LOS ANGELES — Coming into the National League Championship Series, we — the reliable baseball experts of the media world — smugly thought we had the Milwaukee Brewers‘ plan for beating the Los Angeles Dodgers all laid out.
Get an early lead, likely with thunderous offense led by MVP candidate Christian Yelich. Go to the bullpen early, very early, and let those dominant relievers seal up the advantage. Use lights-out lefty Josh Hader in very targeted situations, and hope they were high-leverage enough to tip the series.
Alas, baseball has a way of turning expectation on its head, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. The Dodgers were heavy favorites in this matchup. Even the Brewers knew that. That Milwaukee seized a 2-1 lead in the series with a 4-0 win at Dodger Stadium in Monday’s Game 3 isn’t shocking. It’s baseball. It’s October. Anything can happen.
What is shocking is that in the city more populated with scripts than any other on Earth, the Brewers have taken the one we thought had been written for the NLCS and tossed it into Chavez Ravine.
“It’s been the story of our season,” Brewers infielder Travis Shaw said. “We’ve had guys stepping up different times of the year in different ways. I know everybody talks about Yelich and [Lorenzo] Cain. But we’ve had guys up and down the lineup come in. It’s a different guy every single day.”
As this series continues to unfold, this might be the emergent story about the 2018 Brewers. For all the talk about the Dodgers’ depth and their ability to leverage value from every spot on the roster, the Brewers do the same thing. It’s just that their roster spots are held down by players not as wealthy or famous as their Los Angeles counterparts.
“We’re a team,” Yelich said. “We need everybody to contribute. We’ve got to have all 25 guys. They’re a great team on the other side over there, and we’re going to need contributions from everybody up and down the lineup, and on the pitching staff, if we want to win the series.”
Yelich is the MVP frontrunner in the National League, the closest thing to a Hollywood-style matinee idol that the Brewers have. He’s even from Los Angeles. But after seeing his second-half exploits mount and his numbers drift off the charts, the number of hittable pitches he has gotten have all but dried up. Brewers manager Craig Counsell said before Monday’s game that the few fat pitches Yelich has seen, he has fouled off.
Yelich started his night with a walk, his ninth of the postseason, which tells you a lot about the way he has been pitched. But when he stepped to the plate to lead off the eighth inning, he had slipped to 3-for-18 in his non-walk appearances. The Dodgers aligned their defense into the kind of shift Yelich sees a lot of. The expectation was that the guy who hit 36 homers and nearly won the NL’s Triple Crown during the season would do what sluggers do in 2018 baseball — try to hit over the shift.
Instead, Yelich laid down a perfect bunt up the third-base line and wound up on first base. Wait, what page of the script was that on?
“Leading off the inning, nobody out,” Yelich said. “If they are going to give it to you, why not take it? I have no problems bunting. It was a good bunt.”
There were little pokes in the eye of expectation like that all over the Brewers’ Game 3 win. That started with the starter. Jhoulys Chacin gave up eight earned runs in 4⅓ innings in his only previous start at Dodger Stadium this season. He was going against rookie righty Walker Buehler, whose ERA at the ballpark over 12 starts was 1.34.
So, of course, Chacin got the better of Buehler. That’s yet another twist to the formulaic tale we had drawn up. Chacin has turned into a Midwestern, right-handed version of Madison Bumgarner this October. He put up 5⅓ scoreless innings on Monday, and he now has hung 10⅓ zeroes to start his postseason. Only four other starters in postseason history have started their playoff careers with two straight scoreless outings of five innings or more: Corey Kluber (2016), Steve Avery (1991), Joe Niekro (1980 and 1981) and Christy Mathewson (1905).
“Jhoulys was just outstanding tonight,” Counsell said. “He made big pitches. The [second-inning] strikeout to [Yasmani] Grandal was a huge pitch. The last four times we’ve given him the ball, it’s just been a big-time performance each and every time.”
Chacin’s outing came after Wade Miley threw 5⅔ shutout innings in Game 2, retiring 15 straight Dodgers at one point. It has been going on for the Brewers all postseason.
“Our guys that we’re giving the ball to at the start of the game, they’re doing a heck of a job, man,” Counsell said. “They’re setting the tone really for games. They’re putting us in a good position.”
Remember, this was supposed to be all about the bullpen. But after Game 3, Brewers relievers have a 3.07 ERA over 29⅓ innings, per ESPN Stats & Information data. Not bad. But that overlooked rotation (including Counsell’s celebrated “initial out-getters”)? That would be a 0.35 ERA in 25⅔ innings. Milwaukee’s starters have allowed exactly one run so far in the playoffs.
Is it possible that the Brewers’ starters have taken their lack of respect just a little personally?
“I personally don’t think of it like that,” Miley said. “I just have the same philosophy as all year. Just go out and try to get as many outs as possible. I know we’ve got a pretty damn good bullpen down there, so the sooner we get the ball in their hands, we know we’ve got a good chance to close it out. Obviously, we want to do well, try to do well, and things are working out right now. We want to try to continue that.”
