Can Rays seal deal?

Let me open with a disclaimer that I started this abbreviated season by predicting the Los Angeles Dodgers would hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy, finally winning the World Series for the first time since 1988.

I’m rolling into this week’s column short-sighted, based on my preseason prediction.

There is only one way the Tampa Bay Rays are going to beat the Dodgers in the best-of-seven series in Arlington, Texas. And it’s with a trend they started in baseball a couple of seasons back, utilizing a bullpen-heavy staff rather than relying on key starters.

Don’t get me wrong, the Rays have quality starting pitching. But it’s their bullpen that has dominated. Truthfully, they’ve had no choice considering how bad their offense has been. Tampa Bay finished the regular season ranked No. 21 with a .238 batting average. It is hitting the league seventh-lowest .209 during the playoffs. And the six teams beneath them played a mere 2.5-game average in the postseason. The Rays also have the league’s seventh-lowest .702 OPS (on-base + slugging percentage).

Only two players on the Rays roster with at least 10 at-bats in the ALCS against Houston hit better than .300. Only four hit better than .200.

So how are they supposed to compete with the Dodgers’ hard-hitting offense that is hitting .256 in the playoffs and finished the regular season with a league-leading 118 home runs? With a strong bullpen that can keep Los Angeles’ versatile lineup off-balance.

Nick Anderson, Pete Fairbanks, Diego Castillo, Jose Alvarado, Ryan Thompson, John Curtiss, Aaron Loup, Josh Fleming ... get to know their names. There are even more, and for good reason.

Back in 2018, when they were supposed to be one of the worst teams in baseball, the Rays created a brand-new strategy for starting pitching, and surprised the league by not only playing better than expected, but by sparking a conversation about how to utilize the pitching staff.

They stack relievers, load up on bullpen days and have what is called “the opener.”

In a seven-game series, you’re bound to count on your starters like Tyler Glasnow, Blake Snell and Charlie Morton. But knowing you have eight, nine, even 10 bullpen guys to serve as the opener and get your team through two innings before bringing in a long reliever to get you to the seventh or eighth to set up the closer, it has become quite a ploy across the league.

Late in the 2018 season, manager Kevin Cash said, “What we’ve found out is that if you have the right personnel, it’s capable of working.”

Obviously.

The masters of “the opener” are now in the World Series, and it’s the one strategy they need to add a second Commissioner’s Trophy to the cabinet.

Wednesday

Rays vs. Dodgers: Manager Dave Roberts is being very careful in naming starters ahead of time. Cash is not. He’s going with Snell in Game 2, and that could pose a problem for the Rays. He is only 2-2 in the postseason, and while I know he was solid in two ALCS starts. He’s only faced the Dodgers one time in his career and doesn’t even have a decision.

Los Angeles won two of their three Game 2s in the previous rounds and know how important this game can be. DODGERS

Friday

Dodgers vs. Rays: As careful as Roberts is for Game 2, speculation is Walker Buehler will be the main man Friday night in Game 3. And this is going to be a problem for the Rays. Buehler is making his second career World Series start, and rolls into this game as the most consistent guy on this staff.

In four starts so far this postseason, Buehler has a 1.89 ERA and 29 strikeouts — second-most in the 2020 playoffs. DODGERS

Saturday

Dodgers vs. Rays: Tampa Bay will thrive in this game, based on the theory of my column. Whether the Dodgers are up 3-0 or 2-1, I think Game 4 is the Rays’ to lose, as this is where they’ll use several pitchers to keep the Dodgers’ hitters guessing, and might be the one game they actually utilize in upwards of six or seven pitchers. Roberts noted after one of the Padres games how hard it was to face a lot of pitchers when you have a lineup like he has. RAYS

Last week: 1-2

Season: 19-15