MILWAUKEE — In spite of all that went wrong — the errors, the passed balls, that home run by Brandon Woodruff, of all people — the Los Angeles Dodgers wound up with the tying run only 90 feet away on Friday night.
They had wounded the Milwaukee Brewers‘ venerable bullpen late in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, stringing together five hits over the final two innings, the last of which was a Chris Taylor triple that got them within one run with two outs in the top of the ninth. And though Justin Turner struck out to end the game, sealing a 6-5 loss, an undercurrent of optimism was noticeable in an otherwise somber postgame clubhouse.
“We know they’re a good ballclub; they wouldn’t be here if they weren’t,” Dodgers shortstop Manny Machado said. “But we know we’re as good as them. We just have to settle down, play baseball like we did all year, and just grind it out.”
It was only the beginning of what could be a long series, but the Dodgers, defending NL champs, could take a lot away from their first encounter with the young, bullpen-reliant Brewers — some that should concern them, but some that might also ease them. Let’s explore both.
Three reasons why the Dodgers are in trouble
1. The Brewers might match up better than they do: Milwaukee’s Jhoulys Chacin was their best starting pitcher all season, but the Brewers are starting a lefty in each of the first two games of this series because the Dodgers’ lineup against southpaws is considerably weaker than their lineup against righties, as Taylor, David Freese and Matt Kemp replace Joc Pederson, Max Muncy and Yasiel Puig.
Starting a lefty also forces Dave Roberts’ hand when the Brewers turn to a right-handed reliever early in the game.
If he plays to the matchup — like he did in the third inning, when Muncy stood in the on-deck circle to pinch hit for Freese — he’s limiting his options against the Brewers’ stable of high-leverage relievers late in the game. If he doesn’t pinch hit, he doesn’t benefit from the matchup advantages that made the Dodgers so dangerous all season.
2. Julio Urias doesn’t look ready: Urias’ addition to the NLCS roster caught many by surprise considering he had made just three major league relief appearances since shoulder surgery, all in low-leverage situations. Urias then proceeded to give up a home run to the first batter he faced, Jesus Aguilar. The 22-year-old left-hander worked around a single thereafter and sat around 93 mph with his fastball, which is his norm this year.
Roberts felt Urias had good arm action, but that his changeup “didn’t have that life at the end, the depth.” His inclusion kept the Dodgers from adding Ross Stripling, who made the All-Star team as a starter, and lefty reliever Scott Alexander, a major weapon throughout the season who, according to Roberts, is healthy.
3.They’re facing a hot team: Sometimes teams just catch fire late in the season and carry that all the way through October. The Brewers certainly fit that description. They have now won 12 in a row — an accomplishment that will force a local diner to hand out free burgers on Thursday — and have outscored their opponents 78-33 in that stretch.
Their offense is flowing, their bullpen has come together and the entire team seems to be playing with an unmatched level of confidence. They also have the home-field advantage, and the home team has won a best-of-seven series 67 percent of the time after winning Game 1.
Three reasons why the Dodgers will be just fine
1. They can’t possibly play this poorly again: The Dodgers weren’t just sloppy; they were historically sloppy. Yasmani Grandal became the first catcher in postseason history to commit two errors and two passed balls in the same game, a comedy of blunders that only two catchers could match over the past 20 regular seasons. And Grandal did all that within the first three innings.
Chris Taylor’s error on a fourth-inning single and Turner’s error on an eighth-inning grounder made the Dodgers the first team in postseason history to commit four errors and two passed balls in one game, according to research from Elias Sports Bureau. That, uh, won’t happen again.
2. They won’t have to worry about Josh Hader for a bit: The Brewers’ devastating left-handed reliever carved up the Dodgers’ lineup through three innings on Friday. It marked only the second time all year that Hader had completed three innings and it set a new season high for him in pitches (46), which also means Hader will not be available for Game 2.
“You won’t see Josh tomorrow, for sure,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said.
That’s a major sigh of relief for the Dodgers, especially when you consider how much production they get from their left-handed hitters. They still have to worry about Corey Knebel and Corbin Burnes and Jeremy Jeffress, but still.
3. Remember September: Hyun-Jin Ryu and Walker Buehler — the Dodgers’ next two starting pitchers, respectively — finished the regular season among the game’s best, giving up a combined 12 runs and striking out 75 batters in 69 innings. From the start of September to the end of their regular season, the Dodgers’ offense ranked first in both batting average and slugging percentage.
In other words: The Dodgers entered this postseason red hot, almost as emphatically as the Brewers did. They showed late in Friday’s game that they can crawl back at any moment, against any bullpen.
“Everybody’s confident,” Taylor said. “We’re all good at the plate, collectively as a team. And we understand we were in this game until the very end.”