Unabashed bullpenning stalwarts in October, the Milwaukee Brewers ratcheted their extremism up a notch with some gamesmanship in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series on Wednesday, when Wade Miley was pulled after one batter and later declared their starter for Game 6 against the Dodgers. The unexpected move captivated the baseball world and amplified the story line dominating the series — the Brewers’ unprecedented reliance on their talented bullpen, a group headed by Josh Hader’s dynamite left arm.
But lost in the hoopla as the clubs traveled to Wisconsin on Thursday with the Dodgers holding a three-games-to-two series lead was an unforeseen development: The Dodgers’ bullpen, albeit hauling a lesser burden, has outperformed Milwaukee’s celebrated group.
“If I had to pick one thing,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said in a conference call with reporters Thursday, “I think the bullpen has clearly been the key for us.”
Before the playoffs began, Roberts acknowledged he believed he could not depend on his bullpen like he did a year ago, when he rode the group to Game 7 of the World Series. He deduced that his current relief corps, which began the playoffs with questions all the way to Kenley Jansen, wasn’t as sturdy. The starters would have to pitch deeper into games. The game plan worked in the NL Division Series against Atlanta but deteriorated immediately in the NLCS.
In Game 1, Milwaukee chased Clayton Kershaw after he gave up five runs (four earned) in three-plus innings. Hyun-Jin Ryu then yielded two runs in 4 1/3 innings in Game 2. The abbreviated starts placed the onus immediately onto the Dodgers bullpen. It became a bullpen battle, which seemingly favoring the Brewers. But the Dodgers’ relief corps has surrendered three runs across 21 2/3 innings and held Milwaukee to a .192 batting average while the Brewers’ fleet has yielded 13 earned runs in 33 2/3 frames with a .244 batting average against. In Game 4, eight Dodgers relievers combined for eight shutout innings until Cody Bellinger delivered the walk-off hit in the 13th inning.
“I think there’s more of a focus,” Roberts said. “If you look at every part of the season there were things that he’s been dealing with physically, mentally, mechanically. But Kenley will be the first to say that when it matters most, the postseason, the big stage, that’s when he kind of ramps it up, and that’s not necessarily ideal as you hope everyone can kind of approach every outing the same. But for a guy that is a multi-year starter, he’s the best closer in the game. That extra adrenaline makes him that much better. And you see the pitch quality and execution going to a couple of different levels this postseason.”
The Dodgers reverted to their original formula in Game 5, when Kershaw gave the bullpen a breather by holding the Brewers to one run over seven innings to rebound from his Game 1 disappointment. Altogether, the Brewers netted seven runs in 31 innings over the last three games. Their best hitter in the series has been Orlando Arcia, who was arguably the worst hitter in the National League during the regular season, while Christian Yelich, the National League MVP favorite, is three for 20 with five strikeouts and zero extra-base hits.
“Look, we were unable to score enough runs, really,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell succinctly concluded after Game 5. “I think that was the bottom line of the three games here.”
In short, the Brewers’ offense, not their extreme bullpen usage, has floundered. The Dodgers’ offense did not detonate Milwaukee’s tactic when the series shifted to Los Angeles. The Dodgers didn’t even hit a home run in the three games. But they are a win shy of a repeat trip to the World Series anyway on the backs of a bullpen quietly stitching together zeroes.