When the Dodgers take the field Tuesday night at Fenway Park for Game 1 of the World Series, they’ll assume an unfamiliar role.
Fresh off discarding a plucky underdog from MLB’s smallest market to seize their second consecutive National League pennant, the Dodgers will, for once, not open as favorites with the more expensive roster against the 108-win Boston Red Sox, whose payroll was tops in the majors while the Dodgers’ ranked third.
The Dodgers, Las Vegas has decided, are the underdogs a year after falling a game short of winning the Series. The oddity was not lost in Saturday night’s celebration at Milwaukee.
“I think it’s a little unfair to make us play these high-payroll teams,” Stan Kasten, the Dodgers president, said jokingly. “But we’re going to give it our best shot.”
The storylines for the heavyweight clash are plentiful. The Dodgers are seeking their first Series championship in 30 years. The Red Sox are looking to complete a dominant season with their fourth title in 15 years after setting the franchise record for victories during the regular season.
The Series will feature three Cy Young Award winners (Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, and Boston’s David Price and Rick Porcello), a previous most valuable player (Kershaw), a top candidate to be selected MVP next month (Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts), and the return of a villain to Boston (shortstop Manny Machado).
The managers are friends and former Dodgers teammates excelling in their first managerial stints for two of the sport’s storied franchises, who last met in the Series in 1916. The Dodgers were known as the Brooklyn Robins then. Boston won in five games. Game 5 lasted 1 hour 43 minutes.
And, of course, there’s Dodgers manager Dave Roberts’ place in Red Sox history. Before the Red Sox ended their supposed curse, before Boston became synonymous with championships, and before Roberts became a New England folk hero, he was a bench player for the Red Sox against the New York Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series. He had been sent from the Dodgers to the Red Sox at the trade deadline.
He stole second base in the ninth inning of Game 4 before scoring to tie it 4-4 and keep the Red Sox, who won 6-4 in 12 innings, alive en route to an unprecedented comeback from a three-games-to-none deficit to win the ALCS. The Red Sox swept the St. Louis Cardinals in the Series, their first title since 1918.
Roberts returns to Boston seeking to end a 30-year drought for the Dodgers.
“I'm looking forward to going back to Fenway,” Roberts said. “Obviously, for me personally, I have a lot of fond memories of the Red Sox and Fenway Park. To be wearing another uniform going in there playing for a World Series championship is going to be special for me. It's great for baseball. Two storied franchises going head to head. It's going to be a great Series.”
The Dodgers will likely set their starting rotation as they did for the NLCS, with Kershaw getting the ball in Game 1 followed by Hyun-Jin Ryu, Walker Buehler and Rich Hill. The Red Sox will counter with a well-rested Chris Sale in Game 1, manager Alex Cora announced Sunday. Sale hasn’t pitched since Game 1 of the ALCS, when he gave up two runs in four innings in a loss to the Houston Astros. He’ll be on nine days’ rest.
Cora didn’t announce the rest of his rotation, but Price, who earned his first career playoff victory in closing out the Astros, has started Game 2 the previous two rounds. Nathan Eovaldi and Porcello round out Boston’s playoff quartet.
Regardless of how the pitching is lined up, the Series will feature plenty of left-handed starters — the Dodgers carry three and the Red Sox have two — and neither team hit left-handers well during the regular season. The Dodgers compiled a .733 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against left-handers, though they improved in that department after acquiring Machado and David Freese. The Red Sox had a .719 OPS against left-handers.
The clubs entered the postseason with bullpen questions and have overcome them with different methods. The Dodgers have stuck to their group and it has responded with a 1.30 earned-run average, 51 strikeouts and a .180 opponents’ batting average in their 11 games. The Red Sox have reversed baseball’s bullpen trend by having starters moonlight as relievers to bridge the gap to closer Craig Kimbrel; Sale, Eovaldi and Porcello each has made at least one relief appearance in the playoffs.
The pitching staffs will be tasked to quell loaded lineups. The Red Sox scored the most runs in the majors behind Betts, who was the AL batting champion with a .346 average, and J.D. Martinez, who batted .330 with 43 home runs and a 1.031 OPS. The Dodgers led the NL in runs, and boast exceptional depth and positional versatility to counter moves.
That depth and versatility is a product of the Dodgers’ talent, the same that elicited confidence when they were 10 games under .500 in mid-May and stumbling in the second half against inferior competition. They believed they were better than their 92-win, 163-game regular season.