MILWAUKEE — Ryan Braun slid across home plate and raised his arms in sheer joy.
A big lead, a bruising bullpen and a boisterous crowd have the Milwaukee Brewers all set up for Game 7.
Jesus Aguilar sparked Milwaukee’s slumping lineup with three RBIs on a pair of two-out hits, and the Brewers beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 7-2 on Friday night to even the NL Championship Series at three games each.
“I don’t think about me. The most important thing, at the end of the day, is win games,” said Aguilar, who had driven in just two runs in the playoffs. “Tomorrow it can be somebody else. Tonight, it was me.”
Game 7 is Saturday night in front of the same frenzied crowd that booed Manny Machado vociferously after he tangled with Aguilar while the series was in Los Angeles. Dodgers rookie Walker Buehler faces journeyman Jhoulys Chacin, with well-rested relief ace Josh Hader looming in the bullpen for Milwaukee after a surprise day off.
It’s the first Game 7 for the Brewers since losing to St. Louis in 1982 in their only World Series appearance. The Dodgers dropped Game 7 of the World Series last year to Houston.
“Got to get them tomorrow. We got one more game,” Machado said. “They played good baseball today. So, we just got to play a better one tomorrow.”
David Freese led off this Game 6 with a home run that quieted Miller Park — but just for a moment.
Backed by raucous fans waving yellow towels that read “ONE TOUGH CREW,” Milwaukee rebounded from consecutive losses at Dodger Stadium with the same formula it used to win the NL Central during a breakout season.
Some timely hitting by Aguilar and company produced an early lead, and Corey Knebel and Jeremy Jeffress led the way in another shutdown performance by Milwaukee’s tough bullpen.
“Anybody, anywhere, anytime,” Knebel said. “We’re ready to go.”
Los Angeles was looking for its second straight NL pennant and some time to prepare for the mighty Boston Red Sox in the World Series. But losing pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu was tagged for four runs in the first inning, two on a double by Aguilar that sent Braun sliding home.
After Wade Miley pitched into the fifth inning in his second straight start — he faced only one batter in Game 5 — Knebel, Jeffress and Corbin Burnes closed it out with hitless relief. Knebel got the win and Burnes retired the Dodgers in order in the ninth, setting off a wild celebration for the crowd of 43,619.
Manager Craig Counsell considered bringing in Hader, especially in the eighth, but Aguilar scored on a wild pitch in the seventh and singled in Lorenzo Cain in the eighth. The extra room helped persuade Counsell to give Hader another day of rest. The rocket-armed reliever hasn’t pitched since Tuesday in Game 4.
“Best-case scenario for sure for us,” Counsell said.
Freese drove in both runs for the Dodgers. The rest of the Los Angeles lineup managed just three measly singles. Hounded by boos all night long, Machado went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts.
“You know what? I’m focused on the game,” Machado said. “Try to go pitch by pitch, drive in runs. Do what we got to do on the field. We didn’t execute today.”
The 35-year-old Freese was a surprise choice for leadoff hitter by Dave Roberts, and he made his manager look quite good when he started the game with a drive to right-center for his ninth career postseason homer.
Freese also connected in the first inning of the previous NLCS Game 6 in Milwaukee, helping the Cardinals win the pennant in 2011. It was just his fourth time in the leadoff spot in his 10 years in the majors.
But the Brewers put together a quick response that set the tone for the rest of the night. With runners on first and second in the bottom half of the first, Aguilar lined an opposite-field double into the corner in right.
Mike Moustakas followed with another RBI double and scored on Erik Kratz’s single to make it 4-1. The Brewers managed just three runs in the previous two games in Los Angeles.
“It was huge to be able to answer back in the first inning after the homer,” Moustakas said. “One would have been great, two would have been awesome. To put up four right there just gives us a lot of confidence.”
Christian Yelich and Braun combined for another run with consecutive doubles in the second, and then it became a question of strategy for Roberts and Counsell with Game 7 on deck.
Roberts used starting pitcher Rich Hill in the eighth after Kenta Maeda struggled, staying away from key reliever Pedro Baez and closer Kenley Jansen. Counsell stayed with Knebel for five outs, giving him his first pro plate appearance with the bases loaded in the fifth — he struck out — and Burnes worked two perfect innings.
“There’s the thought of trying to go to your ’pen in the first inning or the second inning, but there’s a significant cost potentially for a potential Game 7,” Roberts said. “So I just felt that we needed to get some more innings out of Hyun-Jin to keep our highest leverage guys available for a potential Game 7.”