Inside the Madness of Craig Counsell’s Brilliant Bullpen Management

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LOS ANGELES — If you don’t like the Milwaukee Brewers you don’t like suspense novels, surprise movie endings and scratch-off lottery tickets. Watching them play baseball, or more accurately, watching their manager, Craig Counsell, run a game is like reading a first draft of James Joyce. It may be confusing, you never know where it’s going, but it will be thrilling.

“Scripted! Scripted!” shouted his bench coach, Pat Murphy, as he strolled through the clubhouse after the Brewers used five pitchers to shut out the Dodgers Monday, 4-0, and take a two games to one lead in the National League Championship Series.

He said it with the wryest smile imaginable, of course, because Counsell and the Brewers have no use for convention. Game 4 looked like just another night at The Improv.

In the history of postseason baseball no manager had ever gerrymandered three shutouts with at least five pitchers each time. Now Counsell has done it three times in his first six times running a postseason game.

“I’ve given up trying to follow him,” second baseman Travis Shaw said.

“What he’s done with the bullpen these last three weeks,” said catcher Stephen Vogt, “is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s been masterful. The guy never misses a move.”

This is the way the Brewers roll: about 20 minutes after Game 3 almost all of them had no idea who was starting Game 4.

“Uh, Woody?” guessed Shaw, thinking of Brandon Woodruff.


“I don’t know. Who is it?” pitcher Wade Miley said. “I know they told me before the game I have Game 5. That’s pretty funny, isn’t it? We know who’s pitching Game 5 but we don’t know who’s pitching Game 4. Whatever.”

Who’s pitching Game 4?

“Me,” Gio Gonzalez said. “I just found out. [Counsell] just told me in here after the game.”

Now stop and think about that choice. In trying to reach only their second World Series in franchise history, the Brewers are starting Gonzalez in two of the first four NLCS games. That’s the same Gio Gonzalez who ranked 43rd among 57 qualifiers in ERA (4.21) and dead last in throwing strikes (60.8%) and has never won a postseason start in seven tries while posting a 4.76 ERA–which in Brewers-speak probably means they win both starts, having already done so in Game 1.

“And he might go two innings again,” Miley said. “It may not look like it at times but we all trust our manager, even the starters. We know we have a great bullpen, and he’s not afraid to use it. He’s been pushing the right buttons for a month now.”

Gonzalez spent Game 3 in the bullpen, as did Woodruff, who was another candidate to start Game 4. Gonzalez makes sense, at least to Counsell, because he’s lefthanded and can force Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts, as he did in Game 1, to keep the 83 home runs of Max Muncy, Joc Pederson and Yasiel Puig out of the starting lineup. And when Muncy and Pederson do come off the bench, Counsell has uber-reliever Josh Hader to neutralize them–and anybody else in his way.

“I’ll do whatever they want here,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve said it since I got here: be ready and be on your toes at all times. That’s what I do. Whatever they need me to do, I’ll do.”

Here’s what Counsell did in Game 3:

• Put Corey Knebel in the game in the sixth inning to protect a 2-0 lead–only the fifth time he used him that early with a lead.

• Used Hader with a four-run lead–something he had done just five times all year.

• Left Jeremy Jeffress in to survive a harrowing ninth inning in which the tying run came to the plate twice.

“The whole night,” Counsell said, “was set up by [Jhoulys] Chacín. He was masterful.”

The last time he stepped on the mound at Dodger Stadium, back on Aug. 2, Chacín gave up nine runs. Only four visiting pitchers ever yielded more in the history of the game’s third-oldest ballpark. Moreover, his 4.96 ERA at Dodger Stadium was the ballpark’s sixth worst among those with at least 60 innings here–the worst among all active pitchers.

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Naturally, in this upside-down world of the Brewers, he pitched a gem: 5 1/3 shutout innings with three hits. Chacín doesn’t get enough credit for throwing one of the game’s best put-away pitches: his slider. Batters hit just .082 off the Chacín slider with two strikes. Only Charlie Morton’s curveball (.061) and Chris Sale’s slider (.081) are nastier pitches with two strikes.

But to call Chacín’s slider a singular pitch would be a mistake. He varies the speed on the pitch from 78 to 83 miles per hour, he varies his arm angle, he throws it to both side of the plate, and he even changes his delivery before throwing it. In the third inning, for example, he got Muncy on a two-strike slider after slide-stepping out of the windup–and legal quick pitch–and in the sixth struck him out on a two-strike slider after holding his leg kick for an extra beat or two–the inverse of the quick pitch.

