MILWAUKEE — If a best-of-seven playoff series can have a tone-setting moment in the first inning of Game 1, then make sure you’re watching Friday night when all-world pitcher Clayton Kershaw takes on National League MVP favorite Christian Yelich. It’ll be the first marquee matchup of the NL Championship Series between the Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers.
“You enjoy that as a player, going up against the best,” Yelich said Thursday afternoon. “Just try and see how you stack up. You enjoy competing, and it seems like he really enjoys competing, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Yelich might be enjoying it more than Kershaw so far this year as he was 4-for-6 with two home runs off Kershaw in the regular season. Those are confidence-building moments, even for one of the hottest hitters in the game. Kershaw understands he might have to go back to the drawing board.
“I’m about to go look right now,” Kershaw said not long after Yelich spoke Thursday. “So I don’t know what he’s changed since the last time I faced him or anything like that. But yeah, he’s gotten some hits off me for sure, and [I’ll] try not to let him do that [Friday].”
Yelich hit almost everything and everyone under the sun in the second half, with his one weakness coming in the lower half of the strike zone, especially the outside portion. He produced just a .582 OPS on those pitches. Kershaw tried to get him out there, but Yelich laid off low fastballs and teed off on Kershaw’s slider, which caught more of the zone than the Dodgers ace may have wanted. Yelich was 3-for-3 with a home run and double on at-bats ending with a Kershaw slider. The Brewers right fielder was asked what the secret of getting to Kershaw was.
“A lot of luck,” he said with a smile. “He’s one of the best pitchers in the game. Tough at-bat every time you face him. It’s a battle.”
Teammate Eric Thames added: “His velocity isn’t as high as it used to be, but he still competes and is as tough as ever. For anyone to take him deep or hit him hard, it’s a good pat on the back.”
Yelich continued to downplay his success against Kershaw, but it extends beyond 2018. For his career, the left-handed hitter is 9-for-17 with a walk off the L.A. lefty.
“You’re not going to get a whole lot of opportunities, but when you do, you [have to] capitalize on them and really do all the little things right,” Yelich said.
Like most managers, over the last month of the season, Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts had no public answers for how to stop Yelich, just more praise.
“He’s clearly a guy you don’t want to let beat you,” Roberts said. “He’s covering a lot of different zones. He hits left-handed pitching, right-handed pitching. He’s using the big part of the field. He can shorten up and get a base hit when he needs to. So, I think for us, the key is obviously you’re aware of him, and you have to kind of sequence him the right way because he’s swinging the bat very well, and he’s an MVP.”
Yelich had just two hits — one was a home run — but six walks in the division series against the Colorado Rockies and scored four runs in the low-scoring series. He also stole two bases as his regular season has carried over. It makes that first-inning matchup with Kershaw a juicy one. And it makes his every at-bat must watch.
“I think when you’re facing guys like that, I don’t think you think you ever have them figured out,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “It’s two great players going up against each other. It’s the cat-and-mouse game. Is the success he had in the past, is he going to do the same thing, is he going to do something different? Every player is very well aware of the history against the pitcher on the mound or the hitter in the box. They’re aware of it. They’ve scouted it. They’ve looked at it.
“But the great thing about our game is like it’s ‘What’s next?’ What are you going to do based off that last matchup? What are you going to do off my success against you or your success against me? And I think that’s the cool part about watching Kershaw versus Yelich, is to see what happens next.”
We’ll find out what’s next as the two are bound to face off in several big moments over the next week. Will Kershaw go with his fastball more in order to get Yelich to chase where he does his least damage? Or is, simply, a better-thrown slider the answer? Even Yelich is excited to see how it plays out.
“It’s what it’s all about,” Yelich said. “It’s what makes this time of the year really fun. It’s what you play for as a player, and like I said, he’s a great player, great pitcher. He’s had an unbelievable career, and we know it’s going to be a battle.”