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Tom Oates: Brewers’ cutting-edge approach pays off against old-school Dodgers in Game 1 of NLCS

October 13, 2018

MILWAUKEE − The National League Championship Series was a clear-cut case of baseball opposites attracting.

Extra-large market versus teency-weency market.

Storied franchise versus traditional also-ran.

Six-time division champion versus a team emerging from a major rebuild.

None of those things mattered when the Los Angeles Dodgers and Milwaukee Brewers opened the NLCS Friday night before a roaring sellout crowd at Miller Park, but this one most certainly did:

Old-school baseball versus cutting-edge analytics.

With their stellar starting rotation, the Dodgers adhere to baseball’s time-honored approach to pitching, letting the starter go as deep into the game as possible before turning it over to late-inning relief specialists. And with three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw starting Game 1 against the Brewers, who could blame them?

“It’s still hard to bet against good quality starting pitching for me,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said earlier in the week.

Under manager Craig Counsell, the Brewers have flipped that script, however. Their strength is their bullpen and Counsell has spent the season testing new and sometimes controversial ways to employ the team’s deep, talented relief corps.

“We have to think about things differently because of the talents of some of the players on our team,” Counsell said. “That’s all we’re trying to do.”

The truth is, the Brewers are surfing a wave that threatens to swamp traditional baseball thinking. Other teams are dabbling in it as well, but by consistently limiting his starters to two turns through the batting order (if that), using his high-leverage relievers in unconventional and ever-changing roles and even eschewing a traditional starter in favor of a shared “bullpen game,” Counsell is relying on modern analytics to redefine pitching in the major leagues.

Whether that’s out of necessity or by design, it has been instrumental in turning Milwaukee into the hottest team in the game at the time of year when it matters most.

The best bullpen in baseball made Counsell look smart again Friday, taking the ball from starter Gio Gonzalez after two innings and keeping the power-laden Dodgers at bay for the rest of the way in a 6-5 victory that pushed Milwaukee’s winning streak to 12 games. It was only one game, so it in no way proved which approach to pitching is better, but getting off to a good start, especially at home, is critical in a seven-game series and Counsell’s methods played a major role in the Brewers’ reaffirming victory.

That point was driven home when Kershaw, who averaged almost 17 wins per season from 2010 to 2017 and was 7-0 since late July this season, couldn’t get out of the fourth inning. The Brewers reached Kershaw for two runs in the third and three in the fourth as he recorded a mere nine outs.

Getting to Kershaw early was a bonus the Brewers didn’t expect. The rest of the game went according to plan − well, other than the eighth inning, when the Dodgers reached Xavier Cedeno, Joakim Soria and Jeremy Jeffress for three runs and mounted another threat in the ninth that put the tying run on third base. But those weren’t a failure of strategy, they were a failure of execution, possibly due to the team’s four-day layoff.

After using a bullpen game in the opener of the NL Division Series against Colorado, Counsell seemingly adopted a more traditional approach for the opener of the NLCS by starting Gonzalez, a career starter. However, it turned out to be a bullpen game in disguise.

Counsell’s approach is to get the lead in the first five innings and turn the game over to the bullpen, especially the threesome of Josh Hader, Corey Knebel and Jeffress, who have been virtually unhittable since early September. When Manny Machado touched Gonzalez for a home run leading off the second inning, the Brewers trailed for the first time in four postseason games.

But Counsell didn’t pull Gonzalez, a left-hander, after two innings because he gave up a home run, he did it because it was part of his plan. Brandon Woodruff entered in the third inning even though Gonzalez was due up first in the bottom of the inning.

Proving that everything Counsell touches turns to gold these days, he let Woodruff bat in the bottom of the third and the pitcher tied the game at 1-1 with a long home run. More important, putting a right-hander in caused Roberts to replace David Freese, a right-handed hitter, with Max Muncy, who hits lefty, after only one at-bat. Freese has battered Brewers pitching over the years dating back to 2011, when he won the NLCS MVP award as St. Louis eliminated Milwaukee.

Counsell then replaced Woodruff after two innings even though he had struck out the last four batters he faced, all in the heart of the Dodgers order. That got the game to Hader, who pitched three scoreless innings as the Brewers built up a 6-1 lead.

In all, the Brewers used seven of the 12 pitchers they put on the NLCS roster, one more than they had in the NLDS. The only question is whether Counsell’s bullpen-first strategy can work over a seven-game, nine-day series.

We’ll find out because Counsell has no reason to change something that has worked so well.

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