ARLINGTON, Texas — Pull the thread from the bedlam of late Saturday night, one of the most incredible World Series games there's ever been, and it tugs back about eight or nine hours to mid-afternoon.
That's when Cody Bellinger's back tightened up. And that's why first A.J. Pollock and then, crucially, Chris Taylor wound up playing center field for the Los Angeles Dodgers as Game 4 splashed this way, that way and then this way again.
For the Rays to climb back into this World Series with a series-evening 8-7 walk-off stunner with two outs in the ninth inning, so many things—both big and small—had to happen, and it starts there.
It ended here: "Aaaaaahhhhhhh," exclaimed Tampa Bay second baseman Brandon Lowe. "I'm about to live 15 years shorter. I think that sums it up. My God. I think I lost 10 years on that last play. That was a storybook baseball game. That was insane."
And here: "I can't believe it," Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said. "I still can't believe it! ... This is why you play 27 outs."
And here: "In baseball, this is probably as much fun as you can have," said Tampa Bay's little-used, instant hero Brett Phillips, who was so excited when his game-winning single somehow, inexplicably scored two runs instead of one that he did the only thing he could think of in the chaos.
He remembered something he once saw Kiermaier do, so he did it too. He spread his arms wide and started sprinting, dipping right, dipping left, a human imitation of an airplane as his teammates chased him into left field, where they all wound up hopping and screaming into the black Texas sky.
Yes, that's how it ended. But hold on a sec—we'll return to left field and the celebration in a bit. First, let's tug that thread back just a wee bit more, to the Dodgers clinging to a 7-6 lead, two outs in the ninth and old friend Kenley Jansen on the mound.
Once he was an All-Star closer. Then he got older. Then he got demoted. Then he reached is-he-or-isn't-he status. Then he wasn't. But here in Game 4, he was back as the closer again. This guy alone has had more plot twists than most murder mysteries.
Phillips stepped to the plate to face him with Kiermaier on second base and October hero Randy Arozarena on first. Kiermaier had reached on a one-out, sawed-off single, soft looper to center field that was such an excuse-me hit that when he reached first base that he still held the handle of the bat in his hands. The barrel had died a hero.
Arozarena? He battled Jansen for seven pitches, finally drawing ball four, a slider in the dirt.
Phillips had pinch-run for Ji-Man Choi an inning earlier and wasn't anybody's idea of the perfect batter with the Rays staring at the business end of a 3-1 World Series deficit. Acquired from Kansas City on Aug. 27 to fill in a crack or two on the Rays roster, Phillips hadn't batted in a game since Sept. 25. He wasn't even on Tampa Bay's roster in the AL Championship Series.
But that didn't make his teammates love him any less.
"He came in and really tried make himself at home," Lowe said. "He was asking about your family, where you're from, what you studied in college. As soon as he came over, he wanted to make sure you were close friends with him. That's who he was. He wanted to be one of the guys, and he really fit in perfectly with the group."
He's 26, was drafted by the Houston Astros, traded to the Milwaukee Brewers, traded again to Kansas City Royals and then traded one more time to Tampa. Follow the bouncing Phillips. But he is from St. Petersburg, grew up a Rays fan and spent part of his eighth-grade year rooting for his Rays to win that year's World Series against Philadelphia.
Now here he was.
In the dugout before he got to the plate, Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash had a few words for him.
"Hey, look at the signs [from the third-base coach], we may bunt here," Cash told him of a potential first-and-third situation.
One of the coaches, Paul Hoover, told him he was going to win the game. In the indoor batting cage where he had hurriedly prepared, Phillips took maybe 10 swings against a left-handed coach, figuring no way would he be batting against a righty.
No—try as you might, there simply is no preparing for every situation that comes up in a game.
So against the righty Jansen, Phillips took ball one and then two called strikes. He was in a hole. Then he calmly swung at Jansen's specialty, a cutter checking in about 92 mph and drilled a base hit to center.
And that's where the mid-afternoon lineup change echoed back into play. Bellinger, a Gold Glove center fielder, was moved to designated hitter after the lineups were out because of his back. Pollock, the original DH, was moved to center.
Taylor moved from left field to center in the eighth inning after Joc Pederson batted for Pollock and smashed a two-run single that lifted the Dodgers into a 7-6 lead.
But it produced two repercussions that helped sink the Dodgers.
In the dugout after the sixth inning, manager Dave Roberts congratulated reliever Pedro Baez on a job well done and told him he was finished for the night. But then when Dodgers retook a 6-5 lead in the seventh, Roberts changed his mind and sent Baez back to the mound.
If the Dodgers blow this World Series, that is something Roberts will regret for a long time. It is a dangerous thing to tell a pitcher his night is finished and then try to relight the flame. It is natural for the human body to let down. The adrenaline slows. And at this elite level, to restart the engine to reach the same RPM as before, well, it isn't always possible.
