clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Rays Evened the World Series in Startling Fashion

A tumbling ending to Game 4 turned what looked (briefly) like the early stages of a Dodgers coronation into a 2-2, up-for-grabs series

World Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Four Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The fourth game of a hitherto uneventful World Series mushroomed into one of the weirdest, most chaotic games in the history of the Fall Classic, culminating in an 8-7 win for the Tampa Bay Rays, and instant celebrity for Brett Phillips, the affable reserve outfielder who delivered the game-winning hit.

The baseball world had spent an entire season gearing up for Randy Arozarena vs. Kenley Jansen in the ninth inning of a one-run World Series game. And, indeed, the undisputed breakout star of these playoffs, who’d just earlier in the night set a new record for home runs in a single postseason, came to bat representing the winning run against a Hall of Fame closer. Jansen chucked one teasing cutter after another around the edges of the strike zone, and the rookie slugger did not take the bait. So they stared each other down like cardsharps at a high-stakes table as Globe Life Field (and every television in America tuned to Fox) positively rattled with tension. Fluids bubbling out the top, seams groaning, rivets pinging off as the pressure vessel swelled.

In the end, Jansen didn’t give Arozarena anything to hit, and he walked, bringing an end to the most intense at-bat of the postseason so far. Ordinarily that would be the highlight of the inning, but a mere four pitches later, Arozarena found himself rounding third like he was being chased by a swarm of hornets. His helmet flew off and he stumbled, windmilled to the ground, and barrel-rolled toward the plate. Then, he got back up, started toward home, scampered back toward third, and then reversed direction again to lay out and only barely touch home plate for the winning run.

Tampa Bay’s 8-7 win leveled the World Series at 2-2, and erased a potential future where the Rays would have to climb out of a 3-1 hole. Now, Tampa Bay and Los Angeles will play best-of-three for a title. All because of one walk, one pinch-hit single from the last man on the bench, and one somersault.

Through three games, the Rays had taken some body blows from the Dodgers’ imposing lineup, but stayed in the fight by playing a stick-and-move style of baseball. Manager Kevin Cash saved his best relievers for the biggest moments and the offense contributed just enough timely home runs to keep things from getting out of control. Never in this series have the Rays looked like the better team, but they’ve hung around, waiting for an opportunity to take control of the series.

That opportunity came on Saturday night. After Tampa Bay starter Ryan Yarbrough allowed a pair of early solo home runs, the Rays came storming back in the middle innings. Arozarena emerged from a seven-game mini-slump with three hits in his first three at-bats, including his record-setting ninth home run of the playoffs. Kevin Kiermaier, the longest-tenured Ray, contributed a game-tying home run. The Rays scored eight runs in Game 4; they haven’t scored more in a playoff game since Game 4 of last year’s ALDS.

The Rays got the matchups they wanted. Their four best relievers—Nick Anderson, Aaron Loup, Diego Castillo, and Pete Fairbanks—all pitched. Lefty-killing outfielder Hunter Renfroe hit a second-deck home run against left-handed starter Julio Urías. And while Dodgers manager Dave Roberts used his best relief arms, he also needed to use Adam Kolarek and Pedro Báez, the latter of whom gave up two home runs.

And it was so nearly not enough. The Rays’ comeback win—which included the first lead change of the series—was the result of Tampa Bay scoring at least one run in four straight innings, from the fourth to the seventh. The Dodgers responded with at least one run in the ensuing half-inning every single time, and in the process touched up all four of those vaunted relievers.

The home runs by Arozarena and Renfroe, as well as a three-run shot by Brandon Lowe, were all absolutely crushed, but the Dodgers managed to fight back by any means necessary. All seven of L.A.’s runs came with two outs, including a seventh-inning Joc Pederson line drive that glanced off Lowe’s glove to negate the lead the former Maryland standout had just provided. An inning later, after Kiermaier had tied the game with a solo home run, Corey Seager put the Dodgers back on top with a pop-up that just happened to find an empty patch of turf.

It looked like that would be enough. Summoned to the mound for the start of the ninth, Jansen retired pinch hitter Yoshi Tsutsugo, then sawed off Kiermaier, who reached on an unlikely single. Joey Wendle flew out to left, and even after Arozarena walked, the Dodgers could feel safe. At least he hadn’t homered again.

Up to the plate stepped Phillips, a 26-year-old reserve outfielder who’d entered the game as a pinch runner the inning before. The man he pinch-ran for, Ji-Man Choi, might have given Jansen a reason to sweat, but Phillips is a career .202 hitter who made the World Series roster for his legs and his laugh after not being on the ALCS roster at all. Phillips’s major contribution to baseball history was his Forrest Gump–like ability to show up in interesting trades. For instance, in the 2015 deal that put Mike Fiers on the Astros, it was Phillips (along with Josh Hader, Adrian Houser, and Domingo Santana) who went the other way.

Jansen showed Phillips three cutters around the edge of the zone. Phillips, looking like he’d rather swallow a pineapple than take the bat off his shoulder, took all of them. It was only after he fell behind 1-2, and Jansen’s fourth cutter of the at-bat got a little more of the plate than intended, that Phillips swung.

Phillips’s single probably would have plated Kiermaier and tied the game no matter what. But the ball bounced off Chris Taylor’s glove in center, then the relay home handcuffed Dodgers catcher Will Smith, allowing Arozarena to stop, drop, and roll on his way home and score the series-tying run.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have made seven trips to the NLCS in the past 13 seasons, won eight division titles in a row, and won the pennant three times in the past four years. But the Clayton Kershaw-and-friends Dodgers exist in an uncomfortable space, alongside the 1990s Buffalo Bills and Seven-Seconds-or-Less Phoenix Suns as teams that came to define and dominate an era of their sport, but never won it all.

Twice Jansen came within a strike of putting the Dodgers up 3-1, with Kershaw on the mound in a potential clincher. If that’s not an insurmountable lead, it’s close, and the Dodgers would have had one hand on the big hunk of metal for the first time in 32 years.

Baseball is a game that’s studied, planned, and choreographed with microscopic precision. Hundreds of millions of dollars in payroll, facilities, and R&D went into developing these two World Series teams, to say nothing of a ring of empiricists fit to split the atom or put an astronaut on the moon if the mood struck them. And all that planning and research went out the window when the last man off the bench poked a line drive into right, causing bedlam to ensue in the Texas evening. What else can anyone do in this situation but laugh?