: I could just go Glasnow or Snell or Anderson or Franklin as Rays to watch and pretty much be done with it. Pitching, pitching, pitching. But, I don’t know: Choi seems to be having so much damned fun whenever the camera finds him, or at least always seems to be wearing some sort of bemused, confused or enthused facial expression.
He actually had a decent ALCS and his proficiency around first base is an important part of the tight defence that is a Rays calling card. He is the ultimate whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts player. And unlike some of his teammates he can handle velocity, especially from right-handers which will come in handy against Walker Buehler, Brusdar Graterol, Tony Gonsolin, Dustin May — hell, maybe even Joe Kelly.
The Rays will need somebody other than Arozarena and it just kind of feels it might be Choi. Hope so.
4. Kike Hernandez, IF-OF, Dodgers
He might not be needed. He might hit .071 as he did in six games against the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2018 NLCS, when he struck out in half his 16 plate appearances. Or he’ll hit a homer. Or two.
Because, of Hernandez’s 24 post-season hits over 52 post-season games, one-third have been homers, and given the fact that the Dodgers have enough depth on their roster to play the matchup game you can see Hernandez lying in wait for Aaron Loup or maybe even a Ryan Yarbrough cameo out of the bullpen. He’s like an add-on run lying in the bushes. Waiting. Shh… nothing to see here.
5. Julio Urias, LHP, Dodgers
See, here’s the thing about Dave Roberts: playing pin the tail on the relief pitcher isn’t really his strength, whereas for his Rays managerial counterpart, Kevin Cash, it’s the way he’s always done things. I mean, the Rays didn’t have a starter with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. Or a reliever for that matter. So Cash is quite comfortable playing the long game using short relievers and his pitchers have bought into it because, well, they have no choice.
I have to think watching Urias toss three perfect innings of scoreless relief in Game 7, hitting 96 m.p.h., needing just 10 pitches to get his first three outs and then surviving a 10-pitch battle with Freddie Freeman in the eighth innings, left Roberts feeling all sorts of giddy. Four days earlier, Urias made the start in Game 4 and threw 101 pitches. Unlike the division and championship series, there are off-days baked into the World Series schedule – between games two and three and five and six – so Roberts might be less tempted to tap into Urias or Dustin May.
But the way this is setting up, with Kenley Jansen having pitched just well enough to put himself in position to break Dodgers hearts again? I can see Urias’ schedule getting hectic.
6. Ryan Yarbrough, LHP, Rays
The Dodgers had difficulty handling slop-tossing lefties this season – their OPS on soft pitches from southpaws was 17th in the Majors – and, well, they’re going to see a lot of 81 m.p.h. from Yarbrough, who doesn’t light up the gun like the Rays other starters but is in fact the embodiment of what they do: he can start, come on following an opener as a ‘bulk’ starter, or just relieve.
Plus? He’s dull as spit, his pitching velocity matched by opponents' exit velocity – 82.6 m.p.h. this season, second slowest in the Majors among pitchers who yielded 50 batted balls. He loves his cutter and why not? He gets soft contact and lots of swings and misses.
If this series goes six or seven games my guess is we’re going to see him a great deal. Bring a pillow. Deal with it. As the hashtag says, #RaysUp.