Dodgers Ride Small Ball to Doorstep of World Series

The Dodgers won consecutive postseason games without a homer for the first time in franchise history, simply taking what the Brewers gave in Games 4 and 5 to move a win away from the Fall Classic.
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LOS ANGELES — A rally cry kept rising with verve and belief in the Dodgers’ dugout midway through Game 5 of the National League Championship Series at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday. “Single ‘em to death! Single ‘em to death!”

The Dodgers? The team that led the league in homers? The team that hit more home runs than any team in franchise history? The team that had won 16 games all year without a homer? The team that left a condo building worth of people on base in Game 4 by swinging for the fences? Those Dodgers?

It sounded heretical, like Dustin Johnson pulling out an iron to lay up on a reachable par five, or LeBron on a breakaway choosing a demure layup off the glass.

But yes, these Dodgers reset their sights, recalibrated their swings and recreated Whitey Herzog’s 1982 Cardinals, who hit 67 home runs all that year, to frustrate and filet the Brewers. They did something they had done only once all year and never before in their franchise postseason history: they won back-to-back games without hitting the ball out of the park.

This was an inside job. Within 24 hours, the Dodgers went from trailing the series two games to one to within one victory of capturing a second straight pennant. And while it might make for a neat narrative to chirp that Los Angeles, with its .200 batting average with runners in scoring position, suddenly got religion about playing some small ball, the fact is they arrived at this deduction out of desperation.

“You always have to look at what this game gives you, and every game is different in its own way,” Dodgers second baseman Brian Dozier said. “This game gave us no choice but to shorten up, the way [Brewers pitcher Brandon] Woodruff was throwing his power sinkers and especially the way the light and the shadows were. That’s why we were going, ‘Single ‘em to death.’ It was brutal out there.”

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Said fellow small-ball practitioner Max Muncy, “You knew going into this game nobody was going to hit a home run, not after coming back for a day game after a five-hour game, not in these conditions, not with the shadows, not with Woodruff throwing that serious fuzz up there. If you went up there just trying to launch, you had no shot. Wasn’t happening today.”

The game was played under such a brilliant and uninterrupted swath of pure blue sky it seemed one giant coat of paint swathed by Hollywood’s best set designer. Not one cloud dared intrude on the kind of Southern California day that inspired Walter O’Malley to pick the colors of seating in Dodger Stadium’s four levels: sun (yellow), sand (orange), sea (green) and sky (blue).

Such a cerulean sky for a 2 p.m. start, however, is nightmarish for a hitter. By the fifth inning, the stadium’s massive shadow had crept like a Vincent Price villain from the backstop to the mound, swallowing hitters’ hopes in its expanding darkness. Cue the pipe organ.

“You hear people say, ‘Oh, when the pitcher throws out of the sun and then the pitch goes into the shadow, that’s what’s so tough,’” Dozier said. “No. That’s not it. The hardest part is when the hitting background is in the bright sun and the mound and plate are in the shadow. It’s the contrast. You can’t pick up the ball. That’s what we had today.”

Said Los Angeles outfielder Cody Bellinger, “Oh, it was tough. People have no idea. And the way Woodruff was throwing was really tough. There was one time I was back in [the clubhouse] and saw a pitch on TV that he threw to Manny [Machado] for a double play. It was 95 [mph] and had about a foot of cut on it. I looked at that and just went, ‘Wow. That’s almost unhittable.’”

Such were the conditions when the Dodgers began the fifth inning down 1-0 to Milwaukee. That’s when they went all Whitey’s Redbirds on the Brew Crew. Chris Taylor singled and kept running to second on a wild throw by shortstop Orlando Arcia. Taylor swiped third on the next pitch and scored on a single by Austin Barnes.

They took the lead for good the next inning on two runs from another wave of paper cuts: single (by Justin Turner), hit by pitch (Manny Machado), single (Muncy), single (Yasiel Puig).

The next inning brought more of the same: walk (Clayton Kershaw), double (Cody Bellinger), single (Turner), groundout (Dozier). Every hit or run-scoring play was hit either up the middle or the opposite field. Nothing was hit to the pull field.

Muncy, for instance, shortened up his stroke to poke a groundball single to leftfield. How rare was that? The 35-home run pull hitter had only three groundball singles the other way all year.

“Just reacting to the pitch,” Muncy said. “I saw the ball away and just reacted with a short swing.”

Bellinger, like Muncy, sees constant shifts conspiring to take away his pull power. He, too, went the other way with a double to the leftfield gap on another abbreviated swing.

“Yeah, that one felt good,” Bellinger said. “I just tried to stay short to the ball.”

No steak and potatoes on the menu today for the muscular Dodgers. They wound up with a party player of hors d’oeuvres as far as how to pile up bases: seven singles, four walks, three stolen bases and two hit batters. You have to go back to 2009 to find a homerless game the Dodgers won with that much small ball.

Meanwhile, those shadows helped make Kershaw unhittable. Starting with the last out of the third inning, the Brewers went 0-for-13 against him. They could not make the same adjustment the Dodgers did, mostly because Kershaw mixed his pitches so well in the fiendish light.

Much has been made about the drop in Kershaw’s velocity on his fastball. But what people don’t talk about, as Ryan Braun of the Brewers pointed out, is that his slider has gained velocity. It has jumped from 86 to 89 mph in the past five years.

The declining fastball and ascending slider, however, have created a new problem for Kershaw: the narrowing gap in velocity between his two primary pitches. In NLCS Game 1—the three-inning cameo was the briefest postseason start of his career—Kershaw threw 64 of his 74 pitches in a narrow pocket of five miles per hour (between 87 and 92 mph).

The key for Kershaw is throwing his curveball well enough and often enough to get hitters off that 87–92 mph highway. He did not do that in Game 1. He dominated in Game 5 because he rediscovered “Public Enemy No. 1,” the nickname for his curveball that the great Vin Scully gave it the minute he saw a fuzz-faced Kershaw break one off in Vero Beach, Fla. Kershaw threw 21 curveballs in Game 5—matching the most he threw in a game since May.

“When he’s got his curveball,” Dozier said, “he’s pretty much going to beat you. I’ve been so impressed with him. First thing I learned was don’t talk to him on the days he pitches. Don’t go up to him and say, ‘Happy Kershaw Day.’ He’s as focused as anybody I’ve been around.

“The other thing is preparation. I like to think we as professionals all prepare. But he takes it to another level. There’s not a situation that he hasn’t prepared for.”

Game 5 was the 227th postseason game in Dodgers history. They had never before won back-to-back games without a homer until they did it within 24 hours: the 13-inning swing-and-miss-a-thon that was the 2–1 victory in Game 4, followed by the 5–2 game of peek-a-boo that was Game 5.

It’s been a thoroughly eventful series. Game 1 ended with the tying run on third, Game 2 ended with the tying run on second, Game 3 ended with the bases loaded and the tying run at bat, Game 4 ended on a walkoff single, and Game 5 featured Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell smartly playing the “opener” gambit—he pulled Wade Miley after one batter to save him for Game 6 (Miley and Gio Gonzalez will have started four of the six games; who had that play in the office pool?)—Kershaw dipping into the wine cellar of his repertoire to bring back his vintage curveball, and the Dodgers manufacturing a second straight small ball win for the first time in their storied postseason history. It makes you yearn for Game 6 Friday in Milwaukee. Prepare to be surprised again.