Baez started the bottom of the seventh by fanning Mike Zunino. Then he served up a homer to Kiermaier to give the Rays life at 6-6.
The second repercussion from that inning was that with two on and two out in the bottom of the ninth and the Dodgers ahead 7-6 thanks to Taylor doubling and scoring in the eighth, Taylor was in center field. He charged Phillips' hit. He clearly tried to rush it.
Kiermaier was going to score the tying run from second regardless. That was a done deal. Taylor's best play was to stay calm, scoop up the ball and return it to the infield to stop the speedy Arozarena, who was at first, from advancing beyond third. Instead, as Taylor rushed, he bobbled the ball.
In the third-base coaches' box, Rodney Linares saw the fumble, saw the ball catch air as it bounded back up into the air off of Taylor's glove and said: "He's gotta pick it up and make the throw, and we have one of the best runners we have in Randy, so we took a shot at it. If he doesn't stumble, I think he scores anyway."
The stumble. Oh my word! That's what sent this from the ridiculous to the sublime as the play suddenly sped up to about 200 mph.
As Taylor recovered from the fumble and further tried to rush the ball back, Arozarena lost his balance and face-planted into the turf about halfway between third and home.
"When he fell down, he got up really quick, and there was not a lot of time to think," Linares said. "I told him to get back."
And Arozarena initially started back to third, thinking at the very least he would be in a rundown and try to make something happen from there.
But then Dodgers catcher Will Smith whiffed on the relay throw to the plate. Like Taylor, he also tried to rush. He tried to snatch the ball out of the air and then wheel to make a sweeping tag in one motion. But he missed the ball, and it bounded behind him toward the backstop.
Like a car with manual transmission being driven by someone unfamiliar with the clutch, Arozarena, who started back toward third, jerked back, sputtered and then raced for the plate when he saw what was happening. He slid head-first into the plate with the winning run and, spent, just lay there.
He pounded the plate at first and then simply patted it for several seconds as if carefully patting the hood of a brand new car, grinning the grin of a man who just got a deal.
"If you look at replay, he had the presence of mind to keep his eye on the ball [and go to home]," Linares said. "I kept yelling at him in Spanish to go, but credit to him and his athleticism, that's the type of player he is."
Meanwhile, in the Dodgers' rare but complete breakdown of fundamentals on this play, there was this: Jansen was nowhere to be found backing up home plate.
When Phillips laced the single to center, Jansen sank to both knees on the mound in anguish. That cost him and the Dodgers. The game was going to be tied, sure, but the winning run was still on base. Had Jansen, who made his way late toward the third-base line, been backing up Smith, there is a decent chance Arozarena would have been out at the plate and maybe this game would still be going.
"Will was trying to catch the ball and put a quick tag down," Dodgers slugger Justin Turner, who smashed another homer in the first inning, said. "If he knew [Arozarena] fell, he would have taken his time, caught it and started a rundown."
He professed to be unsure as to what happened in center field.
"C.T. was looking up to see if Randy was going to go first-to-third," Turner surmised.
"This is tough," Roberts said. "We have to digest it, but we have to turn the page."
In an instant, the Dodgers went from owning this series to leasing it. And a Rays Game 5 win could make Tampa Bay their landlords. Now it becomes a best two-of-three skirmish.
Talk about a gut punch. The Dodgers led 2-0, 3-2, 6-5 and 7-6. Turner and Corey Seager each had four hits, just the fourth time a pair of teammates have had that many in a single World Series game.
It was wild from start to finish. Saturday night at the fights. There was at least one run scored in eight consecutive half innings, the longest streak in World Series history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. It was also the first game in World Series history in which both teams scored in three consecutive innings (and each team made that four).
But back, as promised, to left field. As Arozarena was patting the plate and Phillips' teammates were chasing him into the outfield, there were several things flashing through the new hero's mind. One was that his wife, Bri, in another storybook twist, had just flown in from Tampa. They got married in November 2019, and she works at a jewelry store in Clearwater, Florida.
"So a shoutout to the Weintraubs at the Gold & Diamond Source," Phillips gushed. "They let her take off work for the World Series. It's special she's here. ... I'm glad I didn't have the walk-off hit the last couple of days before she got here."
Then, on a breathless evening, there was something else entirely fitting. Phillips broke away from the mob because, well, he learned one thing about doing a human airplane imitation of Kiermaier: It's exhausting. By the time his teammates caught up with him, he could hardly breath and then, well, they started dog-piling him.
"I had get out of that doggie pile because I literally was this close to passing out," he said. "It was pure, exciting joy."
Linares called the entire amazing play "a magical moment" and added: "I kind of blacked out there for a minute."
He was exaggerating. Maybe? Who didn't almost black out on this night. We were all right there with Phillips—this close to passing out.
Now, wake up! And breathe! Because here comes Game 5, and this World Series is just starting to get good.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter to talk baseball.