As a New Englander fortunate enough to have covered the Yankees and now the Red Sox, it’s an instant recoil to hear the Dodgers and Giants described as the best rivalry in baseball. But this season sure made you at least consider the idea for a few seconds.
The Dodgers and Giants played 24 games in all, each winning 12. The Giants won the National League West with 107 wins, putting the 106-win Dodgers into the Wild Card Game.
The Dodgers survived the Cardinals then took three of five from the Giants, the last a 2-1 victory on Thursday night decided by a controversial check-swing call that gave Max Scherzer his first-ever save.
It was the first time the teams met in the playoffs. Hopefully it’s not the last. The final game was compelling even with a terrible ending.
“This won’t be the last time we play them in the playoffs,” said Logan Webb, the extraordinarily composed 24-year-old who faced the Dodgers twice in the series and allowed one run over 14⅔ innings and struck out 17 against one walk.
The Dodgers are in the NLCS for the fifth time in six years and won’t be fading any time soon. They have a high payroll, a farm system that churns out big leaguers, and smart people in the front office and dugout.
Even when they make a mistake — such as not doing enough vetting of Trevor Bauer — they quickly compensate by acquiring Scherzer. They also have a long-term leader and tone-setter in Mookie Betts.
It’s no coincidence Betts is four wins away from a third World Series appearance in four seasons. Dodgers people will tell you Betts arrives at the clubhouse with the same “find a way to win today” mentality he learned from Dustin Pedroia.
In every sense, the Dodgers are in good hands.
The question is whether this season was a lightning strike for the Giants or a sign of what’s to come under Farhan Zaidi and Gabe Kapler?
Winning 107 games is no fluke. But Evan Longoria is 36, Brandon Crawford and Buster Posey will be 35 by Opening Day. Brandon Belt turns 34 in April.
The Giants hold options on Posey, Johnny Cueto, and Wilmer Flores for 2022. Belt, and rotation pillars Kevin Gausman, Anthony DeSclafani, and Alex Wood will be free agents.
The Giants built a contender without throwing bags of money at free agents. Now it’ll get complicated. Culture is an overused word in sports, but the Giants clearly have established an identity that works.
“I think players really care about each other. I think the staff really cares about each other, and I think the staff and players care about each other as well,” Kapler said. “So there’s expressions of appreciation for a job very well done and an incredibly successful season that at the very end just came up a tiny bit short.
“The character of the team — independent of the talent of the team — really shined in our games against the Dodgers and some of the things that we talked about when we played the last game of the season, that grittiness and that toughness and that unselfishness and some of the vision. It just all came together in those games against the Dodgers.
“They played really good against us as well. So rivalry is great, obviously, and clearly in good shape. I’m not saying we’re turning the page to next year. That’s not true. But what I’ll say is we’re excited about building on this foundation.”
But it’s not Red Sox-Yankees, as much as our West Coast brethren want that to be the case.
When Betts was on the interview room stage with Scherzer on Thursday night, he was asked to compare. It was a fun exchange.
Betts: “I mean, yeah. Yeah, no, I don’t really know.”
Scherzer: “You got to know. There’s only one person who is going to know.”
Betts: “I know. But that Yankees-Red Sox, man. That’s mean. That’s different.”
Scherzer: “That’s fine. Say it. Yeah, I like it. I like it.”
Betts: “This is definitely different. Maybe the different coasts. East Coast people are different than West Coast. I don’t know. But it’s definitely a lot of fun to be a part of a rivalry like this and just being a part of it, being able to contribute in it is just fun.”
Fenway rises to
There are days during the regular season when Fenway Park feels more like a stop on the Freedom Trail for tourists than the home of a passionate fan base. But the atmosphere for the first three playoff games was as frenzied as the 2013 World Series, which is saying a lot. The crowds have been on every pitch for all nine innings. The players have taken notice, too.
“This was my first time. The support was incredible,” second baseman Christian Arroyo said. “We’ve all been talking about it. The fans believe in this team.”
Alex Cora’s theory is that people are happy to be outside in a crowd for a big game after being denied that for much of the pandemic.
All agree there’s something special about October baseball in Boston.
