MILWAUKEE — Seventeen pitches into his first career postseason start, Corbin Burnes was in trouble. The Braves had runners at the corners after two uncharacteristic walks and a passed ball to begin the game. Burnes was topping out around 96 mph, a couple of ticks below normal. A Brewers team with World Series hopes riding on pitching saw its best pitcher in peril during the first inning as catcher Omar Narváez approached the mound for a visit.
There were a handful of moments that decided Milwaukee’s 2-1 win in Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Friday at American Family Field, but the first set the tone for the rest. Pitching carried the Crew to this point, and now the pitching — plus one seventh-inning swing from Rowdy Tellez — has given them a 1-0 lead in this best-of-five series.
“It couldn’t have happened,” Tellez said of his electrifying two-run home run, “without the way we pitched tonight.”
That began with Burnes, MLB’s regular-season ERA leader (2.43) who got out of his first-inning pickle with a highlight-reel double play followed by the first of his six strikeouts. He then went on to deliver six scoreless innings while teaming with fellow starter Adrian Houser in a rare relief role to bridge the gap to lights-out closer Josh Hader for a harrowing ninth.
Milwaukee snapped a four-game losing streak in the postseason that dated back to the 2018 NL Championship Series, setting a promising tone for this series, at least as far as the franchise’s limited playoff history is concerned. In the Brewers’ two previous best-of-five Division Series in which they won Game 1 (2011 and ’18) they went on to win the series. In the two Division Series in which they lost Game 1 (1981 and 2008) they went on to lose the series.
“We knew this ballgame was going to be rough,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “[We knew] that runs would be a premium. It was exactly what I thought going in that this game would be. Somebody got a big hit.”
Most of the night was a pitchers’ duel between Burnes and Braves right-hander Charlie Morton. While Morton came out throwing heat and struck out the side in the first, it took Burnes some time to get into the game. Burnes walked leadoff man Jorge Soler on seven pitches, then Freddie Freeman on nine pitches, with ball four getting by Narváez and moving Soler to third.
After Burnes started Ozzie Albies with a ball, Narváez went to the mound.
“We were just trying to do too much early on,” Burnes said. “We were really searching for anything to get ahead in the count, to get an out.”
Burnes tried cutters, the signature pitch that was so reliable for him at the start of 2021 — when he set an MLB record with 58 strikeouts before issuing his first walk of the season — but which has eluded him lately. He tried sliders. He tried curveballs, changeups, everything.
On the next pitch to Albies after the mound visit, Burnes buried a cutter inside, which Albies bounced to Tellez at first base. Tellez stepped on the bag and threw a one-hopper home, where Narváez made a difficult play to tag out Soler and send Burnes on a path to escaping the inning. Burnes then completed the job by striking out Austin Riley.
It was the last inning in which the Braves had a runner in scoring position against Burnes, who became the first Brewers pitcher to toss at least six innings without allowing a run in the postseason since Mike Caldwell’s shutout of the Cardinals in Game 1 of the 1982 World Series.
“It was the play of the game, I think,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “You saw it gave Corbin life.”
That’s what the Braves were afraid of. After 22 pitches in the first inning and 18 more in the second, Burnes got through the sixth at 91 pitches while allowing no runs on two hits and three walks.
“We worked all year, and to get to this point to try to get Game 1 in this series was going to be huge,” Burnes said. “I was doing whatever I could out there, trying to find something to just keep trying to throw zeros to give us a chance to win. And eventually, we got that opportunity.”
With setup man Devin Williams out of action because of a fractured right hand, Counsell’s next task was navigating the final three innings. He first turned to Houser, a starter most of the season who still could start Game 3 on Monday or a potential Game 4 on Tuesday after throwing just 26 pitches over two innings in Game 1.
Joc Pederson belted a pinch-hit homer off Houser in the eighth to make it a one-run game, but Houser held on to hand a lead to Hader.
“I don’t know when the last time was that Adrian threw in a situation like that,” Burnes said. “The way that lineup shaped up [with a series of right-handed Braves hitters], I think it was perfect with his sinker to just get a ton of ground balls. That was, as far as I’m concerned, the biggest performance of the night.”
Added Counsell: “Much respect for doing something he doesn’t normally do.”
In the ninth, it was an easy call to Hader, the All-Star closer who rode a 21-game scoreless streak into the postseason. Hader issued a leadoff walk to Freeman and gave up a one-out single to Riley as the Braves moved the tying run to third base for Orlando Arcia, the longtime Brewer who was traded to Atlanta in April. On the sixth pitch he saw from Hader, he grounded out to end the game.
“We thought he was going to haunt us there, because he was pretty big for us in the playoffs a few years ago,” Houser said. “But it was awesome to see Josh put that away.”
Brewers pitchers yielded only four hits to the power-hitting Braves. Only once in 46 postseason games in franchise history have the Crew given up fewer hits — Game 1 of the 1982 World Series, in which the Cardinals had three hits.
“It was incredible,” Hader said. “Getting out of that first inning for Corbin with a zero was huge. After that, he just settled in and continued to do what he’s been doing all season. Then, having Houser come out and get ground balls, get outs for two innings, you couldn’t ask for much better. I just finished it out.”