MILWAUKEE – In a game that pivoted on two pitchers – one a rookie and relative unknown, the other among the most celebrated of his generation – the Milwaukee Brewers defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers, 6-5, Friday night in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. The Dodgers threatened in the ninth inning as the tying run was left at third following a Justin Turner strikeout to end the game.
The Brewers scored five runs in three-plus innings against Clayton Kershaw, the three-time Cy Young Award winner whose October record is, at best, blotchy.
One of those runs came from the bat of a 25-year-old Mississippian named Brandon Woodruff, a rookie relief pitcher who, granted an at-bat in the third inning, homered off the great Kershaw. The hit was the fifth of Woodruff’s big-league career, his first against a left-hander. Woodruff also retired each of the six batters he faced, the last three by strikeouts straight through the middle of the Dodgers’ batting order.
The win was the 12th in a row for the Brewers, whose streak began on Sept. 23, continued through the end of the regular season, then in a Game 163 against the Chicago Cubs, then through three games of the Division Series, into the NLCS. It also means free George Webb hamburgers for people in Milwaukee. The Dodgers committed four errors.
Ryu pitched seven scoreless innings against the Atlanta Braves in Game 1 of the Division Series. In his past four starts, including that one, Ryu has allowed one run on 16 hits and two walks over 26 innings. In his first-ever postseason start, Miley, 31, pitched 4 2/3 scoreless innings against the Colorado Rockies. He did not allow an earned run in two regular-season starts against the Dodgers.
The Dodgers arrived to the NLCS with what appeared to be a huge advantage in starting pitching, meaning they had four of them – Kershaw, Ryu, Walker Buehler and Rich Hill – that people were familiar with and could be reasonably expected to take a game into the mid to late innings. The Brewers seem content to piece together most games with short bursts of starter-reliever hybrids.
Kershaw is the most recognizable of those names, in part because the left-hander had spent the better part of a decade as one of the best pitchers in the game and in part because he’d been less adept in his many Octobers. He threw eight shutout innings against the Atlanta Braves in the Division Series, a start that was interesting for its precision – two hits, no walks, 85 pitches – and for its peculiarity – 26 batters faced, three strikeouts. In the wake of that start, Kershaw’s postseason numbers (8-7 record, 4.08 ERA) still paled in comparison to his regular-season dominance, a body of work that is likely Hall of Fame worthy as it stands.
The gap between the regular- and postseason Kershaws – even when the latter is based primarily on about a quarter of his 21 October starts – remains a storyline because of Kershaw’s standing otherwise. The subject of his high-economy, low-strikeout division series start gave rise to the question of whether Kershaw had shifted his approach, if the Braves were hyper-aggressive, or both. Against Kershaw and other elite starters, there often is a counter-attack debate – seek early fastballs and risk soft contact and quick innings or stress patience and push the pitch count. Sometimes one works. Other times, neither. And if the Braves were adamant about swinging early and keeping Kershaw away from his finishing breaking balls, then Kershaw was happy for the outcome.
“That’s going to be kind of feast or famine essentially,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said in the hours before Game 1, adding later, “And so in that game he was never really under pressure.”
The Brewers drew 537 walks in the regular season, precisely on the National League average. Then they forced 23 pitches from Kershaw in the first inning Friday, 10 of them by Christian Yelich, who on the 10th struck out on a curveball. By the 23rd, Kershaw had pitched around a leadoff single by Lorenzo Cain, who advanced to second base on a passed ball. Yelich, the left-handed hitting NL MVP candidate, had been nine for 17 (.529) against Kershaw in his career.
Gio Gonzalez, the erstwhile Washington National, started for the Brewers, leaned hard on his changeup, and in the second inning allowed a home run to Manny Machado on a two-ball changeup. Of Machado’s four postseason hits for the Dodgers (in his first 18 at-bats), three were home runs. The Dodgers led, 1-0.
And then, well, a funny thing happened on the way to Kershaw protecting that 1-0 lead for a while.
Gonzalez pitched only the first two innings. Woodruff, a reliever by trade who started Game 1 of the Division Series, pitched the third inning. The pitcher’s spot led off the bottom of the third. Rather than hit for Woodruff, Counsell had Woodruff take the at-bat, his 19th as a big leaguer. It appeared a surrender of an at-bat for the Brewers, but sometimes this is how the game falls.
Then Woodruff, who bats left, hit a two-and-two fastball over the fence in right-center field.
Through three innings, Kershaw had thrown 62 pitches and trailed, 2-1. He’d last three more batters, none of whom he’d retire, and 12 more pitches, all in the fourth, and leave having thrown just those three innings, the shortest postseason start of his career.
Hardly any of the other Dodgers showed up either. By the fourth inning, they’d already committed three errors, two by catcher Yasmani Grandal (one of those on a catcher’s interference infraction), and allowed two passed balls (both by Grandal). By the sixth, against three Brewers pitchers, they had two hits and had struck out nine times.
The Dodgers scored three times in the eighth inning to draw within 6-4. Pinch-hitter Yasiel Puig struck out with the potential tying run at first base.
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