Inside Dodgers’ failures in big at-bats: Going deep on Game 2’s biggest moments

  • Sports reporter, Kansas City Star, 2002-09
  • Writer, Baseball, Baseball Prospectus
  • Co-author, Pro Basketball Prospectus
  • Member, Baseball Writers Association of America
  • Member, Professional Basketball Writers Association

Before we get into the specifics of Tampa Bay’s series-tying Game 2 win on Wednesday night, let’s throw out an all-time leaderboard. These are the teams with best winning percentages for a season (including the playoffs) in games decided by two runs or less:

2020 Tampa Bay Rays (.714)
1909 Pittsburgh Pirates (.707)
1954 Cleveland Indians (.706)
1907 Chicago Cubs (.701)
Through Wednesday
Source: Elias

That list suggests what you think it does. After holding off the Dodgers 6-4 in Game 2, the Rays now have the best-ever winning percentage in close games, if you define close games as those being decided by one or two runs. They edged to the top of that list by winning on Wednesday and if they should lose a close one in Game 3 on Friday, they’ll fall behind the Honus Wagner-Fred Clarke Pirates, the Bob Lemon-Early Wynn-Larry Doby Indians and the Cubs of the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance era. Heady company.

Success in close games is a combination of skill and luck. Of that much, we can agree. For most of baseball history, skill was given more subjective weight in the proportions for that formula. Then, as baseball research piled up over recent decades, luck began to be viewed as the predominant — but not exclusive — factor. What is the right answer?

There’s not one, really. Baseball is an ever-evolving game and the rate of change over the last few years has been dizzying. It seems at least possible that smart organizations have developed optimal strategies for excelling in close games. And if that is indeed a thing that has happened, it seems highly likely that the team that would have developed those best practices would be the Tampa Bay Rays.

During the early round of the playoffs, Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash was asked about this over and over, as the Rays’ record in one-run games (it’s currently at 16-7, after they dropped their last two one-run games against the Astros in the American League Championship Series) reached hard-to-believe levels. Cash, analytical as he is, also is pretty rah-rah and he insisted with a straight face that through the repetition of playing so many close games, the Rays have indeed developed the trait of “knowing how to win”.

With the Rays three wins from a championship, who is going to prove Cash wrong?

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