MILWAUKEE — Christian Yelich cannot explain why he has fared so well against Clayton Kershaw in his career. Or he doesn’t want to. Or he is worried about revealing some small secret that would allow the Los Angeles Dodgers' ace to start moving him down, as Kershaw does to almost every other hitter he faces.
So all that is clear heading into Friday’s Game 1 of the National League Division Series is this: Kershaw, one of the best pitchers on the planet for close to a decade, has a hard time pitching to Yelich, one of the best hitters on the planet right now. Yelich, the heartbeat of the Milwaukee Brewers and a front-runner for the National League’s MVP award, has nine hits in 18 career plate appearances against Kershaw. Of all players with 15 or more plate appearances against Kershaw in the left-hander’s career, Yelich’s .529 batting average against him is tied with journeyman catcher Chris Stewart for the best. That is a limited sample size to be sure, but it matters going into a series that pits the Dodgers' lights-out rotation against the Brewers' blend of lineup power and bullpen depth.
The leader of that Dodgers rotation is Kershaw. The leader of that Brewers lineup is Yelich. Starting pitching is a clear advantage for the Dodgers heading into Game 1 at Miller Park, but Yelich is one player who could make that less of a factor right away.
“A lot of luck,” Yelich said Thursday afternoon when asked about his success against Kershaw. “He’s one of the best pitchers in the game. Tough at-bat every time you face him. It’s a battle. You enjoy that as a player, though, going up against the best, just try and see how you stack up. You enjoy competing and it seems like he really enjoys competing and it’s what it’s all about. It’s what makes this time of year really fun.”
If there is any trend in the Kershaw-Yelich lefty-on-lefty matchup this season, it’s that Yelich has success when attacking Kershaw early in counts. A pitcher like Kershaw does not make many mistakes or offer hitters much to work with, so it can be important to jump on any opportunities at any point of an at-bat. In a 4-2 Brewers win over the Dodgers on July 21, Yelich homered off a first-pitch fastball from Kershaw. Less than two weeks later, in a 21-5 win for the Dodgers, Yelich hit another home run off Kershaw on a slider thrown in a 1-0 count. That accounts for Yelich’s two home runs off Kershaw, which go with one double, one walk and five strikeouts.
Kershaw, while complimentary of Yelich’s hot streak and the season he put together, also refrained from diving into strategy on Thursday.
“Honestly, I’m about to go look right now, so I don’t know what he’s changed since the last time I faced him or anything like that,” Kershaw said. “But yeah, he’s gotten some hits off me for sure, and try not to let him do that tomorrow.”
Yelich finished the season with 36 home runs, 110 RBI and the best batting average (. 326), slugging percentage (. 598) and on-base-slugging percentage (1.000) in the NL. He hit .400 in July and finished the season by tearing through September with a .370 average, 10 home runs and 34 RBI. He also had a better average against left-handed pitchers than right-handers (. 337 to .321), though he had significantly more plate appearances against the latter.
Kershaw was not himself this season, at least by his own extremely high standards, going 9-5 with a 2.73 ERA in 26 starts. But he was dominant to start the postseason, throwing eight scoreless innings in a Game 2 win over the Atlanta Braves in the National League Division Series and burying some of his own playoff demons in the process.
He and Yelich will not be the only two players on the field in Game 1. Kershaw will have eight other hitters to work against in the Brewers' lineup. Yelich will likely face at least one other pitcher aside from Kershaw. This series has all kinds of important layers, from how the Brewers use their elite bullpen, to how Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts adjusts his lineup against left-handed pitching, to how effective Dodgers shortstop Manny Machado can be, and so on. But the dual between Yelich and Kershaw — whether it includes one or two or three at-bats — is still an important game within the game. The Brewers are at their best when Yelich is producing at the plate. The Dodgers usually move in lockstep with a cruising Kershaw. Both players can tip the scale with great force.
Yet once Yelich steps into the batter’s box on Friday night, and once Kershaw’s windup begins, the only way their shared past will matter is if it repeats itself.
“Every player is very well aware of the history against the pitcher on the mound or the hitter in the box,” Brewers Manager Craig Counsell said Thursday. “They’re aware of it. They’ve scouted it. They’ve looked at it.
“But the great thing about our game is like it’s, what’s next? What are you going to do based off that last matchup? What are you going to do off my success against you or your success against me? And I think that’s the cool part about watching Kershaw versus Yelich is to see what happens next.”
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