When Chacin signed a two-year, $15.5 million free agent deal last December (he is this year’s Morton), the Brewers became his seventh team in a span of 37 months. He quickly became the staff ace, such as the Brewers allow one. Chacín led the league with 35 starts, but he set a “record” for fewest innings in baseball history with 35 or more starts: 192 2/3, breaking the previous “record” of Sterling Hitchcock of the 1996 Mariners (196.2).

Counsell is the Admiral Hook of managers. No manager of a playoff team ever allowed his starters to face fewer batters a third time in a game (660). Only Bob Melvin of Oakland this year ever made the playoffs by getting so many innings out of relievers than did Counsell (614).

In the postseason, Counsell has let his starters face a batter for a third time just seven times. His starters have given up just 25 2/3 innings in six games–an average of 4 1/3 innings per start–but they have a 0.35 ERA (one earned run allowed) and the team is 5-1. Counsell never allows a starter to let the game get away, which is what Roberts did in Game 3.

Roberts let his pitcher, Walker Buehler, bat in the fifth inning against Chacín, down 1-0 with the tying run on second base and one out. Buehler struck out. Roberts said he wanted two more innings out of Buehler and, with an all-righthanded bench, didn’t like his options against Chacín. It wasn’t an egregious choice, but I have to let David Freese take that at-bat and not waste a run-scoring chance, which is what Roberts did.

In the seventh, Roberts paid again for a slow hook. He let Buehler remain on the mound 95 pitches into the game in what has been the longest season of the rookie’s life–161 2/3 innings. Catcher Erik Kratz had just doubled on a flat slider. Roberts didn’t even have a righthanded pitcher warming to face Orlando Arcia and Hernán Pérez, the next two hitters.

Buehler had handled the aggressive-swinging Arcia with a high fastball to strike him out his previous time at-bat. So Buehler went back to the same pitch. But Arcia adjusted and barreled it over the wall in rightfield. In today’s bullpen world a manager should never let a starter–not a rookie starter, anyway–let a game get out of hand as late as the seventh inning, but that’s what happened.

Up four, Counsell could have tried to negotiate the final nine outs without using Hader, but he didn’t–not that he didn’t think about it.

“We thought about riding [Joakim] Soria,” Counsell said, referring to the veteran who took over from Knebel to start the eighth. “And then if he ran into trouble we could get Hader up. But you don’t want to wait for trouble. And we knew their lefthanded lineup was in and if they flipped it for Hader then we had all righthanded relievers behind him.”

Nothing makes Counsell bolder than the mere option of having Hader. He’s the most important piece on the chessboard of the entire postseason. The way he is throwing the ball right now he is not just retiring hitters with ease, but also he is embarrassing them.

Roberts’ righthanded pinch hitters, Freese and Matt Kemp, went down swinging in at-bats in which they saw nothing but fastballs. The Dodgers have swung at Hader’s fastball 28 times. They missed 15 times. Roberts talks about fatigue and familiarity swinging to his favor over a long series, but if Hader keeps throwing like this those will be empty wishes.

Counsell said before Game 3 that his team would have to find one win in this series without using Hader. But with Hader having thrown just eight pitches in Game 3, Counsell could conceivably use him in a way he never has done all season: three days in a row.

“Really, this game for him, with eight pitches, was like just getting up in the pen,” Counsell said. “We’ll see, but it does open up some options.”

Wisely, Counsell pulled Hader rather than have him pitch the ninth with a four-run lead, which is not exactly a high-leverage spot. Jeffress, though, turned it into one by allowing two hits and walk before striking out Yasmani Grandal and Brian Dozier.

“My reasoning,” Counsell said for pulling Hader, “was that we’ve got a four-run lead and we’ve got J.J. on the mound. I’ll take that any day.”

Some of the greats of the mound have started a Game 4 at Dodger Stadium after starting Game 1 in the same series: Whitey Ford and Sandy Koufax (1963), Don Drysdale (1965), Don Sutton (1974), Fernando Valenzuela (1981) and Clayton Kershaw (2013 and 2016). To that esteemed list you can add Gio Gonzalez–who might well face eight batters again, as he did in Game 1.

If you’ve been paying attention to what Counsell and the Brewers have been doing for the past month, you stop questioning the madness. The Brewers have lost one game in the past 23 days. They haven’t lost two straight games in 29 days. They haven’t lost a game by more than three runs in 51 days, since Aug. 25.

They are in every game they play, and they usually win it. One of these days, we won’t be surprised any more.

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