Brandon Lowe Finally Breaks Slump As Rays Even World SeriesTony Wolfeon October 22, 2020 at 1:00 pm

Prior to Game 2 of the World Series, there was little ambiguity about how Brandon Lowe’s 2020 postseason had gone. He was dreadful, owning a .107/.180/.161 slash line over 61 plate appearances with just one home run. To say the least, Tampa Bay had expected more from him — with 2.3 WAR in the regular season, he was the Rays’ most valuable player, in addition to leading the team in a host of offensive categories. His manager, Kevin Cash, continued not only to play him every day, but position him prominently at the top of the lineup. But with one disappointing series after another, he was quickly running out of time to make a positive impact.

Mercifully, that extended slump fell by the wayside on Wednesday. Lowe homered twice and drove in three runs against Dodgers pitchers, as the Rays defeated Los Angeles 6-4 and knotted the series up at a game apiece. The two sides will take a day off before reconvening Friday, with Los Angeles right-hander Walker Buehler scheduled to face Tampa Bay righty Charlie Morton.

Wednesday’s tilt had a dramatically different feel from the previous evening’s Game 1, when the Dodgers rode a dominant starting pitching performance and an offensive surge in the middle innings to an impressive victory. Los Angeles tapped right-handed rookie Tony Gonsolin as its Game 2 starter, just two days after he’d thrown two innings in a relief appearance during Game 7 of the NLCS. The decision to use Gonsolin, as opposed to Buehler on three days rest, was a signal that the Dodgers were comfortable relying upon their relievers to throw a large chunk of Game 2 — it was just unclear when we’d see them.

The answer came much sooner than many expected. After being held to just one run in six innings against Clayton Kershaw on Tuesday, Tampa Bay got off to a fast start in Game 2’s opening frame with a one-out homer by Lowe.

Gonsolin was hardly given a chance to settle in, even after retiring the next two batters to end the top of the first. He walked right fielder Manuel Margot to start the second, then coaxed a harmless fly ball out of third baseman Joey Wendle. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, however, had seen enough. Just six batters into the game, he made his first pitching change.

It was hard not to feel taken aback by the quick hook. After throwing 41 pitches and facing 11 hitters on Sunday, everyone knew there was no chance Gonsolin would be asked to throw five or six innings just three days later. To cut his day short after 29 pitches and four outs, however, before any major threat had begun to materialize against him, seemed like a move that would place even more strain on the bullpen than was already going to be necessary to bridge the gap between Kershaw in Game 1 and Buehler in Game 3.

The Rays, for their part, made things far too easy for the Dodgers’ first reliever of the day. Right-handed reliever Dylan Floro entered the game and quickly got a groundball hit to shortstop Corey Seager, who was playing shallow. Margot, acting aggressively as the runner at third, broke for home, but was beaten rather easily by Seager’s throw for the second out. That still left centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier with an opportunity to collect a hit with shortstop Willy Adames now at first base, but just as Kiermaier was working the count nearly full, Adames took off to steal second. A safe call on the field was eventually overturned by replay review, and the Rays’ threat was over.

Subsequent Dodgers arms weren’t as fortunate. Southpaw Victor González replaced Floro with two outs in the third, then returned to the mound in the fourth. He performed adequately, sandwiching two groundouts around a walk to leave a runner at first with two gone. He’d thrown just 10 pitches, but Roberts made another aggressive move, this time turning to the man he likely hoped would act as his bulk reliever for the night: right-hander Dustin May.

Whatever May’s role was expected to be, his performance fell well short. He allowed Margot to slap a single through the right side, then surrendered a two-run double to Wendle to put the Dodgers behind 3-0. More damage came in the fifth. With two outs, designated hitter Austin Meadows came through with a single to get on ahead of Lowe, who fell behind 0-2 before launching his second dinger of the night.

