ARLINGTON, Texas — It happened just past midnight on the East Coast, 34 years to the day from the last time a World Series game ended like this. There are so many possible outcomes for the final play of a baseball game. Home run. Strikeout. Single. Groundout. It’s a testament to how good players are that what unfolded in the earliest hours of Sunday morning was so jaw-dropping, an unforgettable October moment, when a fielding error ends a World Series game.
Actually, Will Smith — the Los Angeles Dodgers catcher who dropped a ball that allowed Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena to dash home and pound home plate with his right hand to gift-wrap their breathtaking 8-7 victory in Game 4 — wasn’t charged with an error, even though he had erred in a most egregious fashion. It’s what made the Rays’ win, which evened the series, even more improbable than Bill Buckner’s infamous gaffe Oct. 25, 1986. The Dodgers blundered twice on this final play.
How these 4 hours, 10 minutes of pure baseball bliss came together only adds to the implausibility of it all, but then that’s why this game is bound to go down in the annals of as one of the most memorable in the 116 World Series that have been played. Even before Brett Phillips looped a two-out, two-strike pitch off Kenley Jansen into center field, even before Chris Taylor committed the actual error booting the ball as he tried to field it, even before Arozarena stumbled after rounding third, even before Smith’s howler let him off the hook, this was a righteous ballgame, an emotional vise, squeezing tighter and tighter until the whole thing was too much and burst in spectacular fashion.
It all started around 2 p.m. on Aug. 27. Four days before the trade deadline, the Kansas City Royals had agreed to a deal to send Phillips, a backup outfielder, to the Rays. Phillips was elated. He was from Seminole, Florida, a 20-minute drive from Tropicana Field. It didn’t matter that he would get only 25 plate appearances and be used mostly as a pinch runner and defensive replacement. He was home. And this amazing Rays team embraced him, too.
Which admittedly isn’t difficult. Phillips is one of the most well-liked players in baseball. When he laughs, it sounds like a goose honking or a pterodactyl bleating. Last week in the ALCS, when he wasn’t even on the Rays’ roster, he nevertheless spent the games in the team’s dugout, walking around with a stopwatch and clipboard, a faux coach who would write motivational messages, most of which had to do with Arozarena’s postseason exploits.
It was fitting, then, for the Rays and Phillips, that the ninth inning of Game 4 unfolded in such fashion. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who had foolishly left reliever Pedro Baez in to blow two leads earlier in the game, forsook his hard-throwing rookie reliever Brusdar Graterol, who had finished the eighth inning, and at one minute past midnight East Coast time summoned Kenley Jansen, hopeful his magic had not vanished for good.
By no means in this series, or this season, were the Dodgers the Cinderellas of any manner or variety. They are leviathans in payroll and talent, and if Jansen could secure the 7-6 lead Roberts handed him, they would hold a 3-1 series lead and find themselves in prime position to win their first World Series since just two years after the Buckner error.
The Rays’ lineup and Dodgers’ defensive alignments were complete messes, owed to what had happened in the four or so hours prior. The first three games of this series weren’t duds exactly. The Dodgers had hit at a historic clip with two outs. The Rays had stolen the middle game. There wasn’t a single lead change. Good baseball was played by two excellent baseball teams. Drama has been hard to come by.
Game 4 made up for it. There were home runs. From the Dodgers’ Justin Turner in the first and Corey Seager in the second, highlights on a night when both went 4-for-5, and all for naught. From Arozarena and Hunter Renfroe and Brandon Lowe and Kevin Kiermaier as the Rays fought and clawed and tried to keep pace. Every time they did, the Dodgers answered with more. They barreled balls the whole evening, hitting 19 at 95 mph-plus to the Rays’ seven. That Tampa Bay was even here, within a run and ready to stare down Jansen, felt like providence.
When Jansen blew a sinker past pinch hitter Yoshi Tsutsugo for the first out, the crowd of 11,411 at Globe Life Field, which has turned into Dodgertown South, roared. This was it. They were going to win Game 4, and then Clayton Kershaw, pitching 30 minutes from his hometown of Highland Park, Texas, was going to pitch them to victory in Game 5, and the postseason demons of their iconic pitcher would vanish alongside those of an iconic franchise going on three decades without the most meaningful sort of hardware.
Kiermaier swung at a first-pitch cutter, 93 mph, the kind of velocity Jansen only found in recent days. It sawed Kiermaier’s bat all the way down to the knob. Broken bats don’t always equal outs, though, and the ball fell just out of the reach of diving Dodgers second baseman Enrique Hernandez out into center field. The hardest-hit ball of the inning came courtesy of Joey Wendle, who lined out to left field. With two outs, up stepped Arozarena.
