The Rays have been here just once before, in 2008.
Their World Series history is a quite a bit more extensive and exultant but, recently, all about frustration and disappointment.
The 116th World Series, which starts Tuesday night at neutral site Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, isn’t the matchup Major League Baseball and their network partners would have preferred. No, that would have been the Dodgers vs. the Yankees, clubs representing the two largest media markets in the country.
But what this year’s World Series is providing is a matchup of the two teams that were the best – and the most consistent – throughout this COVID-19 shortened season that was unlike any other in MLB history.
The Rays, who coasted to the AL East title after going 40-20, against the Dodgers, who ran away with the NL West after going an MLB-best 43-17.
The similarities don’t end there.
Even with dramatically different payrolls – the Dodgers resemble the Yankees in spending while the Rays, well, spend like the Rays always have – the clubs have comparable philosophies in how they evaluate and develop players. Andrew Friedman, who helped build the Tampa organization into a consistent contender, departed after the 2014 season to take over in Los Angeles as the president of baseball operations. One of Friedman’s longtime lieutenants with the Rays, Erik Neander, has been senior vice president and general manager since November 2016 and the club hasn’t missed a beat.
Tyler Glasnow, who gets the Game 1 start for the Rays against the Dodgers Clayton Kershaw, said the payroll discrepancy between the Rays and so many other teams isn’t something that even registers anymore in his clubhouse.
"Last year we kind of realized we could compete with anyone, so I don’t know if there’s any intimidation or anything like that," Glasnow said Monday before the Rays worked out at Globe Life. "We all understand how good we are as a team. What the organization has done to put this team together is amazing. As far as competition goes, I don't think payroll is something players think about, at least for me anyway."
Both clubs survived seven-game wars to get here. The Rays, after beating the Yankees in five games in the Division Series, survived a deciding Game 7 Saturday night against the Astros, 4-2, after building a three-games-to-none lead in the ALCS. The Dodgers rallied from a 3-1 deficit against the Braves in the NLCS to win Sunday night’s seventh game, 4-3.
The narrative for this World Series is fairly straightforward: Either the Rays, with their standout starting pitching and seemingly non-stop assembly line of seed-throwing bullpen arms at the disposal of manager Kevin Cash, will win the franchise’s first World Series title (they lost in five games to the Phillies in the ’08 Series); or it will be the Dodgers capturing the organization’s first championship since 1988 and finally putting a bevy of October setbacks from the last decade, including losses in the 2017 and 2018 World Series, behind them.
"This year is our year! This is our year!" Dave Roberts, the oft-criticized Dodgers manager [especially this time of year] shouted into the stadium microphone at Globe Life Field after Sunday night’s Game 7.
"The job's not done, we all understand that," Roberts said Monday.
The Dodgers – as expected – have the edge in star power as they feature, among others, former Red Sox superstar – and 2018 AL MVP – Mookie Betts, 2019 NL MVP Cody Bellinger, this year’s NLCS MVP Corey Seager, and three-time NL Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, trying to overcome his own October narrative (not a good one).
The always quirky Rays, inventers of the modern "opener" concept and anchored by a stable of mostly anonymous relievers, have stud starters in Glasnow, 2018 Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell and veteran Charlie Morton.
Offensively, the Rays lineup, like the bullpen, conducts most of their work in anonymity.
But ultimately, this Series will be remembered as the official end to a season many back in early July at the onset of Spring Training II felt wouldn’t get played to a conclusion. No asterisk needed for the 60-game regular season and ensuing 16-team playoff.
"Winning the World Series is winning the World Series," Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said Monday. "I know there was a lot of talk as to whether or not this is a normal season or what a World Series championship would mean, but from Day 1 we came out as a group and said that if there's a championship to be won, we're going to go after it and try to run it down…There's a lot of challenges that go into winning a championship this year and it still would be special."
A TALE OF 2 TEAMS
43-17 Regular-season record 40-20
21 World Series trips 2
6 (last in 1988) World Series titles 0
Corey Seager (6 HRs, 15 RBIs, 1.124 OPS) Hottest postseason hitter Randy Arozarena (7 HRs, 10 RBIs, 1.288 OPS)
Julio Urias (4-0, 0.56 ERA, 0.63 WHIP Hottest postseason pitcher Charlie Morton (3-0, 0.57 ERA, 0.96 WHIP)
$191.2M 2020 payroll (non-prorated) $67.6M
Mookie Betts ($32M) Highest-paid player (non-prorated) Charlie Morton, $15M