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What you need to know for a World Series like no other


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Here’s what you need to know right now from the world of sports:

A World Series like no other starts tonight

As we’ve all learned during the pandemic, sometimes it’s just about getting through the day. So baseball deserves some congrats for simply making it this far. Be honest: when the Marlins and Cardinals experienced those big outbreaks that led to a bunch of postponements back in early August, did you think there would be a World Series this year?

But here we are, with Game 1 between the American League champion Tampa Bay Rays and National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers set for tonight just after 8 p.m. ET. In case you gave up on baseball (fair enough) or just need a refresher, here’s who and what to watch for in this unique World Series:

It’s happening at a neutral site

Perhaps scared straight by those early-season outbreaks, Major League Baseball and the players’ union agreed to hold the final three rounds of the post-season in neutral-location, restricted “bubbles.” The World Series is being played at the Texas Rangers’ brand-new stadium in Arlington. It seats around 40,000 but MLB is allowing only about 11,000 fans in for each game, which will make for the smallest World Series crowds in more than a century.

The two best teams are here

Conventional wisdom heading into this pandemic-altered season was that it would be a free-for-all. Baseball was a pretty random sport even before the regular season got shortened from 162 games to 60, the playoff field inflated from 10 teams to 16 and the first round declared an upset-friendly best of three. Throw in the uncertainty of coronavirus infections that could strike any team at any time and you’ve got all the elements for pure chaos.

We got a taste of that when the Marlins — picked by many to finish last in the NL even before 18 of their players were sidelined by positive tests — not only made the post-season but actually swept the Cubs in the opening round. The cream rose to the top, though. The Dodgers and Rays are the top seeds in their respective leagues and had the two best records in baseball.

It’s a David-and-Goliath matchup

The Dodgers are one of the richest and most storied franchises in sports. Their opening-day payroll this year (and remember, salaries were prorated down to about 37 per cent) was $107 million US. Only the Yankees spent more than the Dodgers, who parlayed their deep pockets into the 21st World Series appearance in franchise history (dating back to their time in Brooklyn).

This is only the second trip for Tampa Bay, a 1998 expansion team with an indifferent fan base that plays in one of the worst stadiums in sports and spent only $28.3 million on players’ salaries this year. That’s the third-lowest in baseball and just $2 million shy of what L.A. paid for only two players (Clayton Kershaw and Mookie Betts) this season.

It’s easy to see why the Dodgers are good

They have stars up and down the roster. Kershaw gives them a three-time Cy Young winner at the top of the rotation and they’re particularly loaded on offence. Shortstop Corey Seager just posted an absurd 1.230 OPS and hit five homers in the NLCS to win series MVP honours. Third baseman Justin Turner and catcher Will Smith both got on base 40 per cent of the time this season. Outfielders AJ Pollock and Mookie Betts both hit 16 homers in only 55 games.

Betts is one of the very best players in baseball. He won the 2018 American League MVP before the Red Sox cheaped out and traded him to L.A. last winter. He didn’t quite play to an MVP level this year but he’s still one of the top hitters and baserunners in the game and also makes catches in right-field like this one to rob a home run in Game 7 of the NLCS:

It’s much harder to see why the Rays are good

If you’re a casual baseball fan, there’s a good chance you can look up and down Tampa’s lineup and not see a single name you recognize. Due to their financial limitations, the Rays can’t really afford star players.

But no franchise in baseball — maybe none in all of sports — is better at grinding for the tiny edges that, when you add them up, can result in a championship-calibre team on a last-place budget. The simplest way to explain it: Tampa’s decision-makers look for players who other teams see as too flawed for their taste. But rather than dwell on their limitations, the Rays zero in on their one or two elite skills (almost everybody at this level has one) and give these players roles that maximize strengths while hiding their weaknesses. It’s similar to how Bill Belichick, the smartest football coach ever, builds his teams.

For example: a reliever who can throw 99-mph flames but hits the wall after only a few batters? No problem, just use him for only a few batters. A starter who struggles the third time through the order when opponents figure him out? Fine, just yank him before that. An infielder who crushes right-handed pitching but can’t hit lefties? OK, aggressively platoon him with a guy who’s the opposite. And everyone on the team benefits from the Rays’ cutting-edge analysis of opposing batters’ tendencies, which manager Kevin Cash uses to position his fielders in spots where the ball is most likely to be hit — not where decades of baseball convention dictate they should stand for every hitter.

