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MLB — Ups and downs of bullpenning on display as Milwaukee Brewers take Game 1

MILWAUKEE — The aim of bullpenning is supposed to be to prevent runs, not generate them. Even when it comes to that, it seems the Milwaukee Brewers cannot follow convention.

Perhaps more than any team in postseason history, it was entirely appropriate that it was a middle reliever who sparked the euphoria that engulfed 43,615 fans at Miller Park on Friday and propelled the Brewers to a 6-5 series-opening win. That middle man was a fastballing rookie “out-getter” they call “Woody” — Brandon Woodruff — who after one game of the National League Championship Series is the MVP of the round.

Woodruff rocked Brewtown in the third inning when the blasted a Clayton Kershaw fastball over the center field fence for Milwaukee’s first run of the NLCS. It landed just wide of a party deck suspended over the fence, eluding the eager arms of the Milwaukee faithful, 407 feet from home plate.

“It definitely changed the vibe for sure,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said, perhaps understating matters just a little.

The blast generated all kinds of lists. He became just the third pitcher ever to homer against Kershaw. He became the third reliever in history to homer in a postseason game, and the first to do it in a left-lefty matchup. In short, what Woodruff did against Kershaw was not supposed to happen.

Kershaw went into a bit of a tailspin after that. He didn’t get any help from a ragged Los Angeles Dodgers defense, and Kershaw was done after three-plus innings and his club trailed 5-1.

“It’s something obviously coming in the day, you don’t know in your wildest dreams that that’s going to happen, to be able to get an at-bat off Kershaw and hit a home run,” Woodruff said.

The short outing for Kershaw is a key detail from the game and, quite probably, for the series as a whole. Kershaw is a future Hall-of-Famer — his business cards should bear that label — and what you saw on Friday was more than a bad outing from a great pitcher. It had some metaphorical punch to it as well.

If we can compare Kershaw to the fictional Gulliver, then the horde of quality relievers in the Brewers’ bullpen are the Lilliputians. And it was Kershaw who ended up subdued and tied down on the beach.

“Once I knew it was gone, it was just one of those kind of moments where you’re not really thinking,” Woodruff said. “I was just letting some emotion out. It was a cool moment, and I was happy that I could just go out there and do it for the team.”

It was the perfect example of not just how the roles of pitchers is changing before our eyes, but why it’s happening. Kershaw is the practitioner of an art that is still vital and hopefully always will be, but sometimes, the masters of that art will be overtaken by the collective. Of course, here we’re not talking about Woodruff’s hitting, but the thing he’s actually on the team to do: Get hitters out.

Woodruff’s home run will deservedly lead all the highlight reels, but it was his pitching that has biggest reverberations for the rest of the series. The Dodgers grabbed the lead early when Manny Machado went deep off Milwaukee “starter” Gio Gonzalez, snapping a string of 20 straight scoreless innings for the Brewers.

We have to use the scare quotes because there was no pretense of Gonzalez serving as starting pitcher, not in the sense that we’ve always considered starting pitchers. Counsell had a pinch-hitter on deck to replace Gonzalez in the second inning, after he’d faced eight batters and thrown 32 pitches. He didn’t start, he opened.

From there, we saw just how effective bullpenning can be when it all works according to script. We also saw how precarious the tightrope can be when you walk it with that scheme on your back.

First, Woodruff sailed through two perfect innings, striking out the last four batters he faced, then handed the baton to lefty Josh Hader.

Thus set in motion the chess match between managers that will play out over the next few days. It’s a match that will be as much about the moves that aren’t made as those that are. In this instance, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts didn’t sub en masse when Counsell flipped from the lefty Gonzalez to the righty Woodruff because it was so early in the game. Max Muncy did take over for David Freese, but that was it.

With L.A.’s starting lineup mostly intact, plus Muncy who handles lefties well, that meant Hader was mostly facing the righty-dominant lineup Roberts had penciled in to face Gonzalez for his one-time trip through the Dodgers’ lineup.

Righty, lefty — it doesn’t matter that much with Hader. Righties have little chance against him, while lefties have no chance. He rolled through three scoreless innings, allowing a couple of hits and, like Woodruff, striking out four.

“I threw Josh out there because he was throwing the ball really well,” Counsell said. “I thought once he had two innings he was down for tomorrow anyway, and so he’s got two days off now and he’ll be ready to go again.”

By the time Hader was done at the end of the seventh, Milwaukee’s collective pitching line looked that that of a classic, Kershaw-style gem: seven innings, one run, three hits, one walk and nine strikeouts. Good numbers, but — by design — it took three pitchers to do it.

It was 6-1 Milwaukee by the time the eighth rolled around, and Counsell treated it like a classic set-up situation, the kind that Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt participated in many times as a set-up guy under then-A’s manager Tony La Russa a generation ago, to bridge the gap to Dennis Eckersley.

