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Column: Most unpredictable of seasons produces a World Series matching MLB’s two best teams

Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger celebrates after homering in the seventh inning in Game 7 of the NLCS.
The Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger, right, is pumped up Sunday night after homering during the seventh inning in Game 7 of the NLCS in Arlington, Texas.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

It came out right, after all.

After a pandemic-shortened season that often appeared headed toward the chaos of a shutdown, after an expanded postseason tournament that gave invitations to undeserving teams and cracked the door open for upsets, the National League team with the best regular-season record and the American League team with the best regular-season record advanced to the World Series.

Major League Baseball, which sacrificed tradition for awkward expediency, almost doesn’t deserve the appropriate finale of the NL champion Dodgers (43-17 during the regular season) and AL champion Tampa Bay Rays (40-20) competing for supremacy starting Tuesday at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.

Despite the gimmicks and distractions, the top regular-season teams in each league will play for the championship for only the fourth time since the postseason was expanded to eight teams and the Division Series was introduced in 1995. The other occasions were the Atlanta Braves defeating the Cleveland Indians in 1995, the New York Yankees beating the Braves in 1999, and the Boston Red Sox defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in 2013.

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A season that required an extraordinary effort to pull off is about to crown a credible champion. The Houston Astros winning the AL would have created a revenge angle for the Dodgers, whose fans might never forgive the Astros’ nefarious cheating in 2017, but the Astros were sub-.500 (29-31) in the regular season and didn’t belong in the World Series. Tampa Bay earned it.

The Dodgers and Rays have established themselves as the dominant teams in 2020, combining for a .692 winning percentage. How do they match up?

So did the Dodgers, with manager Dave Roberts employing his bullpen perfectly in Game 7 of the NL Championship Series against Atlanta while Mookie Betts was brilliant again defensively and the Dodgers’ hitters worked counts strategically and well.

“I guess when you’re on this road to win a World Series, you know you’ve got to beat the best to be the best, and that’s what this World Series is going to be about,” Dodgers infielder Justin Turner said during a video session Monday. “The two best records going at it, and it should be a good series.”

That it’s happening at all was never a certainty during the COVID-imposed break, Dodgers outfielder Cody Bellinger acknowledged Monday.

“It was weird,” said Bellinger, whose home run in Game 7 against Atlanta was the margin in the Dodgers’ comeback-completing 4-3 victory. “There were some days that you would go work out, and you’re like, ‘Man, I don’t even know if we’re going to have a season this year,’ and then you’d read up on social media and OK, it’s good. We’re going to have a season. Then just kind of go back and forth, back and forth, so it’s just so unique. And you hope you don’t ever have to deal with this again.

“But it’s been challenging, it’s been fun. And I think it’s showing a lot of people what we can do.”

Kiké Hernández, whose game-tying home run against the Braves on Sunday capped a smart, eight-pitch at-bat in the sixth inning, said the Dodgers are where they’ve always believed they should be.

“From the moment we were able to put a season together, once they figured out the COVID thing, everybody was expecting us to get to the World Series,” he said. “We were expecting to go to the World Series, and up to the point where we went down 3-1 in [the NLCS,] we hadn’t really gone through any adversity at all during the season.

The Tampa Bay Rays' Willy Adames celebrates Mike Zunino's home run.
The Tampa Bay Rays’ Willy Adames, left, celebrates Mike Zunino’s home run against the Houston Astros during Game 7 of the ALCS on Saturday in San Diego.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

“So that was one thing, that it was time to get it done. The first time not just going through adversity, but you’ve got nothing to lose. They’re the ones that have something to lose. They’ve got a 3-1 lead. They shouldn’t lose this series.

“We were able to take it one game at a time, one inning at a time, and we were able to pull it off, and I’m sad that it didn’t happen at Dodger Stadium, because this game would have been at Dodger Stadium, but the feeling is kind of still the same. We’re still going to the World Series, and I’m just really happy for everybody because it took from the first player on the roster to the 28th player. ... The goal wasn’t to get to the World Series — the goal is to win the World Series.”

The goal is the same for the Rays, whose payroll of $28.290 million this season ranked 28th among 30 teams. They swept Toronto in the wild-card round, needed five games to beat the Yankees and almost squandered a 3-0 series lead over Houston before winning Game 7 on Saturday.

Cuban-born Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena emerged as a star, hitting four home runs while earning most valuable player honors in the ALCS. He has hit seven postseason home runs overall, a record for a rookie. Tampa Bay starters Tyler Glasnow, Blake Snell and Charlie Morton are supported by a deep bullpen. They’re not the star-driven Dodgers, but they earned their place at the World Series table.

The Showtime Lakers wowed L.A. at the Fabulous Forum, and the fall produced indelible memories of Kirk Gibson’s fist pump and the Dodgers winning a World Series.

“Payrolls don’t decide the standings, and we see evidence of that every year. And I think having a really deep and talented roster, regardless of what your payroll is, is the key to winning games, and that’s what they have,” said Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations. He should know, having built the Rays into contenders before their first World Series appearance in 2008. He left to join the Dodgers after the 2014 season.

“Here they are, and it’s not by accident,” Friedman added. “It was an amazing chapter of my life. ... I’ll always think back on those times with the fondest of memories.”

There are more memories to be made starting Tuesday with the best against the best. “They’ve got really good arms over there. Their defense is way above average, as we saw in that last series, and we’re all looking forward to it,” Bellinger said. “It’s going to be fun.”

Elliott reported from Los Angeles.


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