So, remember our David and Goliath analogy? This would be like if David had the smartest people in the Valley of Elah design him the world’s most efficient slingshot and show him exactly where to aim the stones.

But, make no mistake, the Rays have very good players

Whether you know their names or not, Tampa has an endless supply of flamethrowers in its bullpen that it never hesitates to tap into should the starter falter. Or sometimes even before the starter takes the mound. The Rays invented the concept of the “opener” — a reliever who works the first inning before giving way to a multi-inning guy.

As for actual names you can look for, Blake Snell won the AL Cy Young in 2018 and Charlie Morton has pitched lights-out this post-season. At the plate, the guy to watch is definitely Randy Arozarena. The 25-year-old Cuban defector missed the first month of the season after contracting the coronavirus, but he’s the best hitter in baseball at this moment. Arozarena is hitting a ridiculous .382 with seven homers and a 1.288 OPS in 14 playoff games this year and was just named MVP of the ALCS.

The Dodgers have demons

Despite all their resources, all their regular-season success (they won their eighth division title in a row this year) and some close calls in the playoffs (this is their third trip to the World Series in four years), L.A. hasn’t won a championship since Kirk Gibson’s legendary walkoff homer sparked their victory over Oakland in 1988.

No player better embodies the Dodgers’ playoff shortcomings than Kershaw, who’s 175-76 with a 2.43 ERA in the regular season but 11-12 and 4.31 in the post, including several high-profile meltdowns. We’ll find out right away if Kershaw can flip the script: he’s L.A.’s Game 1 starter tonight. Read more about the Dodgers and Rays and this unique World Series here.

Atop the L.A. Dodgers’ pitching rotation is three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw. (Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press)

Quickly…

It’s a story almost too heartbreaking to tell. Today should be a day of pure celebration for Scott Jenkins. It’s his birthday and also the first birthday of his daughter Sydney, the youngest of his three kids. But it also marks exactly one year since the worst day of his life. On Oct. 20, 2019, Scott’s wife, Aly Jenkins, a competitive curler who aspired to one day represent Saskatchewan in the Tournament of Hearts, died of a rare complication while giving birth to Sydney. A year later, Scott is still trying to cope with the loss of the love of his life while juggling the exhausting demands of being a single dad to three young children. He’s also fighting for the maternity-leave considerations that Aly was entitled to, in hopes that the rules will be changed for fathers struck by an unimaginable tragedy like his in the future. Read more about Scott and Aly’s story in this piece by CBC Sports’ Devin Heroux.

The world juniors start on Christmas Day this year, not Boxing Day. Assuming the annual under-20 men’s hockey championship goes ahead, it’ll be the first time it’s started a day early since 2005. Three games are scheduled for Dec. 25, though defending champion Canada opens on the 26th vs. Germany. As previously announced, all games will take place at the Edmonton Oilers’ arena, likely without fans in attendance. The gold-medal final is Jan. 5. With the NHL season on hold until Jan. 1 at the earliest, Canada’s roster could include No. 1 overall draft pick Alexis Lafrenière, who was the MVP of last year’s tournament, and No. 3 choice Quinton Byfield. Read more about the world juniors schedule, including Canada’s opponents, here.

Also…

A correction from yesterday’s newsletter: In the section about the retirement of Doc Emrick, I wrote that Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr now have sons in the Hall of Fame. I meant to write Hull and Gordie Howe. Thanks to the (many) readers who pointed out the error.

And finally…

On this day in 1992, the Toronto Blue Jays hosted the first World Series game played outside the United States. In front of close to 52,000 fans at SkyDome, the Jays beat Atlanta 3-2 to take a two-games-to-one lead in the series. Candy Maldonado drove in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded and one out by smacking Jeff Reardon’s 0-2 pitch over Atlanta’s drawn-in outfielders. Toronto, of course, went on to win the series in six games to capture the franchise’s first championship, then went back-to-back the next year. The entire 1992 Game 3 is on YouTube if you feel like reliving the glory days.

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