ARLINGTON, Texas — You’ve got to love Joey Wendle.
Smart, versatile, self-made big leaguer. Plays great defense, steals bases and can occasionally surprise you with his gap power. But he ain’t Justin Turner at third base.
You have to love Kevin Kiermaier, too.
No matter what the Gold Glove people might think, he is an astonishing defensive player who routinely sacrifices his body in pursuit of the next great catch. But let’s face it, Cody Bellinger is a former, and maybe future, MVP in centerfield.
In some ways, the Tampa Bay Rays are a ballclub without flaw, and that’s why they are representing the American League in the 2020 World Series.
But the Rays are also a ballclub without a lot of superstars or difference-makers, and that’s why they’re in a tough predicament after losing 6-2 to the Dodgers in Game 3 on Friday night, with Los Angeles right-hander Walker Buehler dominating Tampa Bay for six innings.
“When you’re facing a guy like Buehler, there is really no margin of error,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “And they got us today.”
But here’s the thing:
The margin for error for the Rays is almost always small. And against a team like Los Angeles, it is microscopic. Tampa Bay’s greatest strengths are its depth and versatility, but when you get to this point in the season, it helps to have a Turner or a Mookie Betts or a Bellinger to take over a game. And the Rays are not built that way.
I’m not saying the Rays are doomed while down 2-1 in this World Series, but their path to victory is so narrow that they cannot afford even the slightest misstep.
And on Friday night, Charlie Morton stumbled off the mound.
Maybe it was bound to happen. Morton has been one of October’s most clutch performers for three consecutive seasons, and that level of excellence is hard to maintain. Morton had started five games in the playoffs for the Rays in 2019-20 and had given up only two earned runs. Against the Dodgers on Friday, he had already given up five runs in his first four innings.
If you’re being charitable, you could argue that it wasn’t even Morton’s fault.
The Dodgers are that good.
“There was a lot of traffic, they got a lot of hits, put a lot of balls in play, a lot of good swings. It’s not easy. You have to be on your game,” Morton said. "I think I could have done a better job of slowing it down a little bit, especially early. I just never got into a groove. I never really felt comfortable out there, which, even in playoff games, I’m able to eventually get there if I don’t have it early, and I just never did.
“Just combine that with who they are with the bats and it made for a rough night.”
The Dodgers' first four hitters go MVP, Rookie of the Year, All-Star, All-Star. Further down the lineup is another MVP, another All-Star and a National League Championship Series MVP. To top it off, their best player in Game 3 was their All-Star pitcher.
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And the Rays have Ji-Man Choi hitting cleanup.
That’s not meant to be a slight. In some ways, it is admiration. The Rays are playing deep into October with a cleanup hitter who was designated for assignment or waived by four teams and traded by a fifth on his way to Tampa Bay.
Meanwhile, the top three earners on the Dodgers' payroll were scheduled to make more than Tampa Bay’s entire roster before the coronavirus pandemic.
The Rays got this far because they play a smart, efficient, well-rounded brand of baseball. They’ve got good starting pitchers, a deep bullpen, excellent defense and just enough hitters to make it all work.
But, really, no one in the lineup strikes fear in the hearts of opposing pitchers. Randy Arozarena and Brandon Lowe may eventually get to that point, but they are not there yet.
Unlike in Game 2, when it felt as if the Dodgers were one swing away from a comeback against the Rays, Game 3 felt as if was over by the fourth inning when it was 5-0.
The Rays just aren’t going to score six runs in many games, and certainly not with Buehler on the mound.
“We took the Yankees to five games (in the Division Series). We took the Astros to seven (in the Championship Series),” Morton said. "This team did that last year with the wild-card game being a one-game deal with a do-or-die mentality. And we took the Astros to five games last year (in the Division Series). So this team can do it. They’ve proven it.
“There’s nothing left but to show up tomorrow and bounce back.”
The Rays are a relentless ballclub, it’s true. But they’re relentless in spirit.
The Dodgers have a lineup of relentless talent.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.