As Tampa Bay mounted that lead, its own starting pitcher — left-hander Blake Snell — showcased some of the best stuff he’s possessed all season. Over his first four innings, Snell held the Dodgers without a hit while striking out eight and walking two. Snell seemed to be moving every pitch the way he wanted to, especially the slider — of the first 11 swings against it, eight missed. And for a pitcher who has had problems pitching deep into the game, Snell had even been somewhat efficient over the first four frames, throwing just 62 pitches.

The Dodgers, however, wouldn’t be contained forever. After starting the fifth with two outs, including his ninth and final strikeout of the game, Snell lost second baseman Enrique Hernández on a walk. He then fell behind left fielder Chris Taylor, and attempted to get back into the count with a backdoor curveball. The pitch caught too much of the plate, though, and Taylor capitalized.

A walk and a single later, Snell was out of the game, unable to nail down the inning’s third out despite four chances. The Rays got a run back with right-hander Joe Kelly on the mound in the sixth, putting their first two hitters aboard on singles before Wendle drove in a run with a sacrifice fly. The Dodgers responded in the bottom of the inning with a solo homer by catcher Will Smith.

In the eighth inning, Los Angeles got its best opportunity yet to tie the game. Leading off the inning, Seager got an offspeed pitch from right-hander Pete Fairbanks that hung over the middle of the plate, and demolished a home run to straightaway center. It was Seager’s seventh of the postseason, the most of any shortstop in a single playoff year.

Next up was third baseman Justin Turner, who popped a pitch up into an awkward spot between the Rays’ outfielders in right-center. Both fielders missed the ball despite running full speed to try and reach it, leading to a double that brought the tying run to plate with no outs. The next two Dodgers hitters made solid contact, but both balls found their way into a fielder’s glove. Lefty Aaron Loup entered to record the last out of the eighth, then sat down the first two hitters of the ninth before right-hander Diego Castillo took his turn and struck out the final batter of the game.

The mid-series day off Thursday has to be a welcome sight for two teams that had to play seven straight days last week just to get to this point. But the peril of five games in six days has the potential to follow, including a Game 4 that could very well become a bullpen day for both sides (Ryan Yarbrough and Julio Urías are expected to start), and each of these relief staffs appear increasingly more vulnerable as playoff games add up.

The Dodgers have been dealing with a question mark in the closer’s spot for pretty much the entire postseason, and as Game 2 showed, they also don’t appear to have the fireman they’d hoped for to get through the middle innings of tough days like Wednesday. After looking dominant in his first NLDS appearance against the Padres, throwing two perfect innings with three strikeouts, May has seemed to look more hittable in each subsequent outing. His final two appearances of the NLCS went poorly, as he allowed three runs on four hits and four walks in four innings, and his first World Series outing was even worse. May faced eight hitters on Wednesday, and six of them recorded batted balls of 95 mph or harder.

To be fair, May has been placed in a rather difficult spot by his manager, particularly as a rookie. In six appearances, he’s been asked to start/open three times, and has entered as something of a middle reliever/swingman in his other three games. The constant shifting of his role throughout these postseason series could be having a real effect on him, especially since all 12 of his regular-season appearances featured him as either a typical starter or someone who followed an opener.

Tampa Bay has had similar problems with a reliever who has seemingly struggled to adjust to the ever-shifting demands of when he appears in a game. During the regular season, right-hander Nick Anderson was one of the most dominant relievers in the sport, owning a 0.55 ERA and 1.35 FIP while allowing just one home run in 16.1 innings. After giving up Smith’s sixth-inning blast on Wednesday, however, Anderson has now allowed runs in five consecutive outings dating back to Game 5 of the ALDS. In 13 total postseason innings, he’s allowed seven runs (4.65 ERA) on 12 hits and three homers. After striking out 26 batters in the regular season, he’s struck out just eight in the playoffs in nearly as many innings.

The Rays boast loads of depth in their bullpen, however, and the Dodgers aren’t far behind. One way or another, one of these teams will find enough capable relief arms to win them a title. With each of the first two games featuring someone taking a substantial lead in the middle innings, we haven’t gotten two many high-leverage frames in which the bullpens can take center stage. With two fully-rested, intimidating starters going in Game 3, though, that could change very soon.
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