OK. What about that bullpen? It was good in Game 3, obviously, with Milwaukee posting its third shutout of the postseason. That, by the way, is amazing. The Brewers have become the third team to post three shutouts in the first six games of a postseason. The others were Mathewson’s 1905 New York Giants and the 1966 Baltimore Orioles. The latter popping up is bad juju for the Dodgers; it was the club that handed Sandy Koufax’s last team a defeat in the World Series before he headed into early retirement.
Anyway, Corey Knebel, Joakim Soria and Hader combined to throw 2⅔ innings of lockdown relief, with a combined six strikeouts on Monday. Hader, who has made his mark with multi-inning outings, struck out both batters he faced on just eight pitches.
Milwaukee led 4-0 when Hader was called in to finish the eighth, touching off more than a fair bit of debate. Counsell has talked many times of wanting to avoid Hader pitching in back-to-back games, so why use him there, in a fairly low-leverage spot? That’s not the way we wrote it up.
“The other team is pretty good and you respect the hitters on their team,” Counsell said. “And I thought getting [Joc] Pederson and [Max] Muncy out of the game for pinch hitters with Josh was a good way to get outs. Josh did limited work tonight.”
While Hader might have struggled in back-to-backs this season, can eight pitches really be called a “back”? When it came to talking about Hader’s availability for Tuesday’s Game 4, Counsell played it cagey. And maybe that’s the most important part — to retain the threat of Hader that he did not have entering Game 2.
“We’ll always check on it and see how he feels and everything,” Counsell said. “Obviously, the part of taking him out of the game was to have him available for Games 4 and 5, if we need him.”
The four-run advantage that Hader helped protect was established in another couple of unscripted moments. First, in the sixth, Shaw lofted a fly to right-center that just kept going. Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger seemed to give up on it, then bolted for the fence at the last moment. The ball bounced off the wall, and Shaw ended up on third base.
You know how many triples Shaw had hit before that this season? Zero.
“I hit that ball pretty well,” said Shaw, who seemed to be in high spirits. “I thought it had enough to get out. Apparently, I have no pop, but I’ll take a triple. First one of the year.”
In the seventh, another unlikely recurrent theme for the Brewers resurfaced. That is production from the bottom of the order. No. 7 hitter Erik Kratz doubled. Then shortstop Orlando Arcia poked a 356-foot fly ball to the opposite field that found a sweet spot just inside the right-field foul pole for a two-run homer.
Arcia, who we all know is a great-field, no-hit shortstop, was demoted to Triple-A this season because of his struggles at the plate. Twice. He hit three homers all season. His home run in Game 3 was his third of October.
You know what? Take this script away. No one is going to believe it.
“He plays well in big games,” Shaw said of Arcia. “Everybody knows what he brings to the table defensively. He’s helped us a lot at the plate here, the bottom of the order rolling the lineup over. He’s leading the team in homers in the postseason. He’s playing well and swinging good right now. That’s a huge thing at the bottom of the order.”
The bottom three spots in the Milwaukee order during the playoffs and, mind you, this includes the pitchers, have produced a slash line of .318/.375/.591. The top six spots — Yelich, Cain, Jesus Aguilar, Mike Moustakas, those guys — are at .232/.327/.374.
Please. Just stop.
“I think everyone is just really focused on doing their job,” Yelich said. “Focused on the present. We don’t care about the future. We don’t care about the past. We just care about what we have to do to win today. It’s a collective group effort, whether you’re a position player or a pitcher. Everybody is pulling on the same rope. It’s a lot of fun to be a part of.”
Ryan Braun discusses how the Brewers have to battle to get all 27 outs against the Dodgers and how anxious he was at the end.
After all of that — the Shaw triple, the Arcia homer, the Chacin gem, the Hader cameo, the MVP’s bunt — the Dodgers still got the tying run to the plate in the bottom of the ninth. After Los Angeles mounted late-innings comebacks in the first two games, the proceedings took on an air of familiarity. This flip of the script is one the Brewers could do without. After all, it was their ability to close out games that was supposed to be their best trait.
On the mound was short reliever Jeremy Jeffress, who had a 1.29 ERA during an All-Star season and a 7.71 ERA thus far in the postseason. He appeared to be in October form, which for him is not a good thing. He gave up hits to Justin Turner and Manny Machado. Jeffress got bat-slamming Bellinger on a pop out but walked Yasiel Puig to load the bases.
Counsell got Brandon Woodruff up in the pen. After all that had gone right, suddenly it felt like it could all go so wrong. The second-guessers were sharpening their pencils. But just as suddenly, at just the right time, the regular-season Jeffress showed up, striking out Grandal and Brian Dozier to end the game.
“I think they wanted to get him back in there, try to get his confidence level up,” Shaw said. “His inning started the same as the last two games, but today he found a way to get through it and made some big pitches to strike those two guys out. That’s all that matters, is that we won and we’re up 2-1.”
Which brings us to our final flip of the script. After three games, the underdog Brewers are beating the mighty Dodgers, and they’ve regained home-field advantage if the series goes long.
“It’s big,” Shaw said. “Guarantees we go back to Milwaukee.”