MILWAUKEE — Two games, 23 pitching changes, 7½ hours and 18 innings into the National League Championship Series, it’s safe to say the template has been set. These games are going to be tense, terse chess matches and you better be ready to dig in for nine innings, because the Milwaukee Brewers and the Los Angeles Dodgers certainly are.
The bottom line is that the series is tied, both in games and runs. After Los Angeles came from behind to win 4-3 on Saturday, both teams have taken a one-run affair. Both teams have scored nine runs.
“It’s the best of the best,” Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen said after earning the save. “These guys are the best team out there right now. We just go out there and play all 27 outs. They’ve been doing a fantastic job so far.”
Games 1 and 2 were mirror images of each other in many ways. Runs were hard to come by early, the Brewers did damage their second time seeing an L.A. starter, and they did it with the bottom of their order. The Dodgers came back in both games against the vaunted Milwaukee bullpen. In Game 1, they fell just short, miraculous in a way after L.A.’s mistake-filled performance. In Game 2, they blasted through the Brewers’ relievers on Justin Turner‘s game-turning, two-run homer in the eighth.
And get this: Both games ended with the tying run in scoring position with the last out made by the team’s best hitter. On Friday, it was Turner who struck out with a runner on third to end it. On Saturday, Milwaukee’s MVP-in-waiting Christian Yelich rolled out to short with Hernan Perez on second.
“We feel good about it because even though we played our worst baseball yesterday, we feel like we almost got that one,” Jansen said. “Today, we come from behind and get to that bullpen and it feels great. Feels great to be going home tied 1-1.”
We’re only two games in and this series has had it all. Heroic moments — from Turner in Game 2, Brandon Woodruff in Game 1. Stars scuffling — Turner in the first game, Yelich for most of the series. Cinderella stories, like Orlando Arcia, Woodruff and Milwaukee’s Game 2 starter Wade Miley.
It has had cutting-edge strategies like bullpenning and good, old-fashioned starting pitching as well. There has been plenty of emotion, from Woodruff shuddering with glee after homering against Clayton Kershaw in Game 1, to Yasiel Puig snapping a bat over his knee after striking out with the bases loaded in Game 2.
But perhaps the best thing about the NLCS is that even while the drama within each game has unfolded, we’ve been able to think along with the managers and the dilemmas they face as these micro-moments mount, moments that will reverberate for the rest of the series.
“You always try to play scenarios and see how the game can go, but every baseball game is different,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “The premeditated, ‘How you’re going to kind of see the game play out,’ I don’t believe in.”
When Josh Hader threw three dominant innings in Game 1, he was out of Game 2. It was no state secret. Brewers manager Craig Counsell said as much from the podium after Milwaukee’s win Friday. Roberts knew that and rolled out an all-righty lineup for Game 2 against Miley, knowing he could deploy his lefties later on without fear of Hader coming on and shutting them down. In that way, Hader’s presence was very much felt in a game he didn’t pitch.
One by one, Roberts’ lefties emerged in the middle innings. Max Muncy came on in the seventh, walked and scored. The guy comes off the bench ready to walk. In Dodgers pinch-hitting folklore, he’s the anti-Manny Mota. Cody Bellinger, who entered as a defensive replacement in the fifth, singled in his first plate appearance, driving in a run. Joc Pederson pinch hit in the seventh and ended the game with two hits.
“When you know you have a guy like Hader through three innings, and tonight he was going to be down,” Roberts said. “For me, there is just no cost to what has now been called a ‘line change’ for our roster. To insert these guys and not have to worry about him, yeah, it made it a lot easier.”
Meanwhile, Roberts churned through seven relievers to lock down the win after Hyun-Jin Ryu was knocked out in the fifth. Between the extreme platooning of the position players and the emptying of the bullpen, Roberts skirted close to an alarming turn of events. If Milwaukee had tied the score in the ninth, young lefty Julio Urias was Roberts’ only remaining reliever, and his bench was empty. The Dodgers used 21 players in the game, one shy of the nine-inning postseason record.
“We have a roster full of guys that are more than capable of doing [playing a full game],” Turner said. “It’s just kind of a blessing and a curse that we have so much depth and we can mix and match. I think our guys do an incredible job of staying ready and being able to come into games in the middle of the game prepared.”
The empty bench and bullpen don’t matter now, though. Roberts went for the win and he got it. You don’t wait for contingencies in the postseason. You win now, worry about later, later. Not only is the series tied, but the Dodgers have seen every Brewers reliever except Freddy Peralta, and some of them twice. With the late-inning comeback, the Dodgers won their first postseason game when trailing entering the eighth inning since the 1988 NLCS, according to Elias. That season, you might recall, was the last that ended with a World Series victory by the Dodgers.
“I like our approach,” Roberts said “I like the position players we run out there. You can’t take anything away from that [Milwaukee] pen. They’ve done it over the course of the season, and they’re a tough pen for anyone to match up against. But I do believe — we talked about last night seeing these guys two nights in a row. I think that that plays to our advantage.”
Speaking of advantages, with the win, the Dodgers have seized the home-field edge in what is now a best-of-five matchup. After coming up just short, the Brewers have no guarantee that they will see Miller Park again this season.
“Everybody said we play better at home, and Milwaukee played better here,” Puig said. “They won, we won, and now there’s going to be three games at [our] home.”
The momentum of the series shifted with Turner’s homer, that much is clear. Beyond the exchange of home-field advantage, the Dodgers have proved over the first two games that they can get to the Brewers’ strength in the bullpen. Milwaukee heads to the coast all even, but it doesn’t really feel like it.
“It can’t get any closer after two games, right?” Counsell said. “It’s been two hard-fought games, two one-run games, tying run on base in scoring position to finish each game. So they’ve been about as close as they can be. We’re looking forward to the next chapter.”
So are we, Craig. So are we.