Brewers starting pitchers don’t mind giving way to stellar bullpen

October 9, 2018

MILWAUKEE — Starting pitchers, by nature, want the ball in their hands for as long as possible.

Even in this day of modern “bullpenning” — when managers prefer to limit the exposure of their starters and rely more on using versatile, multi-inning relievers earlier and more frequently — starting pitchers still take the mound every five days with the hope of covering six or seven innings before handing the ball off to close out a victory.

But Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell has taken the concept up a notch, regularly turning to his relievers as early as the fourth or fifth innings.

It’s certainly not something a manager would do with an ace such as Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander, but the Brewers don’t have such a rock in the rotation. Milwaukee instead has been relying on an unheralded and often unappreciated group of starters — or “initial out-getters,” as Counsell would prefer to call them — who have embraced the concept.

And considering how well Milwaukee’s relievers have performed this year, the starters don’t mind turning over the ball, grabbing a seat in the dugout and watching what comes next.

“This is the best bullpen I have ever seen put together in the big leagues,” veteran left-hander Gio Gonzalez said. “They’re so happy to be here, and they’re enjoying every bit of it, but when the phone rings, they turn the switch on and go into another gear.

“It’s unreal.”

Longtime starter Gonzalez was in the midst of the most frustrating season of his big league career when the Brewers acquired him in an Aug. 31 trade with the Washington Nationals. While Counsell figured out the best way to utilize the team’s newest asset, Gonzalez spent time with the relief corps and got a first-hand look at how the group goes about its business.

To say he was impressed would be an understatement, especially after that group stymied Colorado’s potent offense in a three-game sweep of the National League Division Series.

Not including a three-inning stint by Brandon Woodruff, a reliever who opened Game 1 in what Counsell declared a “bullpen day,” Milwaukee’s relievers were magnificent against the Rockies, allowing just two runs — the only two given up in the entire series — on eight hits while striking out 22 in 15⅓ innings.

“What these guys have done this series, it’s just been unbelievable,” Gonzalez said.

But the starters held up their end of the bargain, too. Woodruff set the tone in Game 1, throwing three no-hit innings before handing things off. Jhoulys Chacin came back on short rest for Game 2 and blanked Colorado for five innings while Wade Miley worked 4⅔ scoreless inning and struck out a pair to get things started in the decisive third game on Sunday.

Performances such as that only encourage Milwaukee’s offense, especially when it generates an early lead as it did Sunday in the clincher at Coors Field. Including the playoffs, the Brewers are 75-28 when scoring first this season, 81-3 when leading after seven innings and 85-3 when ahead through eight.

“It is amazing,” outfielder Ryan Braun said. “It becomes difficult to describe.

“The thing is, there are so many guys contributing. Three or four guys get the majority of the attention but Corbin Burnes, look at the way he’s throwing the ball right now. Look at the way Brandon Woodruff is throwing the ball right now. Those guys are as good as anybody in baseball.

“(Josh) Hader has been doing it all year, (Jeremy Jeffress) has been doing it all year. Corey Knebel was the best reliever in baseball last year. But we’re six or seven deep out there. We have so much confidence in all of those guys.

“It’s difficult to explain. It’s almost impossible to expect it to continue, but they just keep pitching their absolute best when it matters most.”

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