MILWAUKEE — For the Brewers, the minutiae of roster management turned into the dumb-luck difference Friday night in a 6-5 win over the Dodgers in Game 1 of the NLCS.
Heading into the best-of-seven series, Milwaukee made one tweak from its Division Series roster: carrying a 12th pitcher, lefthander Xavier Cedeño, instead of a sixth outfielder, Keon Broxton. Manager Craig Counsell explained that the Brewers wanted another pitcher because they rely so heavily on their bullpen, even at the cost of losing a pinch hitter/pinch runner/defensive replacement. That meant a pitcher probably would have to take an extra at-bat, but so be it.
Brandon Woodruff became that pitcher in the bottom of the third against Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw. The odds were wildly against him. Kershaw is perhaps the best pitcher of this generation; Woodruff is a rookie pitcher with 18 major-league at-bats. Kershaw is a lefthander; Woodruff, despite pitching with his right hand, bats as a lefty. Kershaw has worked relentlessly for decades to perfect his craft; Woodruff sometimes takes batting practice but mostly bunts.
And Woodruff homered.
Down in the count 1-and-2, he laid off a curveball for a ball, fouled off a fastball and got another over the heart of the plate. He smashed it 407 feet to right-centerfield, tying the score at 1-1 as the Brewers chased Kershaw after only nine outs.
“Coming into the day, you don’t know in your wildest dreams that that’s going to happen,” said Woodruff, 25, calling it the best moment of his career. “I was just trying to look heater and trying to foul it off or put it in play and just got lucky.”
Said Counsell: “I mean, two strikes and you’re really not expecting much, and he laid off the curveball and got a pitch to hit. So it definitely changed the vibe for sure.” And Dodgers manager Dave Roberts added: “That was a surprise to all of us.”
Having already rounded first by the time he realized the ball was gone, Woodruff pumped his fist, turned to the dugout behind him and let out a roar.
“I’ve never seen Brandon like that,” Counsell said. “That’s exactly how you should run around the bases. The thing is, it just fired everybody up. The crowd went crazy. And our dugout, it certainly changed the energy in our dugout from what you think is going to be kind of a grind-it-out game against Clayton. And then when that happens, it gives everybody life.”
The Brewers scored another run in the third on Hernan Perez’s sacrifice fly. They scored three times in the fourth, including pinch hitter Domingo Santana’s two-run single on the final pitch from Kershaw, who went three innings-plus, the shortest of his 21 career postseason starts.
From there it turned into a battle of the bullpens, and Milwaukee — with the best reliever strikeout rate (27.6 percent) and second-best ERA (3.47) in the NL — barely held on.
Starter Gio Gonzalez pitched two innings in an abbreviated outing as planned by Counsell. After Woodruff’s two scoreless innings, Josh Hader went three innings and struck out four. Then the trouble began. Cedeño, Joakim Soria and Jeremy Jeffress struggled through a three-run eighth, with Manny Machado adding a two-out, two-run single to his earlier homer. Corey Knebel allowed an RBI triple by Chris Taylor with two outs in the ninth but struck out Justin Turner to end it.
Roberts found a small win — even if his team didn’t get the real thing — in making Milwaukee’s much-lauded relievers work so hard. “For us to get a look at these guys out of the pen in a seven-game series, I think that’s a good thing,” he said. “And for us to have the tying run at third base, we did some good things tonight. So yeah, the goal is to win a baseball game, but I think that it shows the compete in our guys.”