- On a night he'd like to forget, Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal embodied L.A.'s early struggles to open the NLCS against the Brewers.
MILWAUKEE — The first sign of trouble came early—first inning, second batter. Clayton Kershaw had begun by allowing a lead-off single to Lorenzo Cain, and as he faced the next hitter, Christian Yelich, a pitch snaked by catcher Yasmani Grandal. He’d snapped his mitt shut as the slider landed in the dirt. For a moment, he thought he had it. He didn’t. “I thought it was in my glove, and all of a sudden, it went by, and I was just trying to figure out why,” he said. The backstop scrambled to find the ball, locating it just in time to make a late throw that skittered by second base. Cain advanced easily.
Ultimately, that passed ball didn’t amount to anything. Yelich eventually struck out, and Milwaukee didn’t put any more runners on for the rest of the inning. But Grandal’s momentary blip was a harbinger of what was to come—his disastrous third inning, among the worst defensive performances by a catcher in postseason history, which would contribute to his team’s downfall in Game 1 of the NLCS. Los Angeles lost, 6-5, to Milwaukee in a crucial series opener.
The Dodgers entered the bottom of the third with a 1-0 lead, courtesy of a home run by Manny Machado. That quickly disappeared in surreal fashion. The Brewers sent reliever Brandon Woodruff to the plate—which was surreal enough, even for a team that depends so heavily on its bullpen. Milwaukee had called for a reliever after just one time through the order for starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez, which fell right in line with the club’s highly discussed bullpenning strategy. But for that reliever to get a plate appearance right away, leading off the third? Curious, to say the least. And, as it turned out, bizarrely successful: Woodruff took Kershaw deep to tie the game. It’s a home run that defies explanation, or advance scouting, or simple sense. “I was just trying to look for a heater and trying to foul it off or put it in play, and I just got lucky,” Woodruff said.
The Dodgers had none of that luck, in any capacity. For Kershaw, a small parade of nightmares followed—the bitter stuffing of the postseason failure narrative that he’s forced to carry each October. A Cain single. A Yelich walk. A slight reprieve, in a pop-out from Ryan Braun. Next up was Jesús Aguilar, and the nightmare then began to spread.
The first pitch was fouled off. The second was something that this game had already seen. Here was the passed ball from the first inning, nearly the same exact pitch with the same exact result—again, a slider in the dirt, and, again, one that the catcher just couldn’t secure. Both runners advanced, putting men on second and third with one out. The third pitch was another foul, and the fourth one was something different. The fourth pitch was where a bad inning became maddeningly, disorientingly, damningly worse. Aguilar made contact, sending the ball straight to first base, where it was brought down by an acrobatic catch from David Freese. It seemed, for a moment, like a huge break for Los Angeles. Instead, it was the opposite—it was catcher’s interference, the result of Aguilar’s bat touching Grandal’s glove on his swing.
“I didn’t feel it,” Grandal said. “It’s a weird play. A slider backdoor, coming back towards the strike zone, and he’s trying to get as much length in his swing as possible. You get back into the strike zone, and sometimes you’re going to get hit. It doesn’t happen very often, but it just so happened.”
Manager Dave Roberts came out to question it, but there wasn’t much for him to say; there’s no review available for a catcher’s interference call.
“That was just a very freak thing,” Roberts said.
Hernán Pérez was up next, with the bases loaded and still just one out. He sent a sacrifice fly to centerfielder Cody Bellinger, who tried to nail the runner at home. He wasn’t in time, but that was only one part of the problem. Grandal couldn’t handle the throw, letting it bounce all the way to the backstop as the next runner grabbed an extra base.
The next batter, Mike Moustakas, struck out to end the inning and the nightmare. But Grandal’s error on that last play allowed him to make a tiny bit of history, albeit regrettably so: He became the first catcher with two passed balls and two errors in the same postseason game. On its own, it’s remarkable. Throw in the fact that three of those four mistakes happened in a single inning, and, well, it’s almost unfathomable. In a game decided by a single run, Grandal’s historic array of defensive failure—compressed into one pivotal inning—was enough to be the difference.
Grandal’s major defensive miscues ended for the night after that third inning. That was no accident. He knew that something in particular had gone wrong for him on the passed balls, and he just needed to figure out what it was.
“When the second one happened, I was like—I really need to figure out why these balls are getting by, because I feel like they should be right in front of me,” Grandal said.
He took time to check some video between innings, and he figured out the culprit immediately—his set-up. He was flat-footed, too far back on his heels to tap into the range of motion that he needed to snare low balls.
“When you get on your heels, you can’t do anything. You can’t move,” he said. “It’s a pretty quick fix. So all of a sudden, I went back out there, and when there were balls in the dirt, I was able to get down to them. There was nothing else to it.”
The adjustment was crucial, if too late. That concept seems likely to be a theme for this series, with the many moving pieces created by a pair of highly modular lineups and deep bullpens that come out early. In order to win next time, though? The Dodgers will have to make those adjustments more quickly.