Dodgers Lean on Relentless Approach to Wither Down Brewers’ Bullpen

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MILWAUKEE — If there have been happier clubhouses after splitting the first two games of a seven-game series, none come to mind. The Dodgers lead the National League Championship Series over the Brewers, one game each.

Los Angeles won the kind of game Saturday the Brewers are built to win. Down three runs with nine outs left, the Dodgers hung four runs on the supposedly Mariana-deep bullpen of Milwaukee to steal Game 2, 4-3.

In two games the Dodgers scored eight runs late against the team that allowed the fewest runs this year between the seventh and ninth innings. Not only that, they also nicked up co-closers Jeremy Jeffress and Corey Knebel and they saw 46 pitches from Josh Hader. It was the most productive trip to Milwaukee for visitors since the World Festival of Beer last summer, which is not be confused with the Wisconsin Beer Festival, which is not be confused with the Milwaukee Brewfest, which … well, you get the idea.

It has become abundantly clear that in this series there are two types of games: games when Hader is available and games when he is not. Game 2 was one of those not-Hader games for the Brewers.

As one Dodger put it, Hader is a “superhero” reliever, but everybody else, while good, Los Angeles believes it can solve, especially with the intensity of the team’s at-bats.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything like it, not in the last three years anyway,” said first baseman David Freese, who joined the Dodgers Aug. 31. “The at-bats have been unbelievable.”

Like stars in the sky, Caribbean beaches, Stevie Wonder records or Philip Roth novels, quality at-bats by the Dodgers are so numerous as to make difficult picking a favorite. So I tried the exercise after Game 2, asking members of the Dodgers’ traveling party to identify the biggest at-bat of the game.

Freese chose a groundball RBI single up the middle by Cody Bellinger in the seventh, because before the game the veteran was giving the young slugger some baseball life lessons.

“You can be an elite hitter,” Freese told him. “But being an elite hitter isn’t always about hitting the ball out of the ballpark. It also means being able to hit the ball up the middle in a big spot. Look at J.T. [Justin Turner]. He’s an elite hitter because against good pitching in a big spot he can hit the ball up the middle or the other way. Once you figure that out, wow, look out.”

After Bellinger’s up-the-middle hit off Corbin Burnes, he looked into the dugout and found Freese’s eyes. Remembering their conversation, they smiled knowingly at one another over the micro- and macro-importance of that swing.

Third base coach Chris Woodward chose the walk by Austin Barnes on a full-count, bases-loaded curveball from Jeffress that forced home the next run. Jeffress had thrown only four curveballs on a full count to righthanders all year–and three of them didn’t work (two walks and a single).

“I was sitting on heater,” Barnes said. “I just reacted to the spin. It was close.”

Barnes chose the walk by Max Muncy to start the seventh-inning rally. Burnes, 23, invited danger with a five-pitch leadoff walk while holding a three-run lead, a huge mistake born of inexperience. Burnes had walked only two leadoff hitters all year. Welcome to October.

Bench coach Bob Geren made yet another choice.

“The home run,” Geren said, as if stating the obvious, referring to the two-run homer by Turner off a hanging Jeffress splitter in the eighth that turned a one-run deficit into a one-run lead. “I like home runs that put us ahead.”

The Dodgers clearly have flustered Jeffress, whose body language has been missing its usual bravado. Their plan against him coming into the series was to make him get the ball up, and they are executing it well.

Vice president Andrew Friedman first answered, “The obvious one is Barnes,” but asked for more time to think so he could find something less obvious. In a minute or two he came back with yet another choice: what seemed to be harmless single by Chris Taylor with two outs and nobody on in the sixth inning. To that point, Milwaukee starter Wade Miley was mowing through the Dodgers as if mowing his lawn: quickly, orderly and without breaking a sweat. Why Taylor’s forgotten single?

“That’s the one that got Miley out of the game,” Friedman said. “After that hit you could see [Brewers manager Craig] Counsell getting a little uncomfortable. Miley was dealing. I think we hit one ball hard off him all night.”

Miley had thrown just 74 pitches. It had been a long, long time since the Dodgers, the team that led the league in home runs and walks, had been flummoxed like this. Miley lasted 5 2/3 innings without giving up a home run or walk–something no starter had done against them in 166 straight games, dating to a game in March by Johnny Cueto.

After Taylor’s hit, Counsell made the Dodgers happy by pulling Miley. He was eager to go to his bullpen to get the final 10 outs, even without Hader.

“Look, you’re either too early or too late,” Counsell said. “At some point you’ve got to make a decision, and I thought he was going through the heart of the lineup for the third time. And I thought we had a fresh Corbin Burnes, who’s been wonderful for us this year.”

His plan–Burnes to Jeffress to Knebel–was all predicated on Burnes getting through the seventh. It never happened. When Burnes walked Muncy to open the inning, the plan and the game were imperiled. Leadoff walks this time if year are kindling dipped in kerosene.

Burnes and Jeffress were a combined 15-1 this year. But neither is Hader. Once Miley went out and without Hader coming in, a path to victory opened for Los Angeles. And Dodgers manager Dave Roberts secured it by using five pitchers to get the last 11 outs without giving up a hit.

This game will change nothing about the way Counsell manages the rest of the series. He lifted a starter in complete control of the game based on the probabilities of metrics (third time around) and a deep bullpen that got him here. It blew up on him, but it doesn’t mean he abandons the process.

Game 3, Monday in Los Angeles, will be a totally different game. It will be a Hader game. And if Hader pitches two innings in that game, then Game 4 is likely to be a not-Hader game.

Counsell used Hader only six times all year on back-to-back days, never after throwing two innings. “We know he needs his rest and is better when he’s rested,” Counsell said.

Counsell was right to use him for a third inning in Game 1 because once Hader pitched his second inning he was out of play for Game 2. But the Dodgers were happy about the third inning because all four batters that inning against him made contact and because two batters, Kiké Hernandez and Bellinger, got a second look at his stuff.

It’s likely that at least one of the next three games will be a not-Hader game. This year the Brewers are 52-7 in Hader games and 48-61 in not-Hader games. That’s partly because he gets dropped into winnable games, not when the team is trailing, but it’s also because the dude struck out more batters than any lefthanded reliever in the history of the game and the biggest weapon going right now.

How nasty is Hader? The Dodgers swung and missed at 11 four-seam fastballs in the entire Division Series against the Braves. They swung and missed at 11 four-seam fastballs just from Hader in Game 1–on 23 attempts to hit it.

The net result from two NLCS games was far more smiles in the Dodgers clubhouse. They knew they had extracted a surtax from Milwaukee in these two games. The crazy twist at the start of this series was that both managers had the same goal: Counsell wants to go to his bullpen early and often because he believes it’s the strength of his club, and Roberts wants Counsell to go to his bullpen early and often because he believes as the series unfolds, such workload with create fatigue and familiarity that are advantageous to his hitters. Only one of them can be right.

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