If the Milwaukee Brewers are going to take a 1-0 lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series, the offense is going to have to be operating on all cylinders from the opening pitch.
That’s because one of the best pitchers in the major leagues for the better part of the last decade – left-hander Clayton Kershaw – will be taking the mound on six days of rest after the Dodgers steamrolled the Atlanta Braves in the NL Division Series.
The 30-year-old Kershaw arrives at Miller Park on the heels of tossing an absolute gem, an eight-inning, two-hit shutout in Game 2 in which he walked none and struck out three in a 3-0 victory over the Braves at Dodger Stadium.
A back injury and an arm injury combined to limit Kershaw to 26 starts in the regular season – his second-fewest since his rookie year in 2008 – but he was still solid with a 9-5 record, 2.73 earned run average, a WHIP of 1.04 and 155 strikeouts in 161 1/3 innings.
His 26 starts were second-most on the Dodgers behind lefty Alex Wood’s 33, but his inning and strikeout totals led the team. It could be argued that rookie right-hander Walker Buehler has been the team’s best pitcher over the last two months, but there’s no denying the presence that Kershaw brings.
“Look, it’s a big challenge,” said Craig Counsell, whose Brewers beat Kershaw at Miller Park in his first game as manager in 2015.
“Their starting pitching is very good, so that’s a challenge. Against good pitching, execution feels more valuable because you don’t feel like you’re going to get as many opportunities. I think that’s true any time you face good pitching.
“That, of course, is going to be a key. But at the same time, home runs do win these games. Home runs are still a big part of these games. You don’t have to put big rallies together if you can get a walk and a two-run homer.
“It’s tough to put together extended rallies against good pitching. The one mistake and popping one is more likely to happen in a lot of ways. But we’ve got to have good at-bats and break through somehow.”
But for all his regular-season success, Kershaw hasn’t been nearly as dominating in the postseason.
In 25 career appearances (20 starts), Kershaw is 8-7 with one save and 142 strikeouts in 130 innings. His eight-inning start against the Braves last week was his longest-ever in the playoffs and ranked as one of his best.
“His numbers speak for themselves,” said Brewers outfielder Curtis Granderson, who faced Kershaw on a limited basis while spending most of his career in the American League, but then saw Kershaw on a daily basis when he was traded to the Dodgers late last season for a postseason run that came up just short in the World Series.
“Watching him as a teammate, he’s no different than playing against him — he’s a competitor, he goes after his guys and gives his team a really good opportunity to win.
“Everybody focuses on (the playoffs), but it’s such a small sample size at the same time. If a guy pitches well or poorly in the playoffs, it shouldn’t necessarily define his career.”
Kershaw has started twice against the Brewers this season and experienced mixed results. He’s 1-1 with a 2.25 ERA and WHIP of 1.17, and struck out 12 in 12 innings.
On July 21 at Miller Park, he allowed one unearned run on three hits through the first five innings, with Ryan Braun reaching on catcher’s interference and scoring on a Keon Broxton groundout in the second.
The Brewers then got to Kershaw for three more runs in the sixth to take control of the game that Milwaukee went on to win, 4-2.
Christian Yelich led off the sixth with a booming home run to center field, Braun doubled and scored after Manny Piña reached on a Max Muncy error and then Piña scored on a Broxton triple.
Kershaw started against the Brewers again 12 days later and played a role in what was easily Milwaukee’s worst loss off the season – and one of the worst in franchise history. It also came on the heels of a walk-off loss the night before.
The 21-5 beating was a debacle almost from the outset, and easily the worst outing of the season for staff ace Jhoulys Chacín as he surrendered nine runs (eight earned), four walks and three homers in a 4 1/3-inning outing.
Cody Bellinger hit a grand slam in the third to break the game open and allow Dodgers manager Dave Roberts to lift Kershaw after six innings. He allowed five hits, two runs and two walks with seven strikeouts, with Yelich homering and doubling off him.
The game got so out of hand that Counsell had to pitch not one but two position players to close it out — Hernán Pérez, who got rocked for six hits and five runs in a nine-run seventh for Los Angeles, and Erik Kratz, who threw a spotless eighth.
The Dodgers hit a total of seven homers in the game. The 21 runs were the most ever scored at Dodger Stadium and the most ever allowed by the Brewers. The 16-run losing margin was the second-biggest in franchise history.
“You just flush it out,” said second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who’d just joined the Brewers earlier in the series after being acquired via a deadline-day trade from the Baltimore Orioles.
“A short memory is better. Even when you win, you flush it out and come back tomorrow. Those games that we played two months ago, you don’t really pay attention to them. You pay attention to the present, prepare good.
“We know they’re good, they know we’re good. We’re going to have a good series.”
In addition to a solid rotation anchored by Kershaw and Buehler (8-5, 2.62), Los Angeles features a strong bullpen led by closer Kenley Jansen (38 saves) and a power-laden offense that slugged the second-most homers in the major leagues (235).
Seven players hit at least 21, with Muncy leading the way with 35. Manny Machado, who joined the Dodgers at the outset of their three-game series at Miller Park on July 20, hit .273 with 13 homers and 42 runs batted in over 66 regular-season games.
Machado is hitting just .176 so far in the postseason but leads the Dodgers with two homers and six RBI.
“It’s different because it’s a playoff series and obviously everything is going to be managed differently,” Counsell said when asked how different the two teams are now — if at all — just over two months later.
“It’s a good team and there were some good games in the seven games that we played. We know what to expect. We played both series in the second half so it’s not that long ago. Similar personnel on both sides, really.”