For nearly a month, the 25-year-old rookie, almost a complete unknown outside of front-office circles and extra-deep fantasy leagues, has looked like the best hitter in the world. His home run in the fourth gave him nine this postseason, a major league record. His third hit of the night pushed his total to 26, tying the most in a single playoffs. Arozarena stood in against Jansen, his upper lip curled into a slight snarl. He took a cutter for a strike, stared at a slider for a ball, whacked a slider foul, spit on a cutter just off the plate, stared at another to run the count full, fouled off a slider and trotted to first after Jansen bounced a slider for ball four.
It wasn’t the worst outcome. In the previous inning, Phillips had entered as a pinch runner for Ji-Man Choi, who himself had come into the game as a pinch hitter. Under normal circumstances, the Rays might have pinch hit for Phillips, but the only bat left was catcher Michael Perez, whose career numbers are worse than Phillips’. The Rays are here in large part because manager Kevin Cash so astutely leverages his roster and makes use of his 28 players, but to say that with the game on the line the Rays wanted Phillips at the plate would be some kind of revisionism. This is playoff baseball. It’s the same reason Taylor, who had last played center field Sept. 12, found himself there in the ninth inning. Cody Bellinger, the Dodgers’ usual center fielder, had to DH because his back tightened up before the game, and Roberts had pinch hit for his replacement, A.J. Pollock, with Joc Pederson, whose single in the seventh pushed them ahead 6-5. The move looked deft until it didn’t.
Before it was clear Phillips would even bat, Paul Hoover, the Rays’ field coordinator, had told him that he was going to win the game. Rodney Linares, the Rays’ third-base coach who had managed Phillips when he was a highly touted prospect in the Houston Astros system, pulled down his mask after Phillips stared at a ball and then two strikes and yelled: “Just swing the bat, kid!”
On the fourth pitch, Phillips swung. It was a 92 mph cutter, middle-in, where Phillips likes it. Never mind that in his career with two strikes he was 22-for-205, a .107 hitter. Never mind that he hadn’t registered a hit since Sept. 25, two days before the end of the regular season. Never mind that he had logged only two plate appearances in October. Never mind that he had taken only 10 swings in the batting cage behind the Rays’ dugout to prepare for the biggest at-bat of his life. Never mind that the ball left his bat at only 82.8 mph.
Never mind any of that, because what players like Brett Phillips illustrate, what moments like this remind us, is that baseball’s unpredictability is its finest quality. Nothing about this lined up for Phillips to be the hero, and yet there he was, the kid who as an eighth grader screamed himself hoarse as the Rays advanced to a World Series in 2008 that they didn’t win, feathering a ball past the shift, toward Chris Taylor and into history.
Everything unfolded over the next 13 seconds. Kiermaier scoring the tying run. Taylor’s error. Arozarena never breaking stride until he stumbled. Linares screaming at him in Spanish to go back to third. Smith not realizing Arozarena had fallen and trying to sweep the relay throw from Max Muncy. The ball squirting away. Jansen not backing up the play. Arozarena reversing course, diving into home, pounding his right hand on the plate nine times.
Phillips rounded second and ran toward forever. He had seen Kiermaier spread his arms and run like an airplane and thought it looked fun, so he tried it. The Rays met him in left field and moshed around him. Phillips couldn’t breathe. He extracted himself from the pile and knelt and thanked God. His smile was iridescent. He wanted to hug his wife, Bri. She had been working at a jewelry store in St. Petersburg, Florida, and wasn’t in the bubble, so the closest they had gotten was pregame, when she stood on the concourse and told him she loved him, not knowing the biggest moment of his life — next to marrying her, Phillips made sure to note — would happen hours later.
This game, which had been 1-0, then 2-0, then 2-1, then 3-1, then 3-2, then 4-2, then 5-4, then 6-5, then 6-6, then 7-6 and finally 8-7, which Lowe said aged him 10 years on the final play alone and Roberts called “the unperfect storm,” which left the Rays with perma-grins and the Dodgers sulking off the field wondering how this could’ve happened, had everything. One more strike and the series is completely different. One more inch of movement on Jansen’s cutter. One more foot of defensive positioning on Kiermaier’s blooper. The permutations are endless and the lamentations inescapable. One’s cruelties are another’s beauties. The Dodgers had scored six runs with two outs. The Rays scored the only two runs with two outs that mattered.
“Baseball,” Kiermaier said, “works in mysterious ways.”
On a night like this, it’s easy to fall back on those kinds of clichés — on the baseball gods smiling upon one team, for whatever reason deities would do such things. It was impossible to listen to Brett Maverick Phillips, whose family calls him Maverick, and not appreciate or embrace or understand his platitude. As self-reverential as baseball can be, as much as the game can disappoint and frustrate, there are always going to be kids in the backyard pretending.
Bottom of the ninth
Down a run.
The hometown guy at the plate.
He wins it.
“Keep dreaming big,” Phillips said. “These opportunities, they’re closer than you think.”
He laughed, not one of his guffaws but more an aw-shucks. Thirty-four years after the most famous error in baseball history, he was right there for its cousin in infamy, rounding second, airplaning like a kid whose backyard dream actually became a reality.
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