In retrospect, it’s curious the Dodgers were ever in the position they found themselves last month. The reasons they were in danger of missing the postseason remain a mystery, something worth looking into over this winter to ensure they don’t underperform to that degree again.
The Dodgers had more talent than any team in the downtrodden National League then and they have more talent than any team in the downtrodden National League now.
And with a win in either of their next two games – games in which the Milwaukee Brewers are expected to start journeymen Wade Miley and Jhoulys Chacin – the Dodgers will return to the World Series.
The NL Championship Series isn’t over, but it feels over.
As well it should.
The disparity between the two teams came into sharper focus Wednesday at Dodger Stadium, where the short-handed Brewers essentially punted Game 5, handing the Dodgers a 5-2 victory and three-games-to-two lead in the best-of-seven series.
The Dodgers remained guarded in their optimism, but acknowledged they had the series where they wanted.
“We just got to keep doing what we’ve been doing, keep playing the game that we played today,” Manny Machado said. “If we do that, we’re in good shape.”
Because if they do that, their talent should win out.
Without enough capable starters to form a postseason rotation, the Brewers resigned themselves Wednesday to their third bullpen game of this NLCS – and this time, they had to do that with a bullpen that was depleted by the 13-inning defeat the previous night. All-Star reliever Josh Hader, who pitched in each of the two previous games, was unavailable.
“If we swapped pitching staff, we would probably be doing something similar to what they’re doing and they would be doing something similar to what we’re doing,” Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi said.
Zaidi mentioned that even with a relatively conventional pitching staff, the Dodgers have used some relievers more than they would have liked.
“So when you take a bunch of outs off the table and you’ve got to find them somewhere, I imagine it’s even more of a challenge,” Zaidi said.
To provide their overworked bullpen with an edge, the Brewers resorted to an unusual gambit, starting a pitcher who was the starter only in name. Left-hander Miley was a decoy, his one-batter assignment intended to trick the Dodgers into stacking their lineup with right-handed hitters. The Dodgers anticipated the possibility, which is why the left-handed-hitting Cody Bellinger led off and Max Muncy batted fifth.
Miley walked Bellinger to start the bottom of the first inning and was promptly replaced by hard-throwing right-hander Brandon Woodruff. Miley will start Game 6 on Friday.
“I’ve never seen that before,” Bellinger said.
Woodruff was spectacular, blanking the Dodgers through four innings. The Brewers simply asked too much of him. Then again, it’s not as if they had a choice.
Woodruff gave up a fifth-inning single to Austin Barnes that drove in Chris Taylor and tied the game, 1-1. With two on and one out in the sixth, the right-handed was the victim of a run-scoring single by Muncy that moved the Dodgers in front, 2-1. The single ended Woodruff’s outing, the scoring continued. Corbin Burnes was tagged by Yasiel Puig for a hit that drove in Machado and extended the Dodgers’ advantage to 3-1.
The Brewers will be facing elimination when the series returns to Milwaukee, but manager Craig Counsell said, “We’re going back home, to me, in a position of strength.”
Counsell sounded upbeat for a reason. The Brewers managed to win one of the three games that were played at Dodger Stadium this week. They were never going to win more than that.
But conceding games is a dangerous proposition, particularly at this time of the year, and the Brewers could be punished for that.
Their vaunted bullpen has already taken them as far as they can go. As unhittable as Hader has proven to be, their relievers have looked vulnerable in this series.
Part of that is because the Dodgers have the depth necessary to counter most of the pitching changes the Brewers make.
“It’s what we’ve been able to do all year with great depth on this team,” Muncy said. “Obviously, we can’t make as many moves as they can. They have way more reserve pitchers than we have bench players. You can’t necessarily make that many moves, but you pick your times and you pick your matchups and (manager Dave Roberts has) been great about that.”
And by now, the Dodgers have taken multiple looks at the Brewers’ best bullpen arms.
“Definitely an advantage,” Justin Turner said. “I think the more and more you see guys, the more you’re capable of putting together a game plan and an approach that will work for you.”
Turner pointed to how the Dodgers had some of their highest-quality at-bats against the Brewers bullpen in Game 5, even though the contest started at 2:06 p.m. and the visibility of the hitters was impaired by the shadows on the field. The Dodgers scored their final two runs in the seventh inning, which was pitched by right-hander Joakim Soria and Xavier Cedeno.
Neither Miley nor Chacin throw especially hard. The success they had earlier in the series was a byproduct of the Dodgers chasing pitches out of the strike zone. Provided the Dodgers exercise greater patience against them, they should score enough to win.