“People like baseball here and that makes it fun,” Cora said. “I feel it now when I go to places. People are really into this. I used to joke with [Dustin Pedroia] that everybody takes for granted that if you win a World Series you don’t pay for a meal in this city and that’s not true.
“Actually you have to tip better because you don’t want to be the guy that, ‘This guy came here and he just gave me this.’ But the last 10 days? It’s been really good as far as the financial part of it.”
Game 3 of the ALCS is set for Monday night.
A few other observations about the Red Sox:
▪ Rays manager Kevin Cash on the Sox hitters in the Division Series: “I think they had a pretty relentless approach at the plate. We just could not create that swing and miss that we’ve done so well throughout the regular season. They really had a good approach. It felt like there was constant pressure. There were no easy outs. For us being a team that seems to strike a lot of guys out, we did not rack up the strikeouts like we typically do.”
The statistics bear that out. The Sox struck out in 24.6 percent of their plate appearances against the Rays in 19 regular-season games but only 14.9 percent in the four-game playoff series.
How did that happen?
“Preparation, I think. The way we attacked them,” Cora said. “Over 162 games, it’s a lot different. The mentality of the players, you’re still trying to get yours. You want to get your numbers.
“But when October comes, it’s not about hitting 30 or 40 [home runs], it’s about winning games. Teams transform into something else. What we did with the Yankees and how he approached the Rays was a reflection of that. We’re trying to win games with a team approach.”
▪ José Iglesias has essentially become Cora’s intern during the postseason, staying on the manager’s hip during batting practice and in the dugout.
Iglesias wasn’t eligible for the playoffs but he’s intent on helping his teammates as best he can.
“I love being back here,” said Iglesias, who was signed by the Sox in 2009, made his major league debut in 2011 and was traded in 2013. “It still feels like home. I’m comfortable here.”
At 31, Iglesias isn’t done playing. But his role this month could lead to something down the road.
“A very good baseball mind,” Cora said. “I’m glad he stayed with us.”
▪ Now’s not the time to worry about the 2022 roster. Unless you’re 21-year-old Triston Casas. He was 2 for 4 with a home run in his Arizona Fall League debut Wednesday.
Casas is an equal-opportunity basher. So far this year he has homered in Double A, Triple A, at the Tokyo Olympics for Team USA, in Florida during the Olympic qualifier, in North Carolina in a pre-Olympics exhibition game, and now in Arizona.
▪ The Sox will have roughly 72 players attend Instructional League sessions in Fort Myers, Fla., in two groups. The emphasis will be on individual instruction as opposed to playing games.
▪ The Red Sox have nine players eligible for arbitration. MLB Trade Rumors, which does a great job of projecting salaries, had Rafael Devers ($11.1 million) and Hunter Renfroe ($7.6 million) at the high end.
Nick Pivetta and Alex Verdugo are in the middle at $3.2 million.
Arroyo, Ryan Brasier, Franchy Cordero, Kevin Plawecki, and Josh Taylor come in between $1 million and $2 million.
Cordero is the only obvious candidate to be non-tendered. He has a .663 OPS over five seasons and 451 plate appearances with three organizations.
▪ If the Red Sox and Braves end up in the World Series, the Sox would have home-field advantage. For the Series, home field is based on regular-season record.
Blue Jays get in hotel business
The Blue Jays are working on a unique concept: A 51-room waterfront hotel near their spring training complex in Dunedin, Fla., that would serve as a dormitory for players during spring training.
The “J Hotel” is in the planning stages, according to the St. Pete Catalyst. The hotel is part of the agreement the Blue Jays made with the city to keep their spring training site there over the long term.
The hotel is expected to be open for the 2023 season.
Red Sox officials have informally discussed doing something similar in Fort Myers, Fla., near JetBlue Park. The team’s deal with Lee County includes development rights on land adjacent to the park.
Such accommodations also would serve the mission of creating a better lifestyle for minor league players, an issue that has come to the forefront around the game.
