The 116th World Series – Major League Baseball's championship decider between the winners of its two leagues, the American (AL) and National (NL) – begins on Tuesday (20 October) at a neutral stadium for the first time in history.
Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, will welcome the AL champion Tampa Bay Rays and NL champion Los Angeles Dodgers in a best-of-seven playoff series, with the first to four winning the trophy. It is the first time in 76 years that an entire World Series will be played at a single venue; in 1944 the final match-up was between the St Louis Browns and St Louis Cardinals, who shared Sportsman's Park.
The Rays, appearing in their second World Series (after 2008), have never won the title; the Dodgers have won six championships in 20 visits to the Fall Classic – the last of them in 1988 – and have the worst series winning record (.400) of any team to have won at least five.
Intriguingly, the Dodgers can make it an NBA Finals – MLB World Series double for the city of Los Angeles after the Lakers' NBA Finals win led by LeBron James. It was last done in 2002, when the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Lakers did the double. The Dodgers and Lakers also did so in 1988. Both Dodger Stadium and Angel Stadium are expected to host baseball games during the Los Angeles 2028 Olympic Games.
If the Rays win, on the other hand, they will make it an NHL Stanley Cup – MLB World Series double for Tampa, Florida, after the Tampa Bay Lightning's Stanley Cup triumph. This particular double has only been achieved once before, in 1933, by the New York Giants (MLB) and New York Rangers (NHL).
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the MLB regular season was cut from 162 games to just 60 per team.
In their respective regular seasons, the Rays (40 wins, 20 losses) and Dodgers (43 wins, 17 losses) were the teams with the best records in each league. But under MLB's playoff format, which was adjusted this year to allow 16 teams in instead of the usual 10 in the postseason, having the best regular-season record does not guarantee anything other than "home-field" advantage.
The Rays had to defeat the Toronto Blue Jays in the Wild Card round, the feared New York Yankees in its Division Series, and last year's losing World Series finalists Houston Astros in the American League Championship Series (ALCS). While they managed a two-game sweep against the Blue Jays, their wins against the Yankees and Astros both went down to the final game of each series (Game 5 and 7, respectively).
Meanwhile, the Dodgers have now qualified for their third World Series in the last four years. They lost in both 2017 (to the Astros) and 2018 (to the Boston Red Sox), and are looking to turn that losing streak around. They swept the Milwaukee Brewers in the Wild Card round and the San Diego Padres in the Division Series, before staging a comeback from 3-1 down to beat the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series (NLCS) in a Game 7.
Although there were no fans allowed during the regular season, Globe Life Field will be open to a limited capacity (11,500 fans) for the World Series, with those in attendance told to wear masks and sit at an acceptable distance from each other unless attending together. This system was also in place during the NLCS.
On paper, the Rays have had the tougher route to the World Series. Despite going into the playoffs as the top seed in the AL, they had to face both the Yankees and Astros and come through two elimination games. A lot of that can be attributed to two things: solid relief pitching, and the hot bat of ALCS Most Valuable Player Randy Arozarena.
The Cuban, who was acquired from the St Louis Cardinals in a trade last offseason, has 21 hits in 55 at-bats (.381) this postseason with seven home runs, a new postseason record for a rookie. His teammates have nicknamed him "Rakes All Night Day Year" for his big timely hits, which included a two-run first-inning home run in the decisive Game 7 against the Astros.
Tampa Bay can also point to manager Kevin Cash's smart use of his bullpen. To ensure the playoffs could be completed in a timely fashion due to the delayed start to the season, there were no off days without games during any of the first three rounds of the postseason (there will be recovery days in the World Series between Games 2 and 3, and Games 5 and 6 if necessary). Despite this, Cash managed to juggle his bullpen, and the relievers stepped up when called upon, firing high-velocity fastballs day after day to shut down their opponents' rallies, often backed up by stellar defensive work in the field.
There are some question marks remaining, however. Aside from Arozarena, the Rays' bats are cold. As a team this postseason, they are hitting just .209, a mark that drops to .184 when Arozarena is removed from the calculation. They will need to find some hitting instead of relying on their pitching which has been taxed by going the distance in two consecutive series.
Then there is the question of Blake Snell, Tampa's ace pitcher. He won the 2018 AL Cy Young Award – given to the best pitcher in each league every year – but has not completed six innings in a start since July 2019. While his numbers this postseason aren't bad, he has too often found himself in three-ball counts. The Rays will need him to provide cleaner innings in a bid to save the bullpen.
Finally, of the two teams in the series, the Rays find themselves having to adapt. While the Dodgers played their previous series at Globe Life Field, the Rays were based in San Diego, California, for their last two series. They had an extra day off compared to the Dodgers, but likely spent it travelling to Texas. No fans were in attendance in San Diego, either, so for the first time all year the Rays players will have to make themselves comfortable with a crowd.
The very fact the Dodgers have already had seven games to get used to Globe Life Field should, in theory, play to their advantage. The ballpark was only inaugurated this season, meaning not a single Tampa Bay Ray has had the chance to familiarise themselves with the stadium dimensions.
NLCS MVP Corey Seager smashed five home runs in the seven games against Atlanta, including two in Game 5 with his team facing elimination. Although Seager cooled off with a hitless Game 7, the Rays pitchers would not be doing their job if they took Seager for granted.
Big defensive plays in the outfield – two, notably, from Mookie Betts in the NLCS – at crucial points this postseason have helped the Dodgers get here.
Betts has attracted some criticism for supposedly not doing enough with the bat so far in the playoffs (he is hitting .311, but has no home runs) but his glove work is part of what makes him a superstar who won the 2018 AL MVP with the Red Sox. More of the same in this World Series would more than pay off part of the 12-year contract extension worth U.S. $365 million – the second-richest total contract in league history – he signed in July.
Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw is their expected Game 1 starter. But despite his stellar regular-season career, the 32-year-old Texan has never enjoyed much postseason success, losing more starts than he has won in his playoff career (11–12). This year, after a strong eight-inning shutout outing in the Wild Card round against the Brewers, he has gone on to allow seven runs in 11 innings of work against the Padres and Braves. Can he banish his postseason demons, or will they strike once more?
Centre fielder Cody Bellinger has set the league alight since his rookie year in 2017, winning a Rookie of the Year and an MVP award. During the Division Series against the Padres, he made an incredible home-run-saving grab that turned the tide in his team's favour. But he hit only .200 in the NLCS, and while celebrating his big Game 7 home run against Atlanta, he appeared to aggravate an old shoulder dislocation. Even if he plays through the injury, it may be a cause for concern.
"Home" team bats in the bottom of the ninth inning, listed second. All times are Central Daylight Time (UTC –5 hours).
Game 1: Tuesday, 20 October. Tampa Bay Rays @ Los Angeles Dodgers, 7 pm CT.
Game 2: Wednesday, 21 October. Tampa Bay Rays @ Los Angeles Dodgers, 7 pm CT.
Game 3: Friday, 23 October. Los Angeles Dodgers @ Tampa Bay Rays, 7 pm CT.
Game 4: Saturday, 24 October. Los Angeles Dodgers @ Tampa Bay Rays, 7 pm CT.
Game 5, if necessary: Sunday, 25 October. Los Angeles Dodgers @ Tampa Bay Rays, 7 pm CT.
Game 6, if necessary: Tuesday, 27 October. Tampa Bay Rays @ Los Angeles Dodgers, 7 pm CT.
Game 7, if necessary: Wednesday, 28 October. Tampa Bay Rays @ Los Angeles Dodgers, 7 pm CT.