2020 might be many things, and few of them good, but there was a baseball season and with it a champion as the Los Angeles Dodgers this week overcame the disappointment of World Series defeats in 2017 to the Houston Trash Can Cheats Astros and 2018 to the Boston Red Sox to beat the Tampa Bay Rays and claim their first title since 1988.
To get to this point though, we have to go back to March when the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. Like countless other leagues around the world Major League Baseball suspended activities, albeit during the spring training part of the calendar and not midseason like it’s NBA and NHL brethren, and the question become would baseball play in 2020, not when.
But back it came, with the season starting in late July. A 60-game sprint in place of the 162-game grind, limited travel with teams sticking to their own division and the corresponding geographical one of the other league, daily testing, no minor leagues (that season was cancelled in May), expanded playoffs with 8 teams from each league rather than just four, and new rules including the designated hitter in all games and runners on base to start play in extra innings. Players could opt out of the season if they chose, and some like San Francisco’s Buster Posey and the New York Mets Marcus Stroman did, while the Toronto Blue Jays found themselves playing their home games at their Triple-A affiliate’s ballpark in Buffalo after the Canadian Government refused to allow repeated cross-border travel.
Once the season got underway the standouts emerged; the Dodgers fortified by their offseason addition of Boston star Mookie Betts to an already stacked lineup, Atlanta behind their young stars Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies, a resurgent San Diego headed by breakout star Fernando Tatis Jr, those damn Yankees, and the always competitive Oakland. There were surprises too; Tampa Ray, who are run on the smell of an oily rag, headed the American League standings, Washington and Boston – the last two World Series winners – slumped to last-place finishes, and Houston only just snuck into the playoffs with a sub .500 record.
Even with protocols there were still Covid issues, Both Miami and St Louis suffered outbreaks of the virus within their squads and forcing rapid reshuffles of the schedule including doubleheaders, but ultimately every team got through 60 games and MLB enjoyed a lengthy period without any positive Covid tests.
Into the playoffs the Dodgers blew through both Milwaukee and San Diego without dropping a game with Tampa heading division rivals Toronto and the Yankees. Both then won out in epic seven-games series in the League Championships – played in neutral sites in San Diego and Arlington – with LA taking down Atlanta and Tampa seeing off Houston and depriving us all of what would have been one of the most spiteful World Series of all time.
The Dodgers never trailed in the deciding series, played at the Texas Rangers’ brand new ballpark in Arlington. LA took game one behind their ace pitcher Clayton Kershaw and star outfielder Cody Bellinger, while Tampa won game two with two home runs from infielder Brandon Lowe. LA won game three led by a dominant pitching performance from Walker Buehler and looked set to take a 3-1 lead in game four. That was until with two out in the ninth inning, pinch-hitting Rays backup outfielder Brett Phillips slapped a single to centre that was misplayed by the Dodgers’ Chris Taylor. Then the relay throw home skipped off the glove of catcher Will Smith allowing the Rays Randy Arozarena, who had stumbled and fallen rounding third, to score the winning run. As a comedy of errors, it couldn’t have provided a more dramatic ending.
But that was the high point for Tampa, as Kershaw returned to lead LA to a win in game five before the Dodgers, punctuated by a championship-sealing home run from Betts, took game six; though Rays manager Kevin Cash’s decision to take out his ace Blake Snell in the sixth when he was seemingly cruising will be analysed for months to come. Arozarena, a throw-in in a trade back in January, sets new postseason records for hits (28) and home runs (10), but it’s the Dodgers Corey Seager who is named as the series MVP, following up his award in the League series.
The drama isn’t over yet though. In the eighth inning Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner is removed from the game after his Covid tests from the previous two days come back positive, but despite this he returns to the field for the celebrations in violation of MLB’s own rules. What happens there, and with the rest of baseball, remains to be seen.
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