He was the accidental hitter.
The Milwaukee Brewers are a long way from a parade. But, should the team win seven more games, generations of Wisconsin schoolchildren will celebrate a gentleman named Brandon Woodruff.
They will read about how this pitcher hit a home run off the finest pitcher of his generation. They will see how he touched first base, peeked back to take a mental snapshot of the greatest moment of his career, and let out a primal victory scream.
Miller Park came alive, thanks to a pitcher whom the Brewers had dispatched to the minor leagues six times this season. Woodruff would be the winning pitcher. He had tied the score by hitting a home run off Clayton Kershaw. He looked crazed, he sounded crazed, and who the heck cared?
“That was the next level up,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “I’ve never seen Brandon like that.”
“We had to calm him down a little bit,” infielder Travis Shaw said, “because he had to go back out and pitch.”
He pitched, he hit, he won. The Brewers never again trailed after Woodruff went deep, en route to a 6-5 victory in the first game of the National League Championship Series.
That Kershaw would give up an October home run is not unusual. He has given up 19, to a most valuable player (Kris Bryant) and to a light-hitting catcher (Jeff Mathis), and even to future teammates (Carlos Ruiz and Shane Victorino).
To a pitcher? Never.
And, for only the third time in Major League Baseball history, a relief pitcher had homered in a postseason game. Travis Wood did it for the Chicago Cubs two years ago and Rosy Ryan did it for the 1924 New York Giants.
“You don’t know in your wildest dreams that that’s going to happen,” Woodruff said, “to be able to get an at-bat off Kershaw and hit a home run.”
The wackiest part of the at-bat is that the Brewers did not intend for it to occur at all.
Gio Gonzalez had gotten the first six outs, uneasily, and the Brewers had planned that once through the Dodgers’ lineup would be quite enough for their starter – er, “initial out-getter.” As the Brewers batted in the bottom of the second, Woodruff warmed up in the bullpen.
In the bottom of the second, they would use an actual hitter to bat for Gonzalez. In the top of the third, Woodruff would become the second out-getter.
That second inning ended one batter shy of the pitcher’s spot. So Woodruff took the mound for the top of the third, and led off against Kershaw in the bottom of the third.
Woodruff took the first three pitches, all fastballs, one ball and two strikes. He took the fourth, a trademark Kershaw curve because, well, he froze.
“He buckled me pretty bad,” Woodruff said. “I had no chance. I don’t know how I didn’t swing or why I didn’t swing.”
Said Shaw: “Once he laid off that curve ball, I said, ‘He has a chance.’”
Woodruff figured Kershaw would go back to the fastball, the best chance to avoid the possibility of running a full count. So, yeah, Woodruff sat on the fastball. But, come on, it’s Clayton freaking Kershaw.
“Trying to foul it off or put it in play,” Woodruff said, “and just got lucky.”
Fastball, foul. Another fastball, gone.
Kershaw held his arms wide apart, tracking the flight of the ball, in apparent disbelief. Woodruff rounded first base, looked back at the scene and at his dugout, and got so much extension on his fist pump that he risked dislocating his pitching shoulder.
“I was just trying to look at the whole bench,” he said, “just trying to get them fired up.”
He charged around the bases, then delivered a high-five to Lorenzo Cain so hard that he bent Cain’s hand backwards.
“He almost broke my arm,” Cain said.
Woodruff floated his way through a line of dugout congratulations, giddily, until Orlando Arcia staggered him with a chest bump that would have made a linebacker proud. “Strong,” Arcia said with a smile.
The home run was not the first for Woodruff this season. He batted eight times and had one home run, but that came against Pittsburgh Pirates rookie Nick Kingham, who has one fewer most valuable player awards, three fewer Cy Young awards and 148 fewer victories than Kershaw.
The pitching, of course, is why Woodruff is here. He threw three hitless innings as the Brewers’ “initial out-getter” in Game 1 of the Division Series and two more hitless innings on Friday.
The Brewers are so dependent on their bullpen that they could go entire games without letting a pitcher bat. Their pitchers got two on Friday.
Josh Hader, who does not practice hitting, struck out. Woodruff, who does, hit a home run.
“I do not like hitting,” Hader said. “That’s why I became a pitcher. I couldn’t hit a fastball or a curveball. I figured out I couldn’t hit a changeup.
“But Woody? He was over here getting some swings.”