LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Dodgers' celebration at Atlanta's SunTrust Park on Monday was as much about checking off a box as it was what they had accomplished. They expected to advance to the National League Championship Series, to within four wins of another trip to the World Series. The path this season was rockier than anticipated, but anything less would have been a colossal letdown.
The party the Milwaukee Brewers had at Coors Field in Denver a day earlier had a different flavor. The Brewers weren't projected to reach the NLCS. They play in baseball's smallest market, an afterthought in Chicago's shadow, and have one of the majors' slimmest payrolls. It was their first playoff series victory since 2011, the last time they were in the playoffs. They went to the NLCS that year and lost. They haven't won a World Series or even been to one since 1982. This is unfamiliar territory.
But the clubs will have at least one thing in common when they arrive at Milwaukee's Miller Park for Game 1 on Friday: They're both playing their best baseball. The Dodgers have won seven of their last eight games, outscoring opponents 47-15 during the stretch. The Brewers have been even better, winning 11 straight games and breezing through the NL Division Series by outscoring the Colorado Rockies 13-2 in a three-game sweep.
"It's going to be great," Dodgers shortstop Manny Machado said. "Both ballclubs have worked hard to get to this situation. They're both two good ballclubs facing off in the championship. And we're just going to go out there and play baseball, be ourselves, keep doing what we've been doing all year, and hopefully we come out on top."
Presumptive NL most valuable player Christian Yelich anchors a deep Brewers lineup that features a little bit of everything. They're traditional in that regard.
But pitching is another matter. The Brewers deploy their pitchers like most analytically driven clubs; they'd rather not let a pitcher face a lineup three times, regardless of pitch count, and they're not afraid to shift a heavier onus on to their bullpen. But the Brewers have catapulted the revolution to another level.
Manager Craig Counsell would rather not label his pitchers "starters" or "relievers." He prefers "out-getters." In Game 1, he ditched the traditional starter entirely, opting to begin the game with Brandon Woodruff, a reliever. Woodruff tossed three shutout innings. Traditional starters Jhoulys Chacin and Wade Miley started the final two games but logged only 72/3 innings combined.
The strategy is effective because Milwaukee's bullpen — headlined by Jeremy Jeffress, Josh Hader and Corey Knebel — is one of baseball's best, and the postseason schedule, which affords more days off, renders the approach more viable. Jeffress, Hader and Knebel each appeared in all three NLDS wins over the Rockies. They gave up two runs and six hits with 12 strikeouts in 82/3 innings — and they'll be fresh Friday after a four-day layoff.
Meanwhile, the Dodgers, realizing their strength lies elsewhere, are countering the sport's current thinking.
Hyun-Jin Ryu threw seven scoreless innings in Game 1 against the Atlanta Braves. Clayton Kershaw tossed eight in Game 2. Walker Buehler was given enough leash to push through a five-run second inning in Game 3 before settling in to log five innings, and Rich Hill was pulled in the fifth inning in Game 4 after issuing five walks. A year after riding Kenley Jansen and a deep bullpen to Game 7 of the World Series, the Dodgers' success is dependent on their starting rotation.
"Hyun-Jin (was) unbelievable," Kershaw said. "And Walker, after he took his lump there in that one inning, came back and threw really well. So I think that was huge for him moving forward and Richie kept us in the game . . Yeah, we've got some depth there, which is huge."
Kershaw will get the first crack Friday. He found out about the assignment from a reporter amid the Dodgers' postgame celebration Monday. It wasn't the obvious choice, not after his bosses decided to start Ryu over him in Game 1 of the NLDS. It was the first time Kershaw didn't start a Game 1 for the Dodgers when he was available since 2009. That order has been restored.
It will be the Dodgers' first visit to Miller Park since they opened up the second half there.
The Dodgers were an unfinished product then. Machado had just arrived from the Baltimore Orioles and made his debut in the series opener. Brian Dozier was a Minnesota Twin. Ryan Madson was with the Washington Nationals. The Pittsburgh Pirates employed David Freese.
Three of the four played significant roles in Monday's series-clinching win. Freese cracked a pinch-hit, go-ahead, two-run single. Madson escaped a bases-loaded, one-out jam. Machado crushed a three-run home run. It was another display of the depth that buoyed the Dodgers' internal expectations. Those expectations are high, and they include two more celebrations.
"We had a really good team last year," Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said. "We have a really good team this year. The only difference is we're trying to win one more game."