MILWAUKEE — It has become a trope to call the National League Championship Series a chess match, and it certainly is that. But for Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, this was no little move. It wasn’t pushing a pawn ahead a square. It was moving your knight, right from the start, and putting the enemy on defensive.
That move: Roberts started 35-year-old, lefty-mashing, slow-running David Freese as his leadoff hitter against Milwaukee Brewers lefty Wade Miley. Miley, as you might recall, was making his second straight start, though in Game 5, he surprised most everybody by being strategically pulled after one batter.
“You just don’t know how it’s going to unfold,” Roberts said before the game. “With the way that we structured the lineup, and the guys we have on the bench, it just kind of gives us a little bit of flexibility on how we want to use the guys on the bench.”
Freese had started exactly three regular-season games as a leadoff hitter in his 10 big league seasons. He’s no Willie Wilson. Freese has only eight career stolen bases and zero since 2015. Roberts told him to stick with his usual approach, and so Freese began the game by lining a 2-2 Miley offering over the right-center-field wall.
Dodgers 1, Brewers 0.
Miller Park had been rocking, jam-packed with more than 43,000 fans who have spent the past few weeks infected with a virulent Brewers fever that has overtaken the city of Milwaukee. Former commissioner and ex-Brewers owner Bud Selig even caught it, saying in a pregame news conference, “What the hell. I can’t sit here and tell you I’m not rooting for the Brewers.”
But reality has a way of overtaking euphoria. The Dodgers are postseason fixtures, still longing to win one more game than they did in 2017, when they fell one win shy of breaking a 29-year championship drought. Los Angeles entered the series as heavy favorites, and there was a sense of burgeoning inevitability.
Then Manny Machado stepped to the plate. Baseball’s newest villain was sure to get booed after his kerfuffle with Milwaukee’s Jesus Aguilar in Game 4. But this was some serious booing — sustained booing that echoed and reverberated around the closed roof of Miller Park. It was a melted cheese blanket of Wisconsin disdain. Strangely enough, Machado’s mere presence seemed to rekindle the furor with which the fans started the game.
“I felt my chest getting tight it was so loud in there,” Miley said. “Obviously, they were booing Manny in his first at-bat. It got pretty loud.”
It started with a little roller up the middle by Lorenzo Cain that he legged out for an infield hit. Cain hasn’t hit leadoff that often in his career, though he has done it way more often than Freese. But Cain understands the job.
“I was able to get on to start things off,” Cain said. “Definitely need to be on as much as possible, because when I’m on, we get things rolling. We did a great job, just trying to put the ball in play right there, find my way on. Got the infield knock. Everything got rolling after that.”
That brought up Aguilar, the powerfully built first baseman who, as amazing as it seems, is even slower afoot than Freese. But when Aguilar squares up a ball, it rockets off his bat, and surely that’s what Brewers fans were screaming for. Aguilar hit 35 homers during the season, 18 of them at Miller Park. And Milwaukee is a home run team, with 218 dingers during the season that ranked second in the NL to L.A.’s 235.
Aguilar battled red-hot Dodgers lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu to a full count. Ryu offered one of his signature changeups, one of the league’s best, the weapon that makes him so good against right-handed hitters like Aguliar. That’s when big Aggie got small, poking a slicking liner that landed up the right-field line and kicked into the corner.
Cain and Braun raced around the bases to score, giving Milwaukee the lead it never relinquished. Aguilar — eventually — slid into second base with a double. He turned out to be the hero.
“I just tried to be aggressive,” Aguilar said. “The most important thing to me at the end of the day is to win games. Tomorrow, it can be somebody else. Tonight, it was me, and I’m really happy about it.”
The homer-happy Brewers replicated Aguilar’s approach all the way down the lineup. Mike Moustakas also doubled into the corner, plating Aguilar. The crowd vibrated.
“The electricity in that stadium once we had that big first inning, it carried us throughout the rest of the game,” Moustakas said. “You can feel that as a player. You feed off of it.”
Catcher Erik Kratz, who has emerged as a kind of folk hero around Milwaukee, then singled to right to score Moustakas, capping the four-run rally. It was quite an answer to Freese’s initial thunderbolt. Milwaukee ended up sending all nine of its starters to the plate in that first inning.
