They had chased Tampa Bay Rays starter Blake Snell before the end of the fifth inning. Their pitching, while unconventionally deployed and choppy through the middle innings, had kept them within striking distance. The final step was having their offense feast on relievers in the late innings to steal a win.
But the Rays are not like any of the previous teams the Dodgers have faced in 2020. The Rays are run-prevention specialists boasting the deepest, most versatile bullpen in the majors. They entered the night 34-0 when leading after the seventh inning in 2020. The bullpen has been immune to collapses.
The Dodgers threatened to spoil that perfect streak Wednesday, but the Rays’ relief corps didn’t fold in the Dodgers’ 6-4 loss at Globe Life Field. The result evened the series at one. Game 3 is scheduled for Friday at 5:08 p.m. PDT.
“You got to give credit to those guys,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “They kept going and scratching and clawing, but so did we.”
The Rays, a low-budget operation that has defied its financial shortcomings by relentlessly challenging traditional baseball thought, were the first club to regularly use openers instead of a conventional starting pitcher. It began as an experiment in May 2018 -- not because it was considered an ideal approach but because they lacked enough effective starters.
So it was no surprise that Game 2 featured an opener in a bullpen game. The surprise was that the Dodgers, the club with the second-highest payroll in the majors and five seemingly capable starters, opted for the strategy out of necessity.
Wednesday, the Rays rode Snell, the 2018 American League Cy Young Award winner, into the fifth inning when his no-hitter became an abrupt exit. The Dodgers, meanwhile, didn’t have a starter on regular rest for their ninth game in 10 days and tried piecing nine innings together. They had seven pitchers log between one and two innings, including two rookie starters who were asked to pitch out of their comfort zones again.
Tony Gonsolin made his second postseason start, but he was on just two days’ rest. The Dodgers’ pitching plan didn’t include him logging more than two innings. He was an opener to a bullpen game.
Gonsolin failed to reach the two-inning goal. The second hitter he faced, Brandon Lowe, an All-Star second baseman, entered the night six for 56 in the playoffs. He made it seven for 57 with a solo home run to left-center field for the game’s first run. It was the third home run Gonsolin has given up in his first 71/3 postseason innings after yielding two homers in 462/3 innings during the regular season.
Gonsolin walked Manuel Margot to begin the second inning. Margot then stole second base and tagged up on Joey Wendle’s fly ball. That ended Gonsolin’s appearance. Gonsolin, who didn’t pitch fewer than three innings in his nine regular-season games, has given up eight runs in 72/3 postseason innings across three outings.
“I’m trying to take it as a learning experience,” Gonsolin said, “and go from there.”
Dylan Floro was summoned with a man on third and escaped with some help from poor Rays baserunning. The Dodgers benefited from bad decisions on the basepaths by the Atlanta Braves in each of the last three games of the National League Championship Series. In the second inning Wednesday, the Rays’ followed in their footsteps.
First, Margot, with one out, broke for home on contact on a ground ball to the shortstop Corey Seager despite the Dodgers’ infield being drawn in. It couldn’t have been an easier play for Seager. Two outs.
Next, Willy Adames, who had reached on the fielder’s choice, tried stealing second base. He was initially called safe before the call was overturned after a replay review. Inning over.
The Dodgers were on their third pitcher, Victor González, when a mistake cost them in the fourth. Ji-man Choi hit a ground ball that should’ve resulted in an inning-ending double play, but Kiké Hernández bobbled the ball and the Dodgers got only the runner at second base.
The gaffe brought Margot to the plate and Dustin May, the Dodgers’ other rookie starter, to the mound as the Dodgers’ fourth pitcher. Margot singled to right field. Wendle then whacked a two-run double to give Tampa Bay a 3-0 lead. The Rays padded the margin again in the fifth inning when Lowe clubbed a two-out, two-run home run off May for his second homer of the night.
May surrendered three runs on four hits in 11/3 innings. He’s logged two or fewer innings in each of his six playoff appearances after pitching fewer than 31/3 innings just once in his 12 regular season outings. He’s yielded six runs, five earned, in 41/3 innings across his last three appearances.
“These guys are in uncharted territory,” Roberts said of Gonsolin and May. “A credit to them. They’re not making excuses. They expect themselves to make pitches. It’s different, certainly, but we still need those guys to get important outs for us going forward so we can win this thing.”
Snell appeared on his way to five no-hit innings when Hernández worked a two-out walk. The Dodgers, as they have all postseason, busted through the opening for a two-out outburst. Chris Taylor followed the walk with the Dodgers’ first hit: a two-run home run.
“He left a curveball up,” Taylor said. “I saw it pop and put a good swing on it.”
Mookie Betts then walked before Seager singled. The sudden surge prompted Snell’s exit after nine strikeouts and four walks in 42/3 innings. The left-hander went from a no-hitter to disappointment in four batters. Nick Anderson struck out Justin Turner to limit the damage, but the Dodgers didn’t relent.
Will Smith connected on a solo home run off the hard-throwing Anderson in the sixth. Two innings later, Seager smashed a 425-foot home run to straightaway center field to cut the deficit to two. It was Seager’s seventh of the postseason and his seventh at Globe Life Field, the most in the in the ballpark’s short history by any player — Texas Rangers included.
Turner then doubled on a blooper between the center and right fielders. It was a break. Momentum was on the Dodgers’ side. But the next three hitters went down in order and the Rays slammed the door shut.
“We knew it was going to be a challenge for us,” Taylor said. “We just got to keep battling them.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.