MILWAUKEE -- To the national audience just tuning in to what's been going on in MLB's smallest media market: Welcome to Brewers baseball.
Game 1 of the National League Championship Series on Friday night at Miller Park was a nine-inning primer on how the Brewers got to this point -- a harrowing 6-5 win over the Dodgers that gave Milwaukee a 12th straight victory and a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
It was fueled by a five-run flurry at the expense of Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers' dodgy defense, during which one of the Brewers' "out-getters," Brandon Woodruff, hit the unlikeliest of home runs and manager Craig Counsell began to push the accelerator to the floor with baseball's best relief corps since the start of September. They got it done. Barely.
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After Counsell extended Josh Hader for three scoreless innings and Jeremy Jeffress did just enough to avert disaster in the Dodgers' three-run eighth, Corey Knebel did the same in the ninth. He struck out Justin Turner with the potential tying run at third base to put the Brewers in a statistically good place: Teams that have won Game 1 of a best-of-seven League Championship Series at home have gone on to win the series 24 out of 35 times (69 percent).
:: NLCS schedule and results ::
"Every game matters and everybody in the 'pen knows it. I love it," said Knebel. "What we're doing is different than ever before. Most teams, Game 1, you've got that 'starter' going long. We're in the bullpen.
"Hey, the game is changing."
The Brewers are among the teams at the forefront of that change, and whether you call it bullpenning or something else, it certainly wasn't the brand of baseball they played under Harvey Kuenn on the way to the World Series in 1982, or that Ron Roenicke managed in the Brewers' other NLCS in 2011. Or, for that matter, that Dave Roberts engineered from the visitors' dugout, where the Dodgers were counting on another superlative performance from Kershaw like the one he delivered over eight efficient two-hit innings against the Braves in Game 2 of the NL Division Series.
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Manny Machado even spotted Kershaw and the Dodgers a lead with a laser beam of a home run to the Brewers' bullpen in the second inning off Giovany Gonzalez, who was out of the game by design after one turn through the order. That surprised no one who has been watching Counsell employ a parade of multi-inning relievers -- he began referring to them as "out-getters" way back in Spring Training -- to collect the 27 outs the Brewers needed.
"It's exciting to see the revolution," said Gonzalez. "I guess that's what it is."
For most of the night, it worked without much pushback. First up was Woodruff, who entered the game in the third inning as part of a straight-up switch despite the fact his spot in the order was due first when the Brewers came to bat. That proved fortuitous when Woodruff, a former two-way player at Mississippi State, connected with a 2-2 fastball right down the middle and launched it a projected 407 feet, per Statcast™, to right-center field for a 1-1 tie, making him just the third pitcher to hit a home run off Kershaw.
After rounding first base, he turned and gave a glance to the Brewers' bench.
"I was just trying to get them fired up," Woodruff said. "You know, obviously in the postseason, a lot of things can happen. I thought that that was a big moment to kind of get the guys going."
"He was fired up coming around home. He almost broke my arm," said Lorenzo Cain, who led the Brewers with three hits. "If you look at the replay, it was a pretty strong high five. … He got the team going, and that's exactly what we needed."
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After that Counsell's moves started clicking.
Start Hernan Perez at second base against the lefty? Perez delivered a tiebreaking sacrifice fly in the third inning that began with Woodruff's homer. Pull the lefty Gonzalez early and go to righty Woodruff? The Dodgers made an early move to their bench for Player Page for Max Muncy, knocking Brewer-killer David Freese off the list of possible hitters against Hader. Pinch-hit Domingo Santana in a run-scoring opportunity in the fourth inning, even though Woodruff was cruising? Santana lined a two-run single. Close call at second base when Santana was called out trying to steal? A successful challenge, which extended the frame for Ryan Braun's run-scoring hit and a 5-1 lead that closed the book on Kershaw.
Jesus Aguilar made it 6-1 in the seventh with his second home run in as many postseason games -- never mind they were five days apart -- and the Brewers made the lead hold despite a pair of late Dodgers rallies.
"You never know with the Dodgers. They are a great team with great hitters," said Aguilar. "We have to watch out with everybody there. They already showed it. We know what they can do."
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In the visitors' clubhouse, the Dodgers found positives in the way they battled relievers Xavier Cedeno, Joakim Soria, Jeffress and Knebel after the Brewers went all-in with Hader for three innings.
Hader will not be available in Game 2. Counsell had hoped to stay away from Knebel to account for that, but the plan changed.
"I think the fact we were able to get their guys going and give them long innings when we could, especially toward the end of the game, was huge," said Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal, whose long night included a pair of passed balls and two of L.A.'s four errors. "Obviously, they like using their 'pen. The faster we can get in it [in Game 2], the better."
Counsell considered the aggressive approach worth it. It's how he has managed throughout the Brewers' winning streak.
"We won the ballgame," said Hader. "That's the end accomplishment right there, is getting that win first game of the championship series. So it's huge, especially against this team."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Jeffress vs. Puig: The Brewers entered the eighth inning with a 6-1 lead, but it looked like it was getting away. Grandal singled off Cedeno and Chris Taylor did the same against Soria before Muncy walked to load the bases with two outs and prompt a call for Jeffress, who was the Brewers' best right-handed reliever during the regular season but showed the slightest signs of cracking during the NLDS. Machado greeted him with a two-run single, and Matt Kemp followed with another run-scoring single before Jeffress finally escaped the threat with a strikeout of Yasiel Puig.
Knebel vs. Turner: There was more trouble in the ninth, when Knebel walked Joc Pederson with two outs and Taylor tripled on a deep drive to right-center field that landed in but then bounced out of Cain's glove. That left the tying runner at third for the hot-hitting Turner, who fanned at a high fastball to end the game.
Woodruff became the first Milwaukee pitcher to homer in the postseason since Lew Burdette of the Milwaukee Braves went deep against the Yankees in Game 2 of the 1958 World Series. Too bad there was no Statcast™ to compare Burdette's trot around the bases to Woodruff's mad dash.
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"That was the next level up," said Counsell. "I've never seen Brandon like that. To make the first run your team scores in the NLCS a homer off Clayton Kershaw, that's how you should run around the bases. 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 grinded-out game against Clayton. When that happens, it gives everybody life."
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HE SAID IT
"I'm hungry. I want a burger. I better get one in my locker tomorrow somehow." -- Gonzalez, referring to a decades-old promotion from a local diner, George Webb, which promised free hamburgers should the local baseball team win 12 games in a row. Before now, it had only paid off once before, when the 1987 Brewers began the season 13-0. Fans can get their free burgers on Thursday from 2-6 p.m. CT.
• Brewers' win means free burgers for Wisconsin
"Get one for me, Gio!" -- Perez, from the next locker over
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
Amid all the things that went right for the Brewers in the third and fourth innings was also a winning challenge. That didn't happen often during the regular season, when Milwaukee went 7-27. But Counsell won one after Santana's caught stealing in the fourth inning was overturned upon review, putting him on second base for Braun's two-out RBI single.
Leading off the top of the ninth inning, Cody Bellinger pulled a grounder to the right side of second base. Shifted third baseman Mike Moustakas made a diving stop and threw to first base, with Bellinger being called safe. The Brewers challenged and won again, as the call was overturned.
"Watching the play live, I thought it was a lot less close than it looked," Knebel said. "I thought for sure Moose got him there. Seeing the replay, that it was a close play, but we got him, it was a good sight. We actually got the call. I love that."