Dodgers Race in Front With 6-2 WinBrendan Gawlowskion October 24, 2020 at 1:33 pm

I’ve been thinking about distance a lot lately. The space we must keep from each other, the proximity of the most turbulent election of our lifetimes, and how the former often exacerbates the stress of the latter.

Baseball cannot provide a complete escape, of course, and the specter of distance loomed again prior to the start of Game 3. Just before first pitch, I couldn’t help but wince as the camera panned around a not particularly distanced crowd under the roof of Globe Life Field. Responsible countries with far fewer cases have maintained much stricter attendance measures at sporting events. Here in the U.S., there may be good reasons to allow 11,447 people into a big league ballpark right now, but they evade me.

To add another uncomfortable variable, a rainy forecast prompted the powers that be to close Globe Life Park’s retractable roof. I’m not really sure whether the closure made the stadium any more dangerous, but it certainly couldn’t have helped. At least one writer stayed away from the pressbox, though the roof did nothing to diminish gatherings down the first and third base lines. With cases spiking around the country — up 21% in Texas over the past week — Tom Verducci’s hasty declaration that the league had concluded fans were no less safe with the roof closed didn’t inspire much confidence.

Regardless, there was a game to play, and the theme of distance permeated the on-field action as well. Right away, the Dodgers showed how little room for error pitchers have against their formidable lineup. Facing Charlie Morton, the Dodgers stayed patient, hit the mistakes they saw, and ultimately took revenge on one of their nemeses from the 2017 World Series.

Morton’s line on the night undersells how well he pitched, at least early on. He enticed whiffs with heat up in the zone, nicked the corners with front door curves, and ran sliders away from righties. Sitting his usual 95 mph-plus, Morton looked good; the Dodgers were simply better.

Justin Turner started the party. With two outs in the first, he got a fastball in the upper half of the zone, and while it wasn’t badly located, Morton probably wanted the ball two inches higher. Two inches of mistake turned into 360 feet of dinger and a 1-0 lead for the gray shirts.

After a single, Morton found his groove for a bit. He retired the next five hitters, setting the Dodgers down on eight pitches in the second before fanning the first two he faced in the third. His curve in particular looked sharp, as the pitch’s physics-defying late break had hitters frozen.

But Morton’s night came unraveled with two outs in the third. With a 1-1 count on Corey Seager, he threw a split, the ball backed up on him, and it grazed Seager as he tried to scramble away. No mistakes go unpunished against the Dodgers, and ringing line drive hits from Turner and Max Muncy scored two more runs.

The Dodgers further separated themselves in the fourth. Cody Bellinger and Joc Pederson each got pitches to their liking early in the count, and both singled sharply to put runners on the corners. Austin Barnes then laid down baseball’s first successful safety squeeze since the Clinton administration, a play that simultaneously melted Baseball Twitter and also plated a fourth run for the Dodgers. Mookie Betts tacked on another with a grounder up the middle to make it 5-0.

On the other side, Tampa Bay never caught up to Walker Buehler’s fastball. He mostly stuck with the high heat his first time through the order, and with everyone swinging and missing by a foot, there wasn’t much reason to change course. Whenever a Ray caught on and started fouling the pitch off, Buehler restored order with the hook, a devastating hard curve that was on point all night. It wasn’t until the fifth that Manuel Margot broke up the no-hitter, and though he came around to score, the game felt out of reach by that point.

From there, opportunities were scarce. Barnes immediately pushed the lead back to five with a line drive into the Dodger bullpen, and LA’s bats stayed mostly quiet from there. Tampa Bay only mustered one hit against LA’s trio of relievers, a solo shot from Randy Arozarena with two outs in the ninth. Ji-Man Choi lined out to left three pitches later, closing the book on a 6-2 game that felt more lopsided than the four-run margin indicates.

On a night just about everyone in the lineup chipped in, it was Buehler who again stole the show. It’s difficult to overstate how overmatched Tampa Bay’s hitters looked against his heat. He threw the cheese more than 60% of the time. Of the 38 occasions the Rays took a hack at it, they missed on 12 and could only foul it off another 16 times. Baseball is always a hard game, but it gets a little easier when you can lean on the ol’ No. 1 so effectively.

After an uneven regular season, Buehler has looked like his old self in October. In five postseason starts, he’s thrown 25 dominant innings. In that span, he’s run a 1.80 ERA, struck out 39 hitters, allowed only two home runs, and probably would have added more innings to his ledger if he wasn’t battling blister issues. He kept the Dodgers alive in a do-or-die Game 6 against Atlanta, and was the most integral contributor in last night’s win. Factoring in the quality of the opposition, his six-innings of one-run ball may be his most best outing of 2020.

Buehler is just the most glaring example of a juggernaut hitting on all cylinders. Through three games this series, Los Angeles’s performance looks like an extension of their regular season dominance, and the form they demonstrated in coming back from a 3-1 deficit in the NLCS. They’ve outscored the Rays 18-11, out-homered them 7-4, and have more hits and walks to boot. After years of October disappointment and several heartbreaking playoff exits, baseball’s best squad is just two wins away from World Series glory.

Does any of this mean that there’s a massive gulf in quality between the two teams? Probably course not; given sufficient time, things tend to even out in this game, particularly since the Rays are no pushover.

But Tampa Bay doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for Brandon Lowe and Willy Adames to get hot. They’re down 2-1, a deficit that historically leads to defeat three-quarters of the time. They’ll need to take three out of four from baseball’s best team, and likely have to get through Buehler and Clayton Kershaw to do it. They may only be a game down, but the title feels a lot further away than that.
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