Mike Shildt started with the Cardinals as an area scout in 2003. He spent 11 seasons in player development full time before joining the major league coaching staff in 2017 then taking over as manager in ‘18. So the notion that he was fired Thursday for “philosophical differences” is hard to understand considering his entire professional career was with the Cardinals. That and the Cardinals made the playoffs the last three seasons. Shildt was stunned by the decision by president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, as were many in the organization. The move was so sudden that the team needed MLB’s permission to announce it before the Dodgers-Giants Game 5. That all of the coaches are being retained suggests one of them will become manager . . . Astros bench coach Joe Espada is a future manager, but it may not be next season. The Padres are expected to bring in somebody with previous experience . . . A common refrain being heard around baseball: Don’t change the playoff format. The Wild Card Games are compelling and make winning the division a premium. There’s also a fear that adding wild-card teams would lead to owners dropping payroll. “I don’t think many players want to see more playoff teams,” a veteran first baseman told me. “You should need to earn your way in. It’s special when you do. Make it easier and you’ll have more mediocre teams” . . . An AL Central team hasn’t been to the ALCS since the 2016 Indians. The White Sox won 93 games, took the division by 13 games, then got tossed out of the postseason in four by the Astros. The run differential was 31-18. The question now is if 77-year-old Tony La Russa will return as manager. “You don’t want to come back because you got a contract. I would just leave if they don’t want you back,” he said. “They say yes, then you ask the players. They should choose who they want to manage. If you get both of those, then you check yourself. I mean, we have more to do” . . . One of the hoary traditions of baseball is that nobody — teammates, coaches, trainers, and especially media — talks to the starting pitcher before the game unless he speaks to you first. Giants righthander Logan Webb isn’t buying it. “I think that’s kind of stupid,” he said. “I can’t do that, I’ve got to talk to people. I’ve got to laugh, smile, keep it light.” But Webb admitted he always has to have three Red Bulls at a certain time before first pitch. Yes, three . . . Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe was 0 for 18 with nine strikeouts in the Division Series against the Red Sox and is 9 for 94 (.096) in postseason games the last two seasons with 37 strikeouts. “Trying to do too much,” said a scout who was assigned to the Division Series. “The Red Sox pitchers took advantage of his aggressiveness with off-speed pitches” . . . There were two recent fun moments that shouldn’t be outliers. Juan Soto showed up in Los Angeles to watch the Cardinals-Dodgers Wild Card Game wearing a Trea Turner Nationals jersey and avidly rooted for his old teammate from the front row. Then, in Game 3 of the Red Sox-Rays series, Sox first baseman Kyle Schwarber made a wild toss to Nate Eovaldi covering first base in the third inning. When the same play happened in the fourth inning, Schwarber made a perfect flip and triumphantly raised his arms in the air, pumped his fist, and tipped his cap as the crowd cheered and laughed. Baseball could use a lot more of that . . . On June 22, Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long shouted some choice words across the field at Joe Girardi after the Phillies manager asked umpires to check Max Scherzer for illegal substances. Girardi yelled back, “Come on, K-Long, you wanna go?” and started walking across the field. Girardi was ejected before two men in their mid-50s started fighting. Now all is forgiven as Girardi hired Long as his hitting coach last week. The two worked together with the Yankees from 2008-14. Long also worked with Bryce Harper in Washington. Long’s contract with the Nationals was up and while they wanted to retain him, the Phillies offered a two-year deal at a higher salary. As always, Dave Dombrowski is in win-now mode . . . Craig Kimbrel had a 5.09 ERA in 24 games for the White Sox and allowed three runs over two innings in three games in the postseason. Chicago now has to decide whether to pick up his $16 million option or pay Kimbrel a $1 million buyout. With Liam Hendriks under contract, paying $16 million for a set-up man seems unlikely. Picking up the option and trading Kimbrel is a possibility, maybe even a good one. But Chicago would likely have to pay some of Kimbrel’s salary to get much in return . . . Happy birthday to Chris Mazza, who is 32. The righthander appeared in nine games for the now seemingly long-forgotten 2020 Red Sox. Mazza was one of the 16 pitchers who started at least one of the 60 games last year. This season’s team used 10 starters over 162 games. Dan Butler is 35. The catcher played nine games for the Sox from 2014-18, remarkable for a non-drafted free agent who was signed out of the Cape Cod League in 2009 because Lowell needed another catcher.