World Series 2020: Dodgers' small-ball attack powers Los Angeles to 2-1 Series lead - ESPN

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Alden GonzalezESPN Staff Writer

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Joined ESPN in 2016 to cover the Los Angeles Rams Previously covered the Angels for MLB.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Austin Barnes squared around and dropped down a bunt -- a most exquisite bunt -- to score Cody Bellinger in the top of the fourth. Two innings later, he turned on a slider out over the plate and drove it into the bullpen in left-center field. Barnes is a career backup catcher who was left off the Los Angeles Dodgers' postseason roster last year. He batted ninth in Friday's Game 3, an eventual 6-2 win to take a 2-1 Series lead over the Tampa Bay Rays, and appeared in the lineup largely because of his rapport with starting pitcher Walker Buehler. And yet he became only the second player in World Series history to drive in a run with a sacrifice bunt and drive in another with a home run.

One ball off his bat went 4 feet and traveled 35 mph. The other went 425 feet and traveled 104 mph. Together, they served as an exaggerated representation of what might set the 2020 Dodgers apart, and what might ultimately make them champions for the first time in 32 years -- they can beat their opponents any which way.

That hasn't always been the case. The Dodgers of recent years were hindered by offenses that often went cold when the stakes escalated in October; that struggled to adapt to a higher level of pitching and at times seemed to sit back and wait for home runs that wouldn't come. These Dodgers seem different.

"It's not about driving the ball," said Mookie Betts, the man who has set the tone for their change in approach. "We've proven we can do that, and we've proven that we can take our singles, too. There's a time and a place to do both. I think we've done a good job of putting pride to the side and putting the long ball to the side and playing pepper. Sometimes that's the way to play the game."

The Dodgers, who have spent the past 18 days playing out of a spacious Globe Life Field, scored five runs within the first four innings off Charlie Morton, who entered with a 0.70 ERA in the 25⅔ postseason innings he has thrown for the Rays. Barnes' homer marked the fifth time the Dodgers scored with two outs and two strikes, giving them 50 runs with two outs and 36 runs with two strikes this postseason -- both records.

It began with Justin Turner, who turned on a two-out, 1-2 fastball in the first inning and hit it out for his 11th career postseason homer, tying Duke Snider for the most in franchise history. With two outs in the third, Corey Seager was hit by a pitch, Turner doubled on a 2-2 curveball and Max Muncy drove them both in with a line-drive single to right-center field on a 3-2 cutter. After Barnes' safety squeeze -- the third sacrifice bunt all postseason by any team -- Betts lined a 3-2 sinker back up the middle for another two-out RBI.

"Top to bottom, we're doing the little things," Dodgers utility man Chris Taylor said. "We're taking what they give us. It's not all for the long ball. Obviously with our hitters, we're gonna run into a couple. But I think we're taking our singles and working the counts, getting guys on base more consistently."

It has been obvious, even, in losses. Like Game 2 of the National League Championship Series, when they put together a four-run ninth inning and came within 90 feet of an improbable comeback. Or Game 2 of the World Series, when they were no-hit through the first four innings, fell behind 5-0 after the top of the fifth, yet still limited Blake Snell to 14 outs and brought the tying run up to bat three times in the eighth. These Dodgers are equal parts patient, resourceful and relentless, traits that have become increasingly more apparent with each passing round.

Here's a look at their postseason numbers from recent years:

2017: .242/.338/.448, 23.0 K%, 11.2 BB%
2018: .205/.299/.344, 27.6 K%, 10.7 BB%
2019: .220/.303/.428, 32.8 K%, 10.3 BB%
2020: .253/.353/.463, 24.3 K%, 12.3 BB%

And the percentage of postseason runs they have scored via homers:

2017: 46.3%
2018: 54.2%
2019: 59.1%
2020: 43.7%

And how they've done with runners in scoring position in October:

2017: .726 OPS
2018: .657 OPS
2019: .691 OPS
2020: .878 OPS

"Staying within ourselves, knowing how good the next guy is, and not having the pressure to do it," Barnes said of what has made the Dodgers better in those situations. "Passing the baton, and when you get that pitch, hit it."

The Dodgers have seemingly adjusted this month. During their 43-17 regular season, they ranked second in their percentage of runs that came via homers and 25th in pitches seen per plate appearance -- traits that typically embody impatient, one-dimensional teams that struggle this time of year. Through that, however, Turner talked about how these Dodgers are better equipped at manufacturing runs, and Betts compared them to a 2018 Boston Red Sox team that was especially adept at grinding out at-bats. Then the playoffs came, the stakes rose, and they were proven right.

Barnes' sacrifice bunt got all the attention, but Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was just as impressed by Seager in the ninth, with his team up by five runs, getting a base hit off Rays reliever Shane McClanahan on the 10th pitch of the at-bat.

It might be boring, but it might also be what finally makes the Dodgers champions.

"I think it's just more of a fundamental philosophy of trying to really grind, trying to win pitches and move the ball forward, beat the shift if we have to and try to shorten our swings if we need to," Roberts said. "This is something, over years of experience in the postseason for us, as a group, that when you run into 1s and 2s -- these guys are gonna make good pitches, quality pitches. To be able to use the other side of the field, to shorten your swing, give yourselves a better chance -- to the credit of the hitting coaches, they've done that."

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