The Dodgers’ pursuit of their first championship since 1988 shifted to another gear Wednesday in a vacant Dodger Stadium against one of the worst teams ever to qualify for the postseason.
The setting for Game 1 of the best-of-three wild card round, a layer added to the 2020 postseason to generate more revenue, against the Milwaukee Brewers was unprecedented. The typical extended pregame introductions, featuring everyone from the clubbies to the manager, were absent Wednesday. The anthem was performed by the stadium organist, but a military flyover didn’t rumble overhead. The only towels being waved were digital animations on screens around the ballpark.
The energy 56,000 people have produced every October in Chavez Ravine was replaced by automated fan noise. But the objective remained the same. Survive until you’re the last team left in the tournament. This year, the routine will take 13 wins.
The Dodgers secured the first one with a 4-2 victory over the eighth-seeded Brewers. Game 2 is scheduled for Thursday at 7:08 p.m. The Dodgers would advance to the National League Division Series in Arlington, Texas with a win.
Walker Buehler, not Clayton Kershaw, got the start for Los Angeles despite logging just 36 2/3 innings during the regular season after going on the injured list twice with a blister on his right index finger. The Dodgers’ thinking was if Buehler couldn’t pitch deep into the game, they would have a fresh bullpen to take down innings behind him and they could rely on Kershaw to deliver a longer outing in Game 2 on Thursday.
The rationale proved prescient. Buehler was dominant through three innings but surrendered a two-run home run to shortstop Orlando Arcia in the fourth and was pulled after the frame. He allowed allowed three hits, he walked two, and tied a postseason career high with eight strikeouts. He threw 73 pitches.
Julio Urías replaced Buehler and tossed three scoreless innings. Blake Treinen delivered a scoreless eighth. Kenley Jansen worked around a two-out walk in the ninth inning to seal the result.
The chances of the Brewers, who finished the regular season two games under .500, pulling off the upset tumbled hours before a pitch was thrown when they submitted a roster for the series without Devin Williams included.
Williams, a 26-year-old rookie, was one of the best relievers in the majors during the regular season. The right-hander dominated hitters with a 97-mph fastball and a screwball-like changeup that became known as The Airbender. He allowed one run in 27 innings. His 53% strikeout rate, though in a smaller sample size, was the highest ever in a single season.
But he emerged from a two-inning outing Friday – his third two-inning appearance in a week — against the St. Louis Cardinals with shoulder stiffness. He played catch Tuesday before it was determined he’d miss the series. Suddenly, the Brewers’ best path to two wins – jumping ahead early before having Williams, all-star closer Josh Hader, and the rest of the bullpen slam the door shut on the Dodgers — got rocky.
The Brewers were already without their best starting pitcher Corbin Burnes (oblique) and Brett Anderson (blister), another quality starter, for the series. They chose to have Brandon Woodruff, their best remaining starter, pitch Game 2 on regular rest. So, they gave the ball to Brent Suter. It proved disastrous.
Suter, making his fifth start in 2020, surrendered a leadoff double to Mookie Betts before his command vanished. He walked four of the next six batters he faced. Walks to Will Smith and AJ Pollock pushed home the game’s first two runs.
Action commenced in the Brewers bullpen. By the time he got Edwin Ríos to groundout to end the inning, he had thrown 23 of his 32 pitches for balls. He became the first pitcher in major-league history to walk in multiple runs in the first inning of a playoff game.
The Dodgers quickly added to the lead in the second inning on back-to-back doubles from Chris Taylor and Betts to begin the frame. Suter didn’t survive the inning. He exited having allowed the three runs on three hits. He walked five of the 13 batters he faced after issuing five walks to 129 batters during the regular season. He threw 30 balls and 21 strikes.
But the Dodgers left five runners on base in the two innings, squandering the opportunity to put Milwaukee away.
It didn’t appear as though it would be a problem at first; Buehler was mowing down the Brewers’ light-hitting bunch early. He began his outing by striking out Christian Yelich on three pitches. He had six strikeouts through three innings. Three came on his fastball, which regularly touched 98 mph. The other three came on his biting curveball.
But his blister remained a concern. Before the game, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts compared balancing Buehler’s length and making sure the blister didn’t become a problem for the rest of the season to threading a needle.
“I know we’ve been dealing with that blister,” Roberts said during an in-game interview before the start of the fourth inning. “So, right now I’m gonna keep an eye on it so it’s kind of the four- or five-inning situation.”
Moments after Roberts spoke, Arcia, buried in an 0-2 count with two outs, smashed a 97-mph fastball over the left field wall for a two-run home run – his third home run in eight career playoff games against the Dodgers. Buehler limited the damage to that before securing the third out, but his night ended there.
Three innings later, Corey Seager doubled the Dodgers’ lead with a 447-foot solo home run to straightaway centerfield. The Dodgers were tested, but they held on. They’re 12 wins away.