In other words, it was matchup time. Lefty Xavier Cedeno and righty Joakim Soria — both acquired from the Chicago White Sox during the season — got two outs but also loaded the bases.

The jam no doubt gave fuel to opponents of bullpenning, the kind of situation old-schoolers point to when they rant about the strategy. That is, if you keep turning that bullpen dial, eventually you’re going to set off an alarm.

To quell the threat, Counsell summoned Jeremy Jeffress, who was dominant all season, much of it as Milwaukee’s closer. He promptly coughed up a two-run single to Manny Machado and an RBI single to Matt Kemp. The lead was down to two.

“I thought there was a scenario kind of after Josh got three innings where we could avoid (using) Corey (Knebel) tonight and have him available for something longer tomorrow, but it just didn’t work out,” Counsell said. “They battled back and made it tough on us, as we expected. They had a really good eighth inning with some big hits. So we couldn’t get through it and we had to use our guys.”

Former and apparent current closer Knebel got the ninth. That he’d be in the end-of-the-game role made sense — he hadn’t allowed a run since Sept. 2 over 19 outings.

Again, this was a straightforward save situation. The bullpenning had been designed to lead up to this point. And while the Brewers meandered off-script in the eighth, they made their way back to it. Given the two-run cushion, Knebel got two quick outs, walked Joc Pederson and gave up a harrowing triple off the right-field wall to Chris Taylor. The lead was down to one run.

It all worked out. Knebel whiffed Justin Turner, who had an awful night for the Dodgers, going 0-for-5 with four strikeouts and also committing an error. That he was the last out was fitting, and Knebel celebrated with his teammates. The Brewers won their 12th straight game dating back to Sept. 22 and have drawn first blood in the NLCS.

“”It was a good feeling,” Knebel said. “A win’s a win. We’re 1-0 in the series, so far. Keep our head on our shoulders and get ready for tomorrow.”

But as Knebel and his teammates exchanged handshakes and congratulations on the field, the challenge ahead them was clear. Hader and Woodruff had been perfect, and the back end of the bullpen had been just good enough. It took a village — the Lilliputians — to do it. Now, they have to capture three more Gullivers.

Hader won’t pitch in Game 2 after throwing a season-high 46 pitches. Everyone else, including penciled-in Game 3 starter Jhoulys Chacin will be available on Saturday, when Counsell tries to piece it all together again, while the Dodgers will hope for another long, dominant outing from lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu.

For now, for at least one night, the Brewers can bask.

“We won the ballgame,” Hader said. “That’s the end accomplishment right there, getting that win, first game of the postseason of the championship series. So it’s huge, especially against this team.”

The Milwaukee bullpen not only iced the Dodgers’ offense in mostly dominating fashion for five innings, they established the template for how they can beat the richer, more famous and more established Dodgers. Stay close early, and let the game’s best bullpen go to work. It’s been the Milwaukee formula all season.

But at no point have the Brewers had to extend their relievers in this kind of crucible — high pressure, high stakes and an intense schedule with little time to rest. As the Dodgers showed during their late comeback in Game 1, they will keep coming after you with waves of depth. They platoon because they can, but most of their players are of first-division-regular quality, so your matchup gains are marginal.

“I thought we played an entire baseball game,” 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 till the end.”

The early drama in the series now shifts to a question: Can the Brewers sustain this for the three more wins they need to get back to the World Series for the first time since 1982?

We’ll get a glimpse of that answer in Saturday’s Game 2, with Hader out. Counsell will have to bullpen without at least one of his hardest-charging bulls. However, Hader was rarely used in consecutive outings during the season, so it’s a scenario Counsell is familiar with. He thinks his bullpen is in good shape.

“You won’t see Josh tomorrow, for sure,” Counsell said. “I mean, he’s got two days off (including Sunday’s travel day) and then he’ll be good to go.

“Everybody else we’re good with. We’re in good shape tomorrow. Corbin Burnes did not pitch today and was not up. So we’re in good shape. We got possibilities, a lot of possibilities for tomorrow, so good stuff.”

If Counsell is right, it might behoove the Dodgers to hang some crooked numbers on the board in the early innings. The Brewers may not have invented bullpenning, but right now they are working to master one of baseball’s newest arts.

If they succeed, we might have to start calling it Brewpenning. And as we keep hearing from the Milwaukee relievers, those guys can rake. At least Woodruff can, as we saw.

“It literally sparked, not only everyone in the dugout, but everyone in the stadium,” Gonzalez said. “It was just an eruption of excitement. Everyone was going crazy. I’m pretty sure we knocked him a couple of times in the helmet. I’m just hoping he can remember his name.”

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