“Everybody in that inning did something quality for us,” Kratz said. “The key at-bat definitely with two outs is Aggie shooting that changeup to right field. It’s nothing against Ryu, but we continued to wait him out. Sometimes it was first pitch. Sometimes it was Aggie’s two-strike changeup with two outs. You’ve got to find green, you’ve got to find the ball, you’ve got to find pitches to push out to the outfield.”
The Brewers tacked on another run in the second when Braun singled home Yelich. The game was far from over, but a game within the game began to unfold.
All series, we’ve talked about the unique role that dominant Milwaukee lefty Josh Hader plays in the stacked Brewers bullpen. He’s so good, and so impossible for same-side hitters, that opposing managers have to keep an eye on him, even when he’s not in the game. His one on-field weakness, if you want to call it that, is that he hasn’t been quite as sharp pitching in back-to-back games.
With a Milwaukee win, this obviously will not be a routine back-to-back set. You’re talking about Games 6 and 7 of the NLCS — a trip to the World Series on the line. You use Hader in both games if you have to — and hope for best. But with the early lead, the specter suddenly was raised that if Milwaukee could increase its advantage, maybe Craig Counsell wouldn’t have to use him at all. That would be the ideal, anyway.
The score stayed as it was until the Dodgers scored a second run off of Miley to cut the lead to 5-2. We’ve seen the Dodgers do this all through the playoffs, even in losses. They keep getting on base and keep sending up one home run threat after another. The pressure is never off.
Hader watched from the bullpen bench with his warm-up jacket on. Corey Knebel finished off Miley’s fifth inning, then added a zero in the sixth. Jeremy Jeffress rolled through the seventh, and Milwaukee tacked on a run via a wild pitch to make it 6-2. That’s when Hader started to move around a little bit, next to teammate Corbin Burnes, who was warming up to come in for the eighth.
“It was no different than anything else,” Hader said. “I was just preparing to get outs. Obviously, we had the lead.”
This ostensibly was the beginning of Game 7. Could the Dodgers force Hader into the contest, where they could put some wear and tear on his well-rested, dart-throwing left arm? Burnes took the hill to begin the eighth against Dodgers righties Turner and Machado. Hader continued to throw. After the righties was the lefty Bellinger, then another lefty in Joc Pederson.
Did Hader know if he would be used? If so, how?
“At first, it was for the lefties,” Hader said. “Then once Corbin got through the two righties pretty quickly, we moved on to the next inning.”
As Hader just told you, Burnes recorded two quick outs. As Bellinger strode to the plate, down three runs and no one on base, Counsell remained firmly rooted to the top step of the dugout.
“If anybody got on, I think Josh would have had Bellinger,” Counsell said.
No one got on. Burnes got Bellinger on a routine fly to center. Then Milwaukee added a seventh run on an RBI single from Aguilar. Burnes came on for the ninth and got the Dodgers in order once again.
“Corbin goes six up and six down, and that’s what keeps Josh out of the game,” Counsell said. “In addition, we tacked on some runs and gave him some space in the ninth to keep going. Best-case scenario for sure for us.”
All told, Milwaukee’s bullpen was just shy of perfect. It worked 4⅔ innings in relief of Miley and allowed one baserunner, as Knebel hit Joc Pederson on the right hand with a pitch in the sixth. That’s it. A near-perfect bullpen night, without Hader. After Burnes finished off the eighth, a bullpen coach whispered something to Hader, who punched his glove, took it off and slipped his warm-up jacket back on.
Hader is ready, rested and geared up for whatever Game 7 brings. There’s no chance he’ll sit that one out.
“We don’t have to worry about that today, but it’s just like in L.A., when I had to go back-to-back, just give it all I got,” Hader said. “You’ve got to do this for the team. It’s why we play the whole season, to be at this point. There is no giving up, no half hearts. It’s 110 percent, everything you got.”
The Brewers still have to win again versus a great Dodgers team that has averted irreversible catastrophe a number of times this season. Have the Brewers finally pushed things too far? In the season of superteams, could it really be the Brewers representing the National League in the World Series?
Miley has it all figured out.
“[Jhoulys] Chacin go six, Hader go three,” Miley said. “I mapped it out.”