MILWAUKEE -- Undermined by his team's sloppy defense, taken deep by a left-handed-hitting relief pitcher and unable to get an out in the fourth inning, Clayton Kershaw endured another postseason nightmare Friday at Miller Park.
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An impressive but futile rally at the end against the best bullpen in the league fell short and the Dodgers fell to the Brewers, 6-5, in a Game 1 of the National League Championship Series that will summon ghosts of Octobers past for the best pitcher of his generation. In his shortest postseason start, Kershaw snapped a four-game personal postseason win streak and is 8-8 with a 4.34 ERA when it matters most.
All of this shouldn't be dumped at the feet of the three-time NL Cy Young Award winner. The Dodgers committed four errors, two by Yasmani Grandal (who also had a pair of passed balls) and one each by Chris Taylor and Justin Turner.
"He's out on the mound competing as much as he possibly can," said Grandal. "We pretty much just let him down. I think that's the biggest thing when it comes to looking back at this game."
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"We didn't play clean when he was in the game," manager Dave Roberts said in support of his starting pitcher. "The errors affected the game. But as far as Clayton, I just think it was poor execution. And I thought the stuff was good, but he just made mistakes in the strike zone and defensively, again, we didn't do him any favors."
The surprising decision to activate Julio Urias coming off shoulder surgery backfired when he allowed a home run to the first batter he faced, Jesus Aguilar, ultimately the decisive run. Los Angeles was pleased that Milwaukee asked seven innings from its bullpen, although the Dodgers used high-leverage relievers Kenta Maeda and Pedro Baez in a loss.
But they also rallied furiously, having the tying run on third base after a Taylor RBI triple when Turner struck out for the fourth time, ending the game. The Dodgers, who struck out 13 times, scored four runs in the final two innings off Brewers relievers Xavier Cedeno, Joakim Soria, Jeremy Jeffress and Corey Knebel.
"We hung in there, we battled and almost pulled one out there," said Kershaw. "Our team played great. Myself, just got to do a better job of keeping the score close for our guys to have a chance there at the end."
Teams that have lost Game 1 of a best-of-seven League Championship Series on the road have gone on to win the series just 11 out of 35 times (31 percent). In all NLCS matchups, the winner of Game 1 has a 23-9 (.719) series record. The Dodgers are 7-20 when losing Game 1 of a postseason series, and the last time they overcame that early deficit was the 1988 NLCS. And 18 of the past 19 Dodgers postseason series have been won by the team victorious in Game 1. The only exception was last year's World Series, when L.A. won the opener and lost Game 7.
Compounding the frustration, the Dodgers opened the game with their scripted formula for success. Manny Machado smoked his third home run in five postseason games leading off the second inning, which was the last for Milwaukee starting pitcher Giovany Gonzalez. Machado, who drilled a Gonzalez changeup, also added a two-run single in a three-run eighth inning that turned a one-sided game close.
"We know we're better than we played today," said Machado.
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After Gonzalez retired the last two batters in the second, the Brewers' intimidating bullpen was let loose and the Dodgers' offense was mismatched until late, with 11 more consecutive batters set down by home run hitter Brandon Woodruff and Josh Hader (three scoreless innings).
Grandal's two errors and one of his two passed balls allowed Milwaukee to take a 2-1 lead in the third, and they chased Kershaw when the first three batters of the fourth inning reached base (all three scored).
"If we don't turn the page, it's going to be a quick series," said Grandal.
Kershaw was charged with five runs (four earned) on six hits with two walks and two strikeouts. After using only 85 pitches in eight scoreless innings against the Braves last week, he burned through 74 pitches in three-plus innings against the Brewers.
"I don't think it was him," said Grandal. "They've got a pretty good lineup on that other side. They're going to battle. They're not easy outs. They're not going to just go over there and make an out just because it's Clayton Kershaw on the mound. I think we made good pitches. They were just able to lay off of them or foul them off or get a base hit or whatever it was, I still think Kersh did the best he could to keep us in the game and we almost got it back."
After Machado's second-inning homer, it was no surprise Milwaukee tied the game on a home run, as it finished second in the league to Los Angeles in the category. But it was long reliever Woodruff, a left-handed hitter who hung in there on a 2-2 Kershaw fastball leading off the second inning for the third home run of his professional career -- one earlier this year, the other in Double-A.
"I knew he could swing the bat a little bit, for sure, but didn't know he could do that," said Kershaw.
Brewers manager Craig Counsell said the home run fired up the crowd and energized the dugout. Woodruff called it the highlight of his career.
"Obviously coming into the day you don't know in your wildest dreams that that's going to happen," said Woodruff, "to get an at-bat off Kershaw and hit a home run."
The trouble had just begun for the Dodgers. Lorenzo Cain singled, Christian Yelich walked and with one out, Grandal's second passed ball of the game moved runners to second and third. Aguilar's smoking liner was then picked off with a diving catch by first baseman David Freese, but what would have been the second out was waved off when Grandal was called for catcher's interference.
Hernan Perez hit a sacrifice fly to center fielder Cody Bellinger, whose throw home was missed by Grandal for his second error of the inning to advance the runners, but they were stranded when Mike Moustakas took a called third strike.
"My whole thought process is just the next pitch," Kershaw said about what went on around him. "You can't think about the big picture, just think continually about making the next pitch over, and over, and over again. The results sometimes are out of your control. You've just got to make pitches."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
In a game full of Dodgers mistakes, the biggest one was Grandal's catcher's interference during the swing of Aguilar, whose line drive was caught by Freese on the dive. Instead of that being the second out of the inning, it turned Perez's subsequent fly ball that would have ended the frame into a sacrifice fly, and Kershaw ended up with a 29-pitch inning.
Machado is the fifth player in Dodgers history to homer in three of the team's first five postseason games, joining Manny Ramirez, Davey Lopes, Steve Garvey and Duke Snider, according to Elias. Machado has nine RBIs this postseason, five fewer than Turner's club record.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
At 115.6 mph, Machado's home run was the third-hardest homer tracked by Statcast™ in the postseason since 2015 and his hardest-hit homer since 2015.
HE SAID IT
"For them to use Hader for three innings tonight and for us to get a good look at their arms in the 'pen, I thought we had good at-bats all the way till the end. So they were selling out, obviously, with Josh going three innings tonight against us." -- Roberts
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
Leading off the top of the ninth inning, Bellinger pulled a grounder to the right side of second base. Shifted third baseman Moustakas made a diving stop and threw to first base, with umpire Alan Porter calling Bellinger safe. The Brewers challenged and the call was overturned.