Somehow, some way, after their future Hall of Famer gave up a home run to a reliever, after four errors and two passed balls, after Josh Hader plowed through their lineup, the Dodgers had the tying run at third base with two outs in the ninth inning at Miller Park on Friday night.
Milwaukee Brewers closer Corey Knebel stood on the mound. Justin Turner, the Dodgers’ best hitter, was in the batter’s box. The Dodgers, gasping for air all night, were still breathing in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series.
But Turner struck out to complete the first four-strikeout game of his career, rendering the Dodgers’ late-game rally — four runs over the final two innings against the Brewers’ vaunted bullpen — inconsequential in a 6-5 loss.
“I thought we played an entire game,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “I did. For them to use Hader for three innings tonight and for us to get a good look at their arms in the ’pen, I thought we had good at-bats all the way until the end.”
The problem lay in the middle innings in the form of Brandon Woodruff and Hader. The Dodgers spent the final month of the regular season rotating through two different lineups depending on the opposing starting pitcher’s left- or right-handedness. The platoon-heavy formula produced the most runs in baseball during the stretch. Its effectiveness was indisputable.
But two factors were working in the Dodgers’ favor: an expanded roster and opposing clubs’ conventional pitcher usage. They could count on neither Friday night, and they knew it. The Brewers were unabashedly going to rely heavily on their bullpen because, simply, their relievers are significantly better than their starters. How they deployed their pitchers during their sweep of the Colorado Rockies in their National League Division Series was proof they were committed to disturbing traditionalist trends. They were poised to continue the approach in the NLCS.
To combat the Brewers’ trademark unorthodoxy, the Dodgers fielded a modified lineup on Friday. It remained right-handed heavy with left-hander Gio Gonzalez on the mound, but Cody Bellinger, a left-handed hitter who sat against left-handed pitchers down the regular season’s stretch, started in center field. The rest was intact. David Freese started over Max Muncy at first base, Chris Taylor started over Joc Pederson in left field, and Matt Kemp started in right field over Yasiel Puig.
The Brewers were intent on complicating matters. Manager Craig Counsell pulled Gonzalez — to his dismay — after Gonzalez gave up a run in two innings and inserted Woodruff, a right-hander. The Brewers’ game plan was clear: They were going to counter the Dodgers’ talent advantage by maximizing the number of matchups in their favor.
Replacing a left-hander with a right-hander so early in the game forced Roberts to make decisions to counter the Brewers’ elite bullpen he’d rather make later in games. The tactic temporarily wiped out the Dodgers’ offense for five innings after Manny Machado’s missile of a home run off Gonzalez in the second.
Woodruff tossed two perfect innings with four strikeouts, capitalizing on matchups against Taylor and Kemp during his cruise, while belting a home run off Clayton Kershaw. Hader followed to log three scoreless frames on a season-high 46 pitches, eclipsing the 41 he threw on April 6, with four strikeouts.
“Just go out there and get outs,” said Hader, whose heavy workload will make him unavailable for Game 2 on Saturday. “Give it my all, give 100% to put the team in a good position to stay in the lead.”
Hader’s exit gave the Dodgers some oxygen. The Dodgers loaded the bases against left-hander Xavier Cedeno and right-hander Joakim Soria before Jeremy Jeffress, another right-hander whose 1.23 ERA was tops among Brewers relievers during the regular season, entered to face Machado with two outs. Machado lofted a two-run single off the end of his bat. Kemp then sneaked a groundball up the middle to drive in another run.
The next matchup was in the Dodgers’ favor: the right-handed-hitting Puig, who owns stark reverse splits, against a right-hander. But he struck out swinging at a curveball in the dirt to end the inning.
That at-bat loomed large later when Taylor’s two-out RBI triple off Knebel in the ninth pushed the Dodgers within a run. The Dodgers needed one more hit. They had the right man at the plate. But the late-inning surge would end there.