MILWAUKEE — After seven fascinating games full of strategy, game-changing moments, constant substitutions and occasional testiness, talent simply won out in the end.
That’s the lingering feeling from the Los Angeles Dodgers‘ 5-1 win over the Milwaukee Brewers in Saturday’s Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. The best of the best of the Brewers can hang with anybody on the Dodgers. But in a matchup between teams that rely on depth and matchups more than any other teams in baseball, that’s a battle fought on the Dodgers’ turf.
“We definitely are going to tip our cap to the Brewers,” NLCS MVP Cody Bellinger said, while sitting behind the comically large statue he had just won. “They were a great team. Obviously, they put up a really tough fight. Like I said, we’ve been there, we’ve done that.”
We know it didn’t have to end this way. The better team doesn’t always win in baseball. If fact, it often doesn’t. It’s what makes baseball unique among the major sports. Unsung players get hot, superstar players slump, Lady Luck pays a visit and teams get kneecapped by a poor decision.
Even in Game 7, which was never really in doubt after the middle innings, the Brewers were inches away from snapping a 36-year pennant drought.
Chris Taylor, who according to unimpressive catch probability readings from Statcast, turned what apparently should have been a ho-hum play into a highlight catch. Well, sorry Statcast — that was a highlight catch.
The drive Taylor caught, off the bat of Christian Yelich, came in the fifth inning, with Lorenzo Cain dancing off second base and the Brewers still trailing by just a run. Taylor raced over from left field and laid out to snag the ball in the webbing of his glove, while Bellinger leaped over his tumbling torso.
“That was the catch of the year,” Bellinger said. “I don’t know what would happen if he doesn’t make that catch. It would have been a tie game, who knows. That was an unbelievable catch. And it was really cool to see it firsthand.”
The next inning, Yasiel Puig‘s three-run homer broke the game open. The ball was a laser beam that reached the fence so quickly that even Cain could not track it down for one of his signature home run robberies. The ball had a launch angle of 9 degrees, according to Statcast, the lowest homer Puig has hit since these measurements began. The ball actually skipped off the top of the fence.
“It barely went out,” Cain lamented. “That’s how the game works.”
It’s a game of inches, so they say. But in this game, the Brewers needed the 50-50 plays to go their way, and they just didn’t.
Milwaukee came into the contest thrilled about how things set up after the Brewers’ 7-2 win in Game 6. They had their No. 1 starter on the mound in Jhoulys Chacin. They had their relief ace, Josh Hader, well-rested and ready to go multiple innings. They had plenty of options to fill in the gaps with Corey Knebel, Jeremy Jeffress, Brandon Woodruff — the meat of a bullpen that has carried the team all season.
That’s why when MVP candidate Yelich just cleared the fence for a first-inning homer after a postseason of slumping, it started to feel like maybe Milwaukee had just enough — that this magical season might just continue.
“We won 96 games — 95 games in the regular season,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “We won our division. We finished one game from the World Series. In a lot of ways, there’s another series after this we’d like to be playing in. But you do this again and you put yourselves in these situations again, that’s all you can ask.”
That early hopeful feeling for Milwaukee was quickly dulled when Bellinger blasted a Chacin pitch over the Dodgers’ bullpen, scoring Manny Machado. Machado, who once again was booed like he was Santa Claus at a Philadelphia Eagles game, had reached base on, of all things, a 3-2 bunt.
From there, it was rare that the Miller Park crowd reached quite the same decibel level it felt like the fans maintained throughout Friday’s Game 6. Hader came on in relief of Chacin after two innings and was dominant as usual. But the Brewers were off script. Instead of protecting a lead, Hader was trying to keep a deficit frozen. Afterward, he was just thinking big picture.
“All season, being a part of this team,” Hader said, “I guess we don’t really do things normal. But we found ways to get it done. That’s the biggest thing about this group.”
For the Brewers to survive the Dodgers, it was a must that their primary bullpen options come through consistently. The old-timer’s lament about overreliance on the pen is that if you keep cycling through pitchers, you’ll eventually find one that slept on the wrong side of the bed. Obviously, if this were an argument that stood up to rigorous analysis, the Brewers wouldn’t have managed their staff the way that they did.
Yet, the lament did prove true once too often this October for Jeffress. It was he who gave up Puig’s rope. Suddenly, it was 5-1 and the Dodgers were able to show everyone that their bullpen lined up pretty well too. Up to that point, the Dodgers were 53-0 this season after getting a four-run lead.
“They played better,” Brewers infield Travis Shaw said. “They came through with big swings and made some pitches. They played better than we did.”
After Julio Urias got a batter to finish the fifth for starter Walker Buehler, Ryan Madson came on to get five outs. Then how’s this for a fantastic finish: The Dodgers got four outs from a possible Hall of Fame closer in Kenley Jansen, then three outs from a certain Hall of Fame starter in Clayton Kershaw, who got his third career game finished. (That doesn’t include his complete games.)
That’s what we’re getting at. The Brewers are armed with a crack analytics staff, and their manager, Counsell, is elite — perhaps the best in baseball right now. The Brewers put their players in the right situations to win. Counsell arranged his pitching staff to align with the Dodgers’ deep lineup and at the very least matched Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts in that regard.
“This series could have went either way,” Roberts said. “They gave us all we could handle.”
But the Dodgers’ options were just simpler. There is the platooning of the position players, an arrangement formed not because they have to do it — all of L.A.’s position players are capable of playing every day — but because they can. In the pitching department, all four of the Dodgers’ starters in the NLCS would likely be chosen to start a Game 7 over anyone in the Brewers’ rotation. Even Chacin.
Look, there was a reason that the Dodgers were favorites. They scored 50 more runs than the Brewers during the regular season and gave up 49 fewer. They had an Opening Day payroll of nearly $90 million more than Milwaukee, and this year’s expenditure was on the low end for L.A.
But Milwaukee hung in, and it was thrilling to watch. In the series, the Brewers outscored the Dodgers 24-23. The Brewers hit for a better average and powered one more homer than the power-laden boys in blue. Their bullpen was a record-setter, throwing more innings than any bullpen ever has in a playoff series. Woodruff’s 17 strikeouts in the match was the most ever by a league championship series reliever. But even a great bullpen is just one facet of a team, and while the Brewers have plenty of strengths elsewhere, this felt like it was as far as that bullpen reliance could take them.
“As we get further away from the loss,” Brewers cornerstone Ryan Braun said, “we will all be able to step back and appreciate what we accomplished, what a journey we’ve been on. It was a pretty incredible accomplishment. I don’t think anybody expected us to get where we’re at, to end up one game short of the World Series.”
Milwaukee played a great series, and if Jesus Aguilar and Yelich had gotten hot, the Brewers would be headed to Boston. They weren’t hot, but neither were the Dodgers’ top hitters. It was pitchers’ series — a bullpen series, in fact. But it wasn’t the Brewers’ series. It wasn’t the Brewers’ time.
The solace in all of this for Milwaukee was to be found in the electric stuff of their young pitchers. Not just Hader, but also Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta, who doesn’t light up the gun but has rotation potential. All of those pitchers helped boost the Brewers to a Game 7. Other than Hader — who might have found his calling as a long-man supreme — none of them was used in roles as large as they likely will be able to fill someday.
Add it up and the Dodgers just had more. But you also get the feeling that these Brewers aren’t going anywhere.
“They earned their chance to go back to the World Series,” Braun said. “Winning a Game 7 here. It’s not the position we hoped to be in. I think we entered the day feeling really good about our chances.”
In a coda old-time Dodger fans might recognize, Braun might just as well have said, “Just wait until next year.”