Justin Turner clutched the Rawlings-issued lumber in his left hand and pointed toward the left-field seats at Miller Park. As he started his trot down the first base line, he held his bat aloft, posed in his follow-through, as if he never wanted the feeling to leave his limbs.
He knew the feeling well, the sensation of a go-ahead home run in a playoff game, so he indulged in the eighth inning of the Dodgers’ 4-3 victory over the Brewers in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series.
“As soon as I hit it, it felt good,” Turner said.”I knew it was a homer. It’s cool to run around the bases and see all your teammates going crazy, jumping up and down, waiting for you.”
Turner disappeared into their embrace as the two-run shot off Brewers reliever Jeremy Jeffress gave the Dodgers the lead, shattered the veneer of menace around the Brewers’ bullpen and evened the series. The homer erased six innings of futility and a seventh inning of exasperation. It papered over another shaky outing from a starting pitcher and another blow-up from a reliever. It permitted the Dodgers to end a 12-game Milwaukee winning streak and escape the relatively tame confines of this ballpark.
The home run added another line to Turner’s postseason resume. It lacked the symbolism of his walkoff homer in Game 2 of last year’s NLCS, a game-winning blast on the anniversary of Kirk Gibson’s World Series walkoff in 1988. But it resonated for a different reason: Turner flushed one of the worst games of his career, a four-strikeout stumble in Game 1, with a flourish.
“It takes a special athlete to have a night like he had last night and to show up the next day in a big spot, and want the bat in your hand,” manager Dave Roberts said. “Justin is that guy. And those are hard to come by.”
No team in the National League scored more runs than the Dodgers this season. Max Muncy wielded the most power. Manny Machado flashed the most talent. Matt Kemp led the group in RBIs. Yet it was Turner around whom the offense revolved. The team tanked while he recuperated from a fractured wrist in April and May. It took flight while he posted a 1.066 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in the second half.
Roberts described Turner as “the glue of our club.” Turner is “a lot of ways, how you draw it up” as a hitter,” president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. The others treat Turner as their lodestar, a player who recognizes the needs of each situation.
“He’s just a natural hitter,” utility man Enrique Hernandez said. “He hits a homer when he needs to homer. He hits the ball the other way when we need him to. He sees a lot of pitches when we need them. He’s everything that comes with the two words, professional hitter.”
Turner led the way to a crucial victory Saturday, depriving the Brewers of a chance to steal two games at home. The series shifts to Dodger Stadium on Monday, with the Dodgers no longer wary of tussling with the Milwaukee relievers. The lineup bruised Jeffress and Corey Knebel in Game 1. Turner sank Jeffress by launching a hanging splitter and quieting the crowd.
The homer sent the Dodgers’ dugout into a tizzy. They celebrated after an irritating beginning to this series. Hyun-Jin Ryu cleared the low bar set by Clayton Kershaw in Game 1, but still undershot the Dodgers’ expectations. Ryu logged 4 1/3 innings and yielded two runs. Through two games, Kershaw and Ryu combined for 7 1/3 innings of work. Alex Wood served up a solo homer to Brewers infielder Travis Shaw in the sixth for a 3-0 Milwaukee lead.
No Dodgers pitcher could match the outing from Brewers starter Wade Miley. He gave up two singles across 5 2/3 scoreless innings. He provided two hits of his own at the plate, and scored a run. His teammates floundered after his exit.
Miley helped chase Ryu in the fifth. Ryu rolled into the inning, having scattered three singles and struck out four. His reverie ended with a first-pitch cutter to shortstop Orlando Arcia, who Arcia lifted the pitch into center field. Cody Bellinger took a twisting route to the wall and jumped in vain as the solo shot cleared the fence.
Ryu did not last much longer. Miley cracked a single and outfielder Lorenzo Cain doubled. With runners at second and third, Roberts inserted Ryan Madson and intentionally walked outfielder Christian Yelich. A slow roller from outfielder Ryan Braun produced an RBI groundout to double Milwaukee’s lead.
The lead expanded to three after Shaw took Wood deep. The spot looked dim for the Dodgers. Though left-handed reliever Josh Hader had thrown three innings in Game 1, the Brewers still had Jeffress and Knebel ready.
Brewers manager Craig Counsell turned to Jeffress in the seventh, after the Dodgers scratched a run off reliever Corbin Burnes with a walk by Max Muncy, a single by Manny Machado and another single from Bellinger. who ended an 0-for-15 postseason skid with the RBI hit. A bloop single by Joc Pederson loaded the bases, and, after Yasiel Puig struck out swinging, Austin Barnes worked a full count against Jeffress.
Barnes knew Jeffress’ curveball “pops more than his other pitches” when it leaves the pitcher’s hand. He recognized the spin of a 3-2 bender. “I thought it was down,” Barnes said, and his intuition led to an RBI walk.
Inside the dugout, Roberts smacked the railing and swore when Yasmani Grandal grounded into an inning-ending double play. The manager would smile in the eighth, with Jeffress still in the game. An infield single by Taylor set up Turner. The situation revealed a central aspect of Turner’s stardom: He can recognize the intersection between his own ability and the requirements of his team. He can do what needs to be done.
“I’ve been around a lot of hitters who are really in tune with their mechanics,” Friedman said. “I’ve been around a lot of hitters who are really in tune with their approach. It’s rare to find somebody who can marry the two as effectively as he does.”
The night before, Friedman spotted Turner in the trainer’s room. The brief visit reassured Friedman that his third baseman would not dwell on his four strikeouts. Turner was philosophical about the outing. He recalled some advice from former teammate A.J. Ellis. Turner had played in 974 games without a four-strikeout night. He chose to embrace the milestone of his 975th game.
“It’s something A.J. used to tell guys: ‘Fortunately, I’m lucky enough to play in that many games to have the opportunity to strike out four times in a game,’” Turner said.
He would not strike out Saturday. In the eighth, with Taylor at first, Jeffress missed inside with a fastball. He lost a splitter low. The next splitter snapped into the path of Turner’s barrel. It was a cannon blast, bound for the seats in left. Turner savored the sensation and skipped around the bases.
While Jeffress described Turner as “lucky” for the homer, Turner muted his own volume when he met with reporters afterward. He praised Taylor for getting on base ahead of him. He described the necessity of moving forward after this success, just as he had moved past the failure in Game 1. He did what the Dodgers needed him to do.
“He personifies,” Roberts said, “everything that I believe in as a baseball player, as a professional.”