Like a 90’s rap feud, its East Coast vs West Coast in the 114th edition of baseball’s World Series, pitting two of the game’s most venerable franchises – the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers – against each other in the best-of-seven decider.
Remarkably, the two clubs have only met once before in the Fall Classic, that coming a mere 102 years ago. Back then Boston was playing in its almost brand new home of Fenway Park – site for the first two games this year – and had a young left-handed pitcher on their roster by the name of Babe Ruth. The Dodgers were then from the New York borough of Brooklyn and were known as the Robins; they didn’t become the Dodgers until 1932, and moved out to LA in 1958. Boston won that series 4-1.
This year’s Series is also historic; for the first-time the two competing sides will be managed by ethnic minorities. Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts – who is black – has led his team back after last year’s seven-game defeat to Houston and a rocky start to the season, while his Red Sox counterpart Alex Cora – who hails from Puerto Rico – led his team to the best record in the Majors with 108 wins in his first season at the helm; he was however involved in last year’s World Series as the Astros bench coach (essentially the manager’s right-hand man). The links between the two managers go well beyond that though. The pair were teammates on the Dodgers in 2002-04 until Roberts was traded to Boston where he etched his name in lore with “The Steal” that kicked off the famous comeback against the Yankees and propelled the Sox to their curse-busting first title since 1918, while Cora also ended up with a ring in Boston as part of the 2007 title-winning club.
At their disposal, the two will have some of the very best talent in the game, and the difficulty they’ll face may be who to leave out of their lineups rather than who to put in. Both Cora and Roberts are from the new breed of managers who rely on advanced analytics more so than what history or gut instinct would suggest, so expect plenty of in-game moves – much like a game of chess – as they look to give their team the advantage in matchups.
Roberts has a side full of flexibility with most of his position players able to handle multiple positions, giving him options later in games. He has two of his key pieces in Justin Turner and last year’s NL Rookie of the Year Cody Bellinger getting hot at just the right time, but also has to be concerned at catcher Yasmani Grandal’s prolonged slump and the absence of production from second base. Another is the wildcard of superstar midseason acquisition Manny Machado who is playing well, but also cast as the pantomime villain of these playoffs after some questionable conduct on-field and comments off of it. He’s also likely to show considerable faith in his relievers, anchored by closer Kenley Jansen, but will be hoping for more innings from his starters – outside of highly-paid ace Clayton Kershaw – than he’s gotten in the earlier rounds. One consideration will be who he uses as his designated hitter in the games at Fenway Park, with that duty likely to fall to some combination of Joc Pederson and resurgent veteran Matt Kemp.
On the other side, Cora has two major issues he’ll need to navigate. The first is a shaky bullpen highlighted by rookie Ryan Brasier emerging as a key piece and the issues the closer Craig Kimbrel is having. Cora continues to show faith in the latter by giving him the ball in save situations but it’s been telling that he’s had someone else up and throwing in case he needs to bail him up. The second won’t be a factor until the Series moves to Los Angeles, but without the designated hitter in play in the National League park he’ll have to figure out a way to get arguably his best hitter in JD Martinez into the lineup. That’ll mean sacrificing either Andrew Benintendi or ALCS MVP Jackie Bradley Jr, or keeping those two in the outfield along with the defensively-challenged Martinez and taking the radical step of putting league MVP frontrunner Mookie Betts at second base. Betts came up as a middle-infielder, but has played the grand total of six innings there since his rookie season in 2014. Cora also has some flexibility, particularly in the infield where Xander Bogaerts – the only player on Boston’s roster that played on the 2013 title team – will likely be the only player to start each game, but not on the same level Roberts has.
The series gets underway today with the respective aces, Chris Sale for the Red Sox and the Dodgers’ Kershaw, on the pitching mound.
My pick says Boston in six games, but they’ll have to overcome another quirk of history to do that; in the past ten years every team that won their League Championship first has gone on to lose the World Series. Plus they’re my team.
If it gets anywhere near the same level of drama as the past two – the Cubs finally breaking their drought over Cleveland in 2016 and Houston’s first title last year – it’ll be a doozy.
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