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brewers main photo 10-12

Pitcher Gio Gonzalez had a 10-11 overall record this season. He was 3-0 with the Brewers after being acquired from the Nationals.

MILWAUKEE — As the 2018 baseball season headed down the home stretch, Gio Gonzalez was struggling through a disappointing season with a dead end Washington Nationals team, looking at an uncertain free agent future.

But thanks to a last-minute trade to the Milwaukee Brewers on Aug. 31, Gonzalez finds himself as the starting pitcher in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers and the preeminent pitcher of his era, Clayton Kershaw, Friday night at Miller Park.

No one appreciates how unlikely that turn of events is than Gonzalez, who made five starts for the Brewers in September but didn’t pitch in the NLDS against the Colorado Rockies.

“From my perspective, it’s pretty cool to represent the Brewers,” Gonzalez said. “They wanted me to be a part of this and I was excited to know that I’ll be going in the second round.

“I’m grateful I get to pitch another postseason game and with another team now. I was almost on my way home at the end of September, so to sit here and I’m pitching Game 1 of the second round, I think it’s pretty remarkable, pretty incredible. Hopefully, I get to tell my kids about this one day.”

Gonzalez, 33, was just 7-11 with a 4.57 ERA in 27 starts for the Nationals, but went 3-0 with a 2.13 ERA in his five starts for Milwaukee.

Manager Craig Counsell said the decision to go with Gonzalez, a left-hander, was based on a combination of matchups with the Dodgers hitters and his own success down the stretch.

“We like the matchup against their lineup,” Counsell said. “We haven’t made massive tweaks to Gio. It’s been very small tweaks.

“I think he just got into a spot where it’s simply a fresh start and any player that’s traded, there’s a little more juice there. You’ve gotta prove yourself, even if you’re an established major leaguer.”

Counsell plans to go with another lefty, Wade Miley, in Game 2 on Saturday, with staff ace Jhoulys Chacin set for Game 3 in Los Angeles. Counsell, however, added that Chacin also would be available to pitch out of the bullpen Friday if needed.

The Dodgers will counter with lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu in Game 2, followed by rookie right-hander Walker Buehler and veteran lefty Rich Hill in the first two games in L.A.

Kershaw perspective

He’s admittedly biased, but Kershaw said he’s not a big fan of the trend toward bullpenning in the major leagues. But he understands why teams have chosen to go that way, like the Brewers did in Game 1 of the NLDS against Colorado.

“If it works, it’s great,” Kershaw said. “I’m kind of a traditionalist when it comes to baseball. But when it comes down to the postseason, you just have to win games. These guys obviously had some success in the first series against the Rockies doing it, and they have a great bullpen. So there’s no getting around that. It’s probably tough to sustain for a full season.”

Kershaw, who has been bothered by back troubles the past couple seasons, was 9-5 with a 2.73 ERA in 26 starts this year. And while he may not be the same pitcher he was at his peak, the 2014 MVP and three-time Cy Young Award winner still is among the toughest pitchers around, according to Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun.

“To me, he’s the greatest pitcher of our generation and on the short list of greatest pitchers of our time. From the first pitch to the last, you know you’re in for a battle when you face him. And obviously the pure stuff is really good,” Braun said.

“People make a big deal about his fastball velocity being down, but he’s probably a better pitcher than he was when he was younger and the velocity on his slider hasn’t decreased at all. For me, he’s as good and as tough as he’s ever been and it starts with his level of competitiveness, which is unique and special.”

Braun has a career .289 batting average with one homer in 38 at-bats against Kershaw. That pales in comparison to Christian Yelich, who has hit .529 (9-for-17) with two homers.

What’s Yelich’s secret?

“Lots of luck,” he said. “He’s one of the best pitchers in the game. Tough at-bat every time you face him. It’s a battle. You enjoy that as a player, though, going up against the best.”


Dennis Punzel covers Wisconsin Badgers volleyball, women's basketball for the Wisconsin State Journal.