Rays’ whirlwind win over Dodgers was baseball at its best: Sherman

When baseball rises to its best you want to say so much, yet are left befuddled without words.

You are conjuring images of the past from Kirk Gibson’s final-pitch magic, Allen Craig stumbling home and Francisco Cabrera emerging from “who?” to hero — all the while knowing you are seeing something wholly original.

You forget the time of game and — in 2020 — mercifully you forget why the game is being played in a neutral site before one-fourth capacity with more than the catcher wearing a mask.

On Saturday night, the Dodgers and Rays played a forever game filled with legacy, strategy and the extraordinary. In the end, Randy Arozarena was repeatedly slapping home plate, Brett Phillips was zooming like an airplane across the field and the Dodgers were doing a sequel of dazed and confused. The final play of the Rays’ 8-7 victory will get the full Zapruder treatment to try to gauge who was where and why and how exactly the 116th World Series wound up knotted at two games apiece.

But the 676th World Series game ever was so nerve-wracking, entertaining and historic that it actually brought this immediate thought to mind — happiness that we got here through nasty negotiations between owners and players, COVID-19 outbreaks and questions about the legitimacy of this season. With all that has occurred, the right two teams reached the World Series and by the end of Game 4, Arozarena had literally put the “Fall” in a “Classic.”

Innings six through nine of Game 4 played like the Marvin Hagler-Thomas Hearns three-round classic with each round bringing you belief one or the other guy was done. Runs were scored in nine of the final 11 half innings. The first 32 innings of this World Series were played without a lead change. Then the lead changed in the bottom of the sixth, the top of the seventh, the Rays tied it in the bottom of the seventh, the Dodgers went ahead in the top of the eighth and the Rays won in the bottom of the ninth with Los Angeles one strike away from taking a three-games-to-one lead.

It ended with Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell warming — that would be the Rays’ scheduled Games 5 and 6 starters. Hello kitchen sink. It would end with a hit by a guy (Phillips) who had not had a hit since Sept. 25 and a ball misplayed in center by a guy (Chris Taylor) who had not played that position since Sept. 12. Again, hello kitchen sink.

It ended with the Dodgers — one error in the first 35 2/3 innings of this World Series and on an endless loop of defensive plays that got them to the World Series — making two errors on one play, not even counting Kenley Jansen failing to back up home plate. It ended with Arozarena flopping like Daniel Jones between third and home — but actually getting up to score. It ended for the first time when a team was losing a World Series game with two outs in the ninth and won on a swing since — yep, Gibson homered off Dennis Eckersley to decide Game 1 in 1988.

That is the haunting element hovering over this series. The Dodgers have not won a championship since 1988, spending billions of dollars in the effort. They have been overall the best team in the majors the last eight years, but have fallen short of a ring each time the first seven. They were one strike away from handing the ball to Clayton Kershaw on Sunday night with a chance to eradicate all demons. The Dodgers are the superior team on paper in this World Series. But on the field the Rays find a way. By Game 3, Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash had used all 28 of his players. In Game 4, he tied a World Series record by deploying 21. Did we mention the kitchen sink?

One of the moves was to pinch-run Phillips for Ji-Man Choi in the eighth inning. It seemed no big deal, like when the Rays — always looking for pieces to make the sum of the parts better — obtained Phillips from Kansas City on Aug. 27 for Lucius Fox because they liked what he could bring defensively and on the bases. Except at the biggest moment of their season there he was with a bat in his hands.

The Rays did not score in the eighth after hitting homers in the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh. Arozarena hit a postseason record ninth homer in the fourth. He singled ahead of Brandon Lowe’s three-run homer in the sixth that moved the Rays ahead 5-4. But in the seventh Joc Pederson delivered a pinch-hit, two-run single, the first pinch-hit hit to put the Dodgers ahead in a World Series game since — yep, Gibson. That was old history.

In new history, Pederson pinch-hit for A.J. Pollock, who was starting in center because less than an hour before first pitch the Dodgers had to move Cody Bellinger to DH because his back tightened up. So Taylor moved to center for the first time since Sept. 12. In that game, the Dodgers went to the ninth inning with a 5-2 lead over Houston, but lost when Jansen yielded five runs without recording an out. That contributed to the question if the greatest closer in Dodger history should still have the job. That was the last time the Dodgers blew a ninth-inning lead — before Saturday night.

Three balls were put in play off Jansen in the ninth. The hardest, a 97.6 mph liner by Lowe, went for an out. The softest, a broken bat by Kevin Kiermaier (63.5 mph) for a one-out single and a parachute by Phillips (82.8) that found no-man’s land in right-center, went for hits. Kiermaier’s hit assured that Arozarena would bat in the ninth. There was a Mighty Casey feel to it — if only a guy hardly anyone heard of four weeks ago could get to bat. He had homered off Jansen on Friday.

But good for him for not trying to play hero ball. He accepted the walk. It brought up Phillips, heretofore best known in online videos for an infectious, outrageous laugh. His newlywed wife, Brianne, had flown in earlier that day but due to quarantine rules — 2020 — could not actually be with her husband before or after his greatest professional moment.

Instead, like the rest of us, she was a witness to baseball at its best. When it interweaves with history, when the decisions of the pre-game have ramifications in the very end, when the unlikely becomes a hero and the improbable occurs. Phillips could not catch his breath after the game. The star, therefore, was just like every fan.

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