Facts & Figures: Stellar Starters & Patient Hitting Finds Dodgers in Control of Own Destiny

Last night felt like a bad body blow by the Dodgers in the heavyweight bout that is this 2020 World Series. After Friday’s off-day both teams sent trusted pitchers to the mound for Game 3 with the series split at one win a piece. The Dodgers likely had the upper hand in most fan’s minds going with established ace Walker Buehler while the Rays countered with playoff-tested veteran Charlie Morton, who is a multi-time All-Star in his own right.

In the end, the Dodgers took away a decisive 6-2 victory. Buehler was magnificent, pitching 6 innings and allowing just one run on 3 hits and ten strikeouts. Third baseman Justin Turner starred as well, going 2 for 5 with 2 runs scored and an RBI. He both homered and doubled off of Morton in the early innings and played sparkling defense at third on a groundball that was nearly passed him on his glove side that he turned into a nifty double play.

To say that Game 3s in a series split at one win a piece are pivotal would make for good fodder in a Hotels.com commercial (Thanks, Captain Obvious!), but this sentiment may really be the case for this particular World Series. The Rays find themselves headed into a Game 4 tonight at 8 PM. Ryan Yarbrough was not named as tonight’s starter for the Rays until after the conclusion of last night’s contest. This game was always likely to be a bullpen game or was going to at least include the presence of an opener. However, the fact that the Dodgers were set to go with Julio Urias, who was dominant in his last outing pitching 3 shutout innings in Game 7 of the NLCS, and the Rays are still figuring out their plan of attack for this afternoon does not bode well.

Additionally, what lies ahead in Game 5 for the Rays is another date with Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw may be 32. He may also have a checkered history with the postseason, but much of that history is tarnished because of how he has been used by his managers- overextension due to dependency on his powers, ill-advised relief appearances, World Series games against opponents with unfair advantages.

Consider this: 14 pitchers have thrown 13 or more innings this post-season. The Rays would have to face three of the top 6 in ERA in the remaining four games of a potential seven game series. They are Urias (0.56, 1st), Kershaw (2.88, 6th) and Buehler (1.80, 3rd) again in a potential Game 7. Urias (0.63) and Kershaw (0.84) would also land first and second on this list if you sorted by best WHIP. Needless to say, the Rays have a long road ahead against LA’s starting staff.

On the other side, the Dodgers’ approach at the plate has been phenomenal and tailor made for the match-up that the find themselves in. Rays’ manager Kevin Cash is known for his lightning quick trigger in removing his starting pitchers. Of the three starters he used so far this World Series only Tyler Glasnow averaged more than 5 innings pitched per start in the regular season. It should not be a shock then that none of these three starters escaped the 5th inning thus far in this series. Tampa Bay has depended on above average starting pitching in spurts and a “stable of arms that throw 98” to get them wins since July.

What is a shock is the number of pitches each starter has thrown. Glasnow threw a career high of 112 pitches in Game 1 and didn’t finish the 5th inning. Morton may have completed his season average of 4 1/3 innings last night, but he did it on 91 pitches as opposed to his season average of 73. Even Blake Snell, who was good enough in Game 2 to get the win even if he didn’t pitch long enough to qualify for it, threw 88 pitches as opposed to his season average of 79.

Cash’s strategy is predicated on his starters pitching efficiently enough that they get just deep enough in the game that their dominant bullpen isn’t overtaxed. The Dodgers have done everything they possibly can to dismantle this game plan.

They have seen 4.13 pitches per plate appearance so far in the series. That would have been good enough for 2nd in the league over the course of the 60-game regular season. They have caused a heightened level of pain for the Rays’ starters in particular, against whom they have averaged 4.48 pitches per plate appearance. Even if this era of working the count and laughing in the face of strikeouts, that number is astounding.

Even further, this level of patience was not part of the Dodgers’ MO this season. Their season average of 3.89 pitches per plate appearance was not only below average, it was 6th worst in MLB. This has been a concerted effort by a group of largely veteran hitters to make the Rays staff struggle.

And it has worked in spades to this point. Glasnow issued 6 walks, 3 of which made up the 6 runs he allowed, and became overextended for the 4th and 5th after he started the game with 3 shutout innings. Snell may have fared better overall, but still walked 4 Dodgers, and Morton did well just to get into the 5th inning considering the 5 runs he had allowed before it.

That usage of Morton is the crux of this issue. The Dodgers are throwing the Rays’ pitching staff off schedule with their patience. Cash finds himself in the unenviable position of deciding whether to over-extend his starters or overtax his bullpen. In a way, perhaps a bullpen game tonight is just what the doctor ordered. It would take this strategy out of the picture and allow the Rays to just throw whoever is going strong for however long they can handle it (which could be Yarbrough, mind you, he did start this season). Still, the Dodgers are still liable to fight tooth and nail.

To their credit, what the Dodgers have executed has allowed their lineup to prosper. They are averaging 6 runs per game in the series. Clean-up hitter Max Muncy is hitting .364 and has driven in 4 runs. Short-stop Corey Seager has scored three times on the back of a homer, 4 walks and a .333 average. Mookie Betts has set the table for both of them at the top with his .333 average and four stolen bases.

Momentum is only good as the next day’s pitching performance, especially in a series featuring a neutral site, but if the Rays aren’t able to solve the mystery that has been put in front of them, this series could be over at the same time the weekend is.

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