MLB.com, ESPN and The Athletic polled their experts on the eve of the postseason, and every single one of them picked the Dodgers over the Brewers in the National League Wild Card Series. The margin was 52-0, the only unanimous pick. And after the Brewers’ 3-0 loss in Game 2 on Thursday, giving the Dodgers a 2-0 sweep, they were all proven right.
But despite the teams’ divergent won-loss records, and despite the Brewers beginning the best-of-three series without their best starting pitcher (Corbin Burnes) and their best reliever (Devin Williams) because of injuries suffered in the final regular-season series, the margin between right and wrong was as thin as a pinstripe. The Brewers outhit the Dodgers in Game 1 and were within a run at the seventh-inning stretch. Game 2 began as a classic pitchers’ duel between Brandon Woodruff and Clayton Kershaw -- befitting of the 91st postseason game at Dodger Stadium -- before turning in the bottom of the fifth inning on a low throw from third base, a missed scoop at first and a close call on a two-strike pitch just off the plate.
“It was tough. You know, this whole year has been tough,” Woodruff said. “But I think the standard has kind of been set with going three years in a row to the playoffs. I think that's something we have to look at as a group, is that it has been three years in a row now, so this is the standard, and this is what we're going to strive for.”
The 2020 Brewers were not a powerhouse. They were the first team in MLB history to clinch a postseason spot on the strength of a losing record (the Astros followed a few minutes later) with a pitching staff that posted the fourth-highest strikeout rate in history at 28.1 percent, but a group of hitters who batted .223, worst in franchise history. Their unofficial captain, Lorenzo Cain, elected not to play over concern about COVID-19. Their perennial MVP candidate, Christian Yelich, followed a pair of NL batting titles by batting .205, one of a virtual team of MLB superstars who, for whatever reason, did not look like themselves all summer. Williams was one of baseball’s breakthrough bullpen arms, but two-time NL Reliever of the Year Josh Hader put up more good numbers while never quite passing the radar-gun test.
David Stearns hit for a low average, too, with the Brewers’ president of baseball operations admitting, “A lot of the moves I made last offseason didn't pan out the way I thought they were going to pan out.” Logan Morrison, Brock Holt, Justin Smoak, Eric Sogard, Omar Narváez and Luis Urías were all position-player acquisitions who underperformed.
“I can say for myself and the guys, we never quit,” Yelich said. “We gave it everything we had. We tried to find a way. It almost felt like we willed our way into the postseason.
“It obviously didn’t work out for us. Now, it’s the standard for the organization to be in the postseason, not to quit. ‘Couns’ talked about it after the game. We’ll be back. We’ll regroup. We learned a lot from this year.”
What else did manager Craig Counsell tell the team?
“What I just told the guys is I have so much respect and admiration for what they did this year,” Counsell said. “This team never had an extended period of time when it felt like things just went right. It felt like there were always hurdles being thrown up in front of us, and we still got to this point.
“We’re not satisfied getting here, and we talked about that, too. We’re not satisfied just getting to the playoffs. We expect to play on, and that’s going to be a standard I think we’ve helped establish. I do think we accomplished some things this year under some difficult circumstances, and I have a lot of respect for how they went about it.”
Woodruff carried an injury-diminished team on his shoulders into Thursday night, and for four scoreless innings, he matched Kershaw pitch for pitch. But in the fifth, things went sideways for the Brewers when AJ Pollock hit a ground ball to third baseman Urías, who stepped on the bag and threw across to first for what should have been an inning-ending double play.
It was one-hopped to Jedd Gyorko, who was signed by the Brewers to play third base but had been manning first as the team searched for offense. Gyorko had been proficient on scoops, but he missed this one, and the Dodgers capitalized with a run-scoring single for Austin Barnes followed by a two-run double for Mookie Betts. Just like that, the Dodgers punched their ticket to the NL Division Series and a matchup against the winner of the Cardinals-Padres series.
Kershaw sent the Brewers home in a cloud of strikeouts. After Woodruff struck out nine Dodgers in 4 2/3 innings, Kershaw set a career high with 13 K’s in eight scoreless innings. That, on top of the Brewers’ 15 strikeouts in Game 1.
The Brewers have lost four consecutive postseason games, a stretch that began with Kershaw closing out Game 7 of the 2018 NL Championship Series.
“Different circumstances this year, obviously, with the shorter season and COVID and all that, but any time your season comes to an end, it’s a bummer,” Yelich said. “It’s a bummer because there’s never the same team the next year. We went through a lot this year as a group. I’m definitely proud of the guys.”