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Dodgers' Max Muncy finds his swing against Brewers' unpredictable bullpen

Dodgers' Max Muncy finds his swing against Brewers' unpredictable bullpen
Dodgers first baseman Max Muncy hits an RBI single off Milwaukee Brewers relief pitcher Brandon Woodruff in the sixth inning. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Max Muncy stood at the plate one botched swing away from what would have been his third strikeout of the game. But this time, he knew what to do.

In his third at-bat against Brewers pitcher Brandon Woodruff on Wednesday, Muncy finally understood the pitch mix Woodruff employed. He had tried and failed to hammer Woodruff’s slider four times before.

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“He had kind of done a similar sequence all three at-bats,” Muncy said.

So when Woodruff hurled the 88.2-mph slider, Muncy shortened his swing. On his fifth try swinging at Woodruff’s slider, he drilled a grounder to left field. The stands erupted as Justin Turner bolted home, giving the Dodgers a 2-1 lead they would not relinquish.

The Dodgers went on to defeat the Brewers 5-2, taking a 3-2 lead in the NLCS. They face the Brewers in Game 6 on Friday, with the first pitch set for 5:30 p.m.

The Brewers employed their unpredictable bullpen model after the first batter, when Woodruff replaced started Wade Miley at the mound.

Through the first four innings, Woodruff struck out five batters while allowing one hit and a walk. Two of those strikeouts were Muncy’s at-bats, in the second and fourth inning.

“Throwing absolute missiles in there,” Muncy said of Woodruff.

The Brewers’ reliance on their bullpen challenged the Dodgers with its unfamiliarity. They rarely saw the same pitcher twice in a game, ramping up the difficulty of each at-bat. And they had to be prepared to face almost anyone from the bullpen. Muncy said some of the Brewers’ relievers were completely unfamiliar.

Before the NLCS, he had opposed Woodruff only once.

In the face of almost-constant unfamiliarity, Muncy struggled. Despite posting a .973 OPS and .582 slugging percentage in the regular season, Muncy fell to a .855 OPS and .455 slugging percentage in the postseason.

Muncy earned six strikeouts and three hits in the first four games of the series. And at first, with his two strikeouts against Woodruff, Wednesday looked like more of the same. But Muncy did not let that discourage him.

“At this point in the year, strikeouts don’t really matter,” Muncy said. “What matters is just finding a way to get the big hit.”

And Muncy delivered. He struck out one more time against Xavier Cedeno in the seventh inning, but by that point the Dodgers held a comfortable 5-1 lead.

It marked the beginning of a change in the Dodgers’ hitting, a response to a stifling Brewers bullpen and to shadows on the field that impaired their vision. The powerful offense stopped chasing home runs.

“Our approach was single them to death,” said Cody Bellinger, who hit one for three with a walk. “And we did a great job executing that.”

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After Muncy’s sixth-inning hit, Woodruff left the mound, too familiar to keep succeeding. The Dodgers offense took over, earning nine hits and scoring five runs by the game’s end.

The battle against the Brewers continues but the mystery at the plate is gone. Five games into the NLCS, the Dodgers have steadily built familiarity with the Brewers relievers. Reading pitches and predicting sequences becomes more reliable with time. Facing an elite bullpen doesn’t become easier, Muncy said, but it is less daunting.

He and the rest of the Dodgers are picking up clues.

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