In the middle of the eighth inning Friday, as the fans at Miller Park brayed invective at Manny Machado and flapped yellow towels to celebrate the final stages of a 7-2 Brewers victory in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, an act occurred that could cost the Dodgers the pennant: A relief pitcher sat down.
A night off for a reliever rarely has long-ranging consequences. But Josh Hader, Milwaukee’s left-handed All-Star, is not an ordinary reliever, and his team does not treat him like an ordinary reliever. He is a multi-inning demon, a pitcher who had logged three innings in Game 1, made a pair of scoreless appearances afterward and nearly struck out half the Dodgers he faced in the process.
When the Dodgers failed to stress reliever Corbin Burnes in the eighth, Hader ceased warming up. Granted three days of rest, his number will surely be called Saturday, in Game 7 at Miller Park. Dumped into a first-inning hole by Hyun-Jin Ryu on Friday, the Dodgers could not put enough pressure on the Milwaukee pitching staff to force Hader into the game. They could pay the price for it.
“That’s their best reliever, and obviously you would have liked to have kept the game close enough to have them use him tonight,” manager Dave Roberts said. “They got away with it tonight because of the run differential. They didn’t have to use him.”
The Brewers will likely deploy Hader at some point on Saturday behind starting pitcher Jhoulys Chacin. The Dodgers will counter with Walker Buehler, their budding rookie ace. The presence of Buehler offset any worries about Hader inside the Dodgers clubhouse. “Just like they have their best, we have our best going,” closer Kenley Jansen said.
To Jansen, the prospect of a Game 7 did not elicit worry. The Dodgers spent significant portions of the regular season on the brink of collapse. They resided 10 games under .500 in May, and 4 1/2 games behind in the division in August. They needed Game 163 to win the National League West. This felt normal.
“Since August, we’ve been playing for our lives,” Jansen said. “Here we are again. Another shot at it. Listen, man. They’re a good team. And we know we’re good too. We’ve just got to come out here and battle.”
The Brewers landed the heavy blows early Friday.
Ryu awakened the Miller Park crowd, which had been tame during the first two games here. He lasted three innings, giving up four runs in the first inning and five in all. Kenta Maeda was charged with two runs in relief. One scored on a wild pitch that bounced by Yasmani Grandal, the other when Rich Hill gave up an eighth-inning single.
The output from Ryu in this series cannot match the two-start cataclysm of Yu Darvish in last year’s World Series. But it could reside in a similar strata in Dodgers lore, if the Brewers win Saturday. In two appearances at Miller Park, Ryu completed 7 1/3 innings and surrendered eight runs. In Game 6, he allowed a moribund Brewers offense to tee off.
“Giving up four runs in the first inning definitely hurt, ” Ryu said through his interpreter, Bryan Lee. “My job as a starter is to keep the game close. But I couldn’t do that today.”
Before the game, Roberts toggled his lineup so David Freese, a 35-year-old first baseman with eight stolen bases in his career, would lead off. The switch guaranteed Freese, a right-handed batter, would face left-handed starter Wade Miley.
In the game’s first at-bat, Freese kept his balance when Miley tried a 2-2 changeup. The pitch drifted over the plate, and Freese bashed it over the right-center fence. Unlike in Game 5, Miley lasted longer than one batter. He managed to retire the side after Freese went deep.
Ryu could not protect the edge. The Brewers peppered him with contact. After a leadoff single by outfielder Lorenzo Cain and a walk by outfielder Ryan Braun, first baseman Jesus Aguilar smacked a two-run double down the first-base line. Third baseman Mike Moustakas deposited an RBI double in the same area. An RBI single by catcher Erik Kratz made it a four-run inning.
“They got some soft stuff up in the zone, and they made some good swings on it,” catcher Austin Barnes said.
Ryu made 15 starts during the regular season. He never gave up more than three earned runs in any of them. Friday was the nadir of his season. The trouble only grew in the second, as Ryu continued to feed the Brewers pitches at the belt.
“I tried to get ahead in the count by using my offspeed pitches, but I left them hanging,” Ryu said. “And obviously I got punished for it.”
Until Friday, Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich had played five games against the Dodgers without recording an extra-base hit. The spell ended in the second inning when Ryu left a changeup over the middle. Yelich whacked a double. He scored moments later when Braun hit a double of his own.
The wretched night by Ryu created a dilemma for Roberts. He needed to keep the score close, so the Brewers would use their best relievers, such as Hader and Corey Knebel.
But the Dodgers did not want to torch their own bullpen in defense of Ryu, which might leave them vulnerable in Game 7.
So Roberts rolled out an unorthodox blend of arms: Julio Urias took the fourth, Alex Wood handled the fifth and Dylan Floro picked up two outs in the sixth. After Floro, came Caleb Ferguson and Maeda. Hill trotted to the bullpen early in the night and finished the eighth.
The offense accomplished one prong of its miniaturized goals in the top of the fifth — it compelled Brewers manager Craig Counsell to use Knebel. Freese smashed an RBI double off Miley, who walked Max Muncy in the next at-bat. Knebel put out the fire by inducing a flyout from Justin Turner before striking out Machado.
The crowd jeered Machado with gusto all evening. He entered Miller Park as the premier heel on the Dodgers’ roster, the receipt for his aggressive slides into shortstop Orlando Arcia and his kicking at first base of Aguilar. The ballpark exploded with applause when Knebel whipped a 97-mph fastball past Machado to strand the two runners.
“We didn’t hit,” Machado said. “We didn’t execute. We didn’t do what we needed to do.”
Freese did not receive another at-bat. He was removed in a double switch after Machado struck out. Muncy rotated to first base, while Brian Dozier took over at second base. The Dodgers did not record a hit after Freese exited.
As the Dodgers stumbled through the late innings, the pressure eased on Counsell. Up four runs, he sent Burnes to face the heart of the opposing lineup. With Hader loosening up in the bullpen, Burnes dusted off Turner, Machado and Cody Bellinger. Hader sat down. After the Brewers added a run in the bottom of the eighth, Burnes closed the door in the ninth.
Hader would have to wait a day.
“You’ll see him tomorrow,” Counsell said.
The Dodgers will have to answer. Their season depends on it.