by Paul West
In any seven-game series, the third game is pivotal, whether the series is at 1-1 or 2-0; but tonight feels especially important for the Dodgers, who are trying to claw back into a series in which the 108-win Red Sox have pulled away late in both games. It seems somewhat apparent that the Red Sox are the better team in a top-to-bottom sense, but the better team doesn’t always win, and the Dodgers are here for a reason–but if they’re going to get back in it tonight, a few factors work in their favor.
A bad matchup for Freese
One of the main criticisms aimed at manager Dave Roberts is his quick-hook approach. Many believe that Hyun-Jin Ryu–who put up strong outings both down the stretch and earlier this postseason, battling his way through trouble in many of those starts–should have been left in Game Two, rather than being pulled after only 69 pitches in the fifth. Somewhat more obscure but no less important has been Roberts’ decisions to quick-hook David Freese at the drop of a hat, sometimes after only one plate appearance. Freese has a .291 postseason average in 189 at-bats, but just as importantly, he has a history of coming up big in big moments–he’s been both an NLCS MVP and World Series MVP–and when asked to lead off against the Brewers in the NLDS, he continued this pattern by homering to give the Dodgers an early lead. Still, it’s been like clockwork this postseason: if the opposing team sends in a righty, Freese is out of the game. While the constant bemonaning of analytics borders on the absurd, these types of paint-by-the-numbers decisions fuel the complaints of the anti-metrics crowd. Quick-hooking Freese has the double-whammy effect of taking an experienced postseason performer out the lineup, and shortening the bench, depriving the team of dangerous pinch-hitters like Max Muncy later in a game. As such, it’s a bit of counterintuitive good news-bad news that Freese is only 4-16 against Rock Porcello, tonight’s Game Three starter for the Sox. This leaves Freese on the bench for a potentially impactful late-inning appearance, and de-incentivizes excessive tinkering by Roberts–who, it should be noted, is a very good manager despite this particular flaw.
The absence of the DH
Without the designated hitter being in play, the Red Sox have a tough choice on their hands. JD Martinez, an MVP candidate who’s mainly DHed for most of the season and recently rolled his ankle on the basepaths, is a bat they want in the lineup for obvious reasons; but it could easily be argued that the Sox wouldn’t be here if not for the highlight-reel play of what might be the best defensive outfield in the majors. Andrew Benintendi, Mookie Betts, and Jackie Bradley Jr. are all elite defenders who’ve made huge plays this postseason with their arms, legs, and gloves; and since bradley’s bat has caught fire of late, all three have also been important contributors on the scoreboard.
Without the designated hitter, the Sox would have to diminish an excellent defense by putting a recently injured DH in the field–or face Walker Buehler without the cleanup hitter who spent much of the season in contention for the Triple Crown. In yet another case of good news-bad news, the matter might be taken out of manager Alex Cora’s hands: Martinez’ ankle is reportedly still pretty sore, and his status is in question for tonight. This factor hurts the Dodgers much less, as lefty Cody Bellinger will be in the lineup tonight, and he’s arguably their best defensive player and fastest regular starter.
The 2-3-2 format
The current World Series format gives the Red Sox the final two games at home. That means it also gives the Dodgers the middle three games at Dodger Stadium, where some of the above advantages apply, not to mention good old home-field advantage. With lefty sluggers Bellinger, Muncy, and Joc Pederson in the lineup, The Dodgers will try to go on one of the power binges that’s helped get the team to this point.
Again, the Red Sox won 108 games in a division with an hundred-game winner, and are almost certainly the better team. The Dodgers are a good enough team to play giant slayer, but they’ll need a few things to go their way–starting tonight.