MILWAUKEE — The Brewers’ penchant for being unconventional helped earn them a victory in their first postseason game in seven years Thursday.
Instead of taking the traditional route and going with their best starter in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Rockies, Brewers manager Craig Counsell chose instead to ask his relievers to get 27 outs.
The Crew’s bullpen wound up having to get three additional outs, but the Milwaukee’s 3-2, 10-inning victory turned out almost exactly as Counsell had scripted it.
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Counsell raised a few eyebrows by choosing to begin the series with a bullpen game after the Athletics had tried the same tactic and failed in Wednesday’s AL wild-card game against the Yankees, but he wasn’t swayed.
“We’re going to ask some guys to do some different things,” Counsell said before Thursday’s game. “You can’t necessarily think like that during the regular season, but I think a playoff series with off-days allows you to think a little differently.”
Counsell’s plan worked perfectly for the first 24 outs. Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, Corey Knebel, and Josh Hader had combined to hold the Rockies to one hit, a two-out triple by Carlos Gonzalez in the fifth inning. Closer Jeremy Jeffress, who said afterward that he was surprised to hear that Counsell was going with a bullpen game, came on for the ninth looking to record the last three outs and protect a two-run lead.
It didn’t happen that way. Jeffress, who had allowed only a handful of base hits in September, gave up three in the frame. Those seeing-eye singles, plus an error and a sacrifice fly, tied the game. Seeing Counsell’s plan potentially unraveling, Jeffress refused to cave and limited the damage to those two runs.
“You can’t really dwell on that s—. It’s just what happens,” Jeffress said. “You know, results are results, and you’ve just got to keep going.”
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Jeffress said he’s all for more bullpen games.
“I loved it, dude,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. As long as we win, it doesn’t matter who starts, finishes, doesn’t matter, at all.”
It was easy for Counsell to stick with the bullpen for eight innings with everything working perfectly, but after the Rockies tied the game in the ninth, he had starter Gio Gonzalez warm up in preparation for a long night. He said he might have turned to Gonzalez sooner had his plan not worked out of the gate.
“You’ve got to treat the game as a living, breathing organism,” Counsell said. “The game went according to plan. It doesn’t always, and you’ve got to be ready for it.”
The win was completed by some of the players Milwaukee added as part of its unconventional roster construction during the past year. The front office was criticized in the offseason for not adding starting pitching after acquiring outfielders Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain. Even at the July 31 deadline, it just added bats and relief arms. Gonzalez came over at the Aug. 31 deadline.
Joakim Soria, one of those relief arms, pitched the top of the 10th and recorded outs 28 through 30. Yelich, Curtis Granderson and Mike Moustakas combined for the walkoff run in the bottom half, with Moustakas singling home Yelich. Moustakas was added in July, Granderson in August.
Milwaukee’s bullpen-game success in Game 1 allows Counsell to better set up his starting pitching, which has been one of the club’s weaknesses. Jhoulys Chacin, who started the Brewers’ Central Division tiebreaker vs. the Cubs on Monday, will take the ball in Game 2 on Friday against Tyler Anderson.
The Brewers may need to continue being unconventional to make a deep postseason run, but that seems to be built into the team’s fabric.
“That’s the epitome of who we are,” said Ryan Braun, the only player on the roster who was around when Milwaukee was last in the playoffs, in 2011. “That’s how we’ve gotten here, and I don’t think we’re going to start doing anything different now.”