MILWAUKEE — Brandon Woodruff kept his eyes on the flight of the ball, set against Miller Park’s light-gray roof, arcing higher and higher before the fence neared and it ran out of room and . . .
Maybe he, too, could not believe what was happening.
Woodruff, a Milwaukee Brewers relief pitcher, had just homered off Clayton Kershaw in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series on Friday night. The Los Angeles Dodgers ace stood with his back to the plate, shoulders slumped, mouth agape, and tracked the hit as it sailed way over the right-center field wall. Woodruff did not break stride until it did, and then his arms were flailing in celebration, veins were popping out of his neck, and the Brewers were on their way to a 6-5 win that was nearly coughed up by their dynamic bullpen.
“It’s something, obviously, coming in the day you don’t know in your wildest dreams that that’s going to happen,” Woodruff said. “To be able to get an at-bat off Kershaw and hit a home run.”
It was the first postseason home run for a Brewers reliever in franchise history, and so it was also the first one to come off one of the best starters of a generation. It was just the third homer from a relief pitcher in playoff history, and so it was also one of the few times a relief pitcher’s swing so shocked a postseason game into changing course. It accounted for the Brewers’ first run in a series that matches their deep bullpen against a Dodgers team reliant on a powerful lineup and standout rotation. And so it was also fitting that Woodruff, a fixture of that bullpen, paired his home run with two scoreless innings, which connected to three blank frames for reliever Josh Hader, which ultimately led to the Brewers’ 12th straight victory in a stretch that has only tested how many different ways they can win.
But that was not without a late push from the Dodgers, who cracked into that Brewers’ bullpen with three runs in the eighth and another in the ninth before Corey Knebel stranded the game-tying run at third base. That gave Dodgers a shot of confidence heading into Game 2 on Saturday, as they turned the Brewers’ greatest strength into a momentary weakness, and surged when it seemed like they had nothing left.
“For us to get a look at these guys out of the pen in a seven-game series, I think that’s a good thing,” Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said. “And for our guys to . . . for us to have the tying run at third base, we did some good things tonight. So yeah, the goal is to win a baseball game, but I think that it shows the compete in our guys.”
In starting Gio Gonzalez — the former Washington Nationals starter who joined the Brewers with a 4.57 ERA on Aug. 31 — Brewers Manager Craig Counsell doubled down on his nontraditional approach with pitchers. Gonzalez did not appear in the Brewers’ three-game sweep of the Colorado Rockies in the National League Division Series. He had not fared well in six career postseason starts.
Yet Gonzalez only threw two innings, giving up one run, and was never expected to go deep into this game. The Brewers do not set such expectations for any of their pitchers. They don’t have the starting staff of a dangerous playoff team. They do have the bullpen of one, with a whole lot of velocity, three dominant options at closer and a handful of converted starters, in total a group of arms that Counsell deploys at any time of any game. And they can now add a power hitter to that list.
“The guy’s a hitter,” Knebel said of Woodruff. “The bullpen rakes. That’s all it is.”
In starting Kershaw, Roberts began rolling out his dominant rotation, the kind that thrives in October, the kind that is thought to win championships. Kershaw will be followed by lefty Hyun-jin Ryu in Game 2. Next comes rookie sensation Walker Buehler. Then veteran Rich Hill after that.
That gave each team a tough task from the start — the Brewers against the Dodgers’ ace among aces, the Dodgers against a versatile staff used in all kinds of ways — two contrasting styles that were each flawed Friday. The Dodgers met their challenge first when Manny Machado led off the second with a home run off Gonzalez. But the Brewers answered quickly, with the least probable of left-handed swings, that uppercut from Woodruff that sent Kershaw’s fastball 407 feet through the air.
The 25-year-old Woodruff came into the game with one home run in 22 major league plate appearances. He took batting practice before Friday’s game but, as pitchers do, mostly worked on bunting. So after smacking his second career home run, off a lefty, on the sixth pitch of the at-bat while hunting for heat, he turned to the Brewers dugout and yelled “Let’s go!” as he trotted between first and second base. The Brewers exploded with excitement, no one more so than Gonzalez, who pounded both his hands on the padded railing and screamed “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” as Miller Park followed his lead.
“That guy is unreal,” Gonzalez said. “He’s literally grabbed the bull by the horns and he is riding it. He is doing the damn thing.”
The home run kick-started a sloppy inning for the Dodgers, spurred further by catcher Yasmani Grandal’s shaky defense behind the plate, as the Brewers brought in another run on Hernan Perez’s sacrifice fly. Then Woodruff, already the hero, struck out the side in the fourth, discarding Max Muncy, Machado and Matt Kemp with a mid-90s fastball and biting slider. Then he pounded his glove as the crowd roared. Then Domingo Santana, pinch-hitting for Woodruff in the bottom of the inning, singled in two more runs to break the game open.
That led Roberts to hook Kershaw after recording just nine outs and giving up five runs, four of which were earned. Next Hader entered for the Brewers and, in throwing three scoreless innings, tallied as many outs as Kershaw in another disappointing postseason start for the Dodgers starter.
His teammates did not fare much better until rallying in the eighth and ninth, breathing life into a Dodgers’ offense that had been listless for seven innings. But Game 1 still belonged to Milwaukee’s bullpen, from the third inning on, from the time Kershaw thought a middle-in fastball could get by the reliever standing 60 feet, 6 inches away in the batter’s box.
It didn’t. Brandon Woodruff made sure of it.