MILWAUKEE -- The Brewers still have not won a Brandon Woodruff start since August, and now the National League Division Series moves to Atlanta all square.
A 3-0 Brewers loss to the Braves on Saturday at American Family Field was Woodruff’s 2021 season -- and particularly his closing month of the regular season -- in a nutshell. He pitched well enough to win with some support but got none, as Milwaukee was blanked by surging left-hander Max Fried and three Atlanta relievers in a defeat that evened the best-of-five series at one game apiece.
Fried has been MLB’s stingiest starting pitcher since the All-Star break, but the Brewers’ inability to score for Woodruff has not been limited to the game’s best. In the regular season, Woodruff’s 2.86 runs of support per nine innings was the lowest in baseball for a qualifying pitcher. That’s how a pitcher with MLB’s fourth-best ERA (2.56) and third-lowest batting average against (.200) winds up with a losing record.
“I really don’t know how to explain it,” Christian Yelich said. “It’s just one of those baseball things.”
Does manager Craig Counsell get the sense this is becoming a source of frustration?
“I think it bothers the hitters not to score runs,” he replied, “but I don’t think it has anything to do with Brandon.”
Woodruff allowed three Braves runs on five hits in six innings, with one walk and seven strikeouts in a performance that followed a 4.09 ERA in four starts in September, all Brewers losses in which the team was outscored by a 24-4 margin. On Saturday, Woodruff matched zeros with Fried for one turn through Atlanta’s order before Jorge Soler (double), Freddie Freeman (RBI single) and Ozzie Albies (RBI double) delivered three successive hits with one out in the third inning for a 2-0 Braves lead. Credit Albies for coming within inches of a home run on a low changeup, a pitch similar to the one Austin Riley hit over the fence three innings later to extend Atlanta’s lead to 3-0.
That was enough for Fried, who finished the regular season going 7-0 with an MLB-best 1.46 ERA in his final 11 starts. In his opening outing of the postseason, Fried held Milwaukee to three hits, walked none and struck out nine in six scoreless innings.
“There's no free pitches for the hitters,” Counsell said. “He doesn't leave stuff in the middle. The slider's a really good pitch to the right-handed hitters, kind of bears in on their hands, and he pairs that with a fastball on their hands. He's just a really good pitcher, executing a lot of pitches. It spells a tough night for the offense.”
Milwaukee has had a lot of those with Woodruff on the mound. Since he was on the winning end of a 6-2 victory at San Francisco on Aug. 31, the Brewers have scored zero, one, one, two and zero runs in Woodruff’s starts. They have scored three or fewer runs 17 times in his 31 starts this season, including two or fewer runs 13 times.
Woodruff took responsibility, saying, “The last month or so hasn’t been up to my standards.”
But the same can be said for the Brewers’ offense, which was rolling in the middle of September after a series at Cleveland in which Milwaukee threw a no-hitter and swept the three-game set by a 24-4 margin. Since then, the Brewers have one game with double-digit hits, and that was in a loss.
“Runs matter in the postseason,” Woodruff said. “You can’t always be perfect. Basically, two pulled changeups [hurt me]. Albies did a good job. It was well below the zone, and he was able to get a barrel on it.”
Albies was inches shy of a two-run homer, but his double struck the yellow line atop the right-center-field wall and came back into play. When he got to second base, Albies dropped and did some push-ups while the umpires reviewed the call.
“Tomorrow’s an off-day,” Albies said. “I might work out from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. That ball has to go out.”
Brewers hitters had fewer close calls, faring no better against the relievers who followed Fried. After only one at-bat with runners in scoring position in the first 13 innings of the series, including none in the first five innings of Game 2, Milwaukee went 0-for-7 with four strikeouts with runners in scoring position from the sixth through the ninth and fouled off a series of hittable pitches along the way.
As a result, the Braves have wrested away home-field advantage. In Division Series with the current 2-2-1 format, teams that have split the first two games in their home ballpark have gone on to lose the series 23 of 36 times (64%). This excludes 2020, when the Division Series were played at neutral sites.
“It’s been a tough series to score runs for both sides,” Counsell said. “It’s two games. It’s 1-1. It’s a two-out-of-three series now. Everybody’s going to be frustrated when you just miss a pitch that you feel like you had to hit, so I think that’s natural. But I don’t think offensively there’s frustration.”