The balls! The big, buoyant, brass balls on Tampa’s Manuel Margot for trying to steal home in a World Series game. It did not work, which is absolutely not the same thing as saying he shouldn’t have tried, and though the Dodgers won Game 5 4-2 and are just one win from a championship, none can ever say Margot and these feisty Rays didn’t Go For It.
With two outs in the fourth inning, down a run, Margot attempted to become the first player to steal home in a World Series since Brad Fullmer in 2002; the first player to try a straight steal of home (as opposed to being on the front end of a double steal) in a World Series since Lonnie Smith in 1982; and the first player to successfully pull off a straight steal of home in a World Series since Jackie freaking Robinson in 1955.
But Max Muncy was alert, Clayton Kershaw was quick, and Austin Barnes was ready:
It was, Rays manager Kevin Cash confirmed afterward, all Margot’s call. That’s part and parcel of how these Rays operate, seeking every edge to shorten the odds against what is undeniably a more talented Dodger team. It’s not just nerd shit, either. Those edges can be found on spreadsheets and in payroll forms, but on the diamond as well. If Margot, a fast and decently smart baserunner, saw something from third base that his coaches couldn’t see from the dugout, they’ve specifically empowered him to try to take advantage.
“We try to do things and make decisions that allow players to be athletic and be the athletes they are,” Cash said. “If Manny felt he had a read on it, for whatever reason, it’s tough for me to say yes or no just because he’s a talented baserunner. He might be seeing something that certainly I’m not or can’t appreciate in the moment right there. He’s trying to do something to pick his team up.”
What Margot saw, and what convinced him he had a chance to pick the Dodgers’ pocket and tie the game, was a confluence of things in his favor. He had reached third with aggressive baserunning that had forced a Dodgers mistake. Kershaw, tagged for two runs the previous inning, had retired just three of the last seven batters he’d faced, and, perhaps thinking about his long, checkered playoff history and how he’s never been closer to a title than this moment, his last start of this World Series, may have had his mind elsewhere—or at least solely on the batter.
That too narrative-y for your liking? OK, here’s the more practical stuff: With the Dodgers infield shifted, Justin Turner wasn’t holding Margot on the bag, and Kershaw’s exaggerated stretch motion sees him put both arms high in the air before he comes set, completely blocking his view of a runner on third. Kershaw couldn’t see Margot, and Turner couldn’t do anything about him taking a big lead, so as soon as Margot knew he was out of Kershaw’s field of vision, he took off. (After one pitch to make absolutely sure. “From the first pitch to [Kevin Kiermaier], I knew they weren’t paying too much attention to me, so I thought I had a chance,” Margot said. “Obviously, it didn’t work out that way.”)
It didn’t work out that way due to a combination of the Dodgers knowing their weaknesses and thinking quickly.
Kershaw said he knows his stretch leaves him blind to runners on third, and has warned his first basemen over the years to call out if a runner attempts to steal home. Muncy saw Margot go and started running toward Kershaw while shouting, “Home! Home!” Kershaw didn’t panic. He stepped off the rubber, avoiding a balk, and delivered a good-enough ball to Barnes, who handled it cleanly and tagged out Margot with inches to spare. “It was just kind of instinct to step off,” Kershaw said. “Thankfully, it’s happened before.”
There are a lot of moving parts involved in delivering a live ball 60 feet before a baserunner with a head start and the element of surprise covers 90, and every step of that process carries the potential to go awry. The Dodgers did everything right, and that’s the only possible way they could have gotten Margot.
The Rays never threatened again in Game 5, which in my book just supports Margot’s decision to force the issue. The Dodgers may beat Tampa on talent but the Rays will and must make sure that L.A. earns it by executing. The best team is only going to win this series by proving it.