The Milwaukee Brewers beat the Los Angeles Dodgers on home turf Friday night to force the ultimate crescendo of playoff sports: Game 7.
The National League Championship Series, originally labeled as a chess match, has truly been an arduous and grueling war of attrition, as both teams have combined to score 41 runs over the first six games compared to 135 strikeouts.
Neither team has seemed to hold the definitive edge – at least not for any substantive length of time. Heading into the deciding game, let’s take stock of seven captivating storylines.
Rattled rookie or budding ace?
After absolutely dealing in Game 163, sealing the Dodgers’ sixth consecutive division title, Walker Buehler has hit the occasional rough patch in October. Buehler is 24 years old, and there’s little question that he is blooming into a true ace. However, that might not be enough heading into the biggest start of his young career.
Since shutting out the Colorado Rockies over 6 2/3 innings and carrying a no-hitter into the sixth, the young right-hander has posted a 6.75 ERA over 12 innings in two playoff starts. That being said, Buehler has shown a unique ability to bounce back after rough innings. After giving up five runs in the second inning of his NLDS start against the Atlanta Braves, Buehler went on to throw three additional shutout frames. It was a similar story in Game 3 of the NLCS when Buehler coughed up one run in the first before striking out the next four consecutive batters. With the season on the line, Buehler will have to prove his mettle.
Well-rested relief ace
Immediately following the Brewers’ Game 6 victory, Craig Counsell was asked about the advantage his club will carry into the deciding contest with a well-rested Josh Hader. Faced with the question of how many innings their elite left-hander could potentially go on Saturday, the young skipper coyly responded “12.”
Of course, Hader won’t actually pitch a dozen innings, but Milwaukee’s advantage is colossal with its ace reliever. Aside from Game 1, Hader has not been asked to work especially hard. Over 4 2/3 innings in the series, the 24-year-old has struck out eight of the 18 batters he’s faced and hasn’t allowed an extra-base hit.
Dodgers battery troubles
The weakest link for the Dodgers this series has been Yasmani Grandal, both offensively and defensively. For a catcher almost defined by his ability to frame, the rest of Grandal’s defensive game has completely fallen apart and it seems to be affecting his ability to hit.
With the Brewers sending a right-hander to the mound to start the proceedings, Los Angeles will have to think hard about whether to start the switch-hitting Grandal (2-for-11, six strikeouts), or cede the platoon advantage and go with right-handed Austin Barnes (2-for-14, seven strikeouts) behind the dish.
Who is Jhoulys?
Here’s a quick crash course on Brewers starter Jhoulys Chacin: the 30-year-old right-hander is playing for his sixth team and has routinely been good but not great throughout his career. Last year with the San Diego Padres was his first productive campaign since 2013, which earned him a low-risk two-year, $15.5-million deal with the Brewers.
Fast forward 10 months, Chacin has been the club’s unequivocal ace. The journeyman hasn’t allowed more than three earned runs in a start since early August and has yet to allow a single earned run this postseason. Over 10 1/3 innings through two playoff starts, Chacin has allowed six hits and five walks while striking out nine of the 42 batters he’s faced.
Clayton Kershaw has shoved enough this series, but if the future Hall of Fame left-hander is going to get his World Series ring, it may come down to how he is able to perform out of the bullpen.
In fact, the only realistic way Kershaw doesn’t take the hill is if Buehler carries the entire game to the ninth and hands it off to Kenley Jansen with some sort of substantive lead. Considering the way runs have been scored this series, the likelihood of any of that seems infinitesimal. Even further, the NLCS MVP is still relatively wide open, and if Kershaw comes out and locks down another pennant, he could become a favorite for the honor.
The MVP remains silent
The presumptive National League MVP has been silenced as Christian Yelich has gone 4-for-24 with five walks and six strikeouts.
For a moment in Game 6, it looked like the outfielder had rediscovered his power stroke, crushing a one-out double to right in the second and scoring. The 26-year-old followed that up with a strikeout, a groundout, and a walk against a parade of left-handed relievers. The Brewers still scored seven runs ostensibly without their best hitter providing much of a charge, but Yelich’s first home run of the NLCS would be a welcome development for the Miller Park faithful.
Roberts sticking with it
Expect Dave Roberts to stick with the game plan he has carried throughout the series. It’s been a playbook that counterpart Counsell has had answers for, but tweaking it substantially now would only hamper his own team’s chances.
Look for Roberts to stagger his lineup with lefties and righties but skew toward left-handed with Chacin starting, and then aggressively use his bench bats when Hader is eventually deployed. Players like David Freese, Yasiel Puig, or Enrique Hernandez will be called on. It’s a strategy that worked all season long and contributed to the Dodgers leading the Senior Circuit in home runs.