Despite Late-Game Slip, Brewers Find Success With Bullpen-Only Approach vs. Rockies

After the A's faltered in their bullpen-only approach with the Yankees, the Brewers mirrored Oakland's plan and fared significantly better. They allowed only one hit through eight innings before closer Jeremy Jeffress melted down in the ninth. Still, after a scoreless 10th, Mike Moustakas won it on a walk-off single.
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MILWAUKEE — Brandon Woodruff got the news after the Brewers’ afternoon workout on Wednesday, once he was showered and packed up and ready to head home. Manager Craig Counsell called him into his office. The righthanded starter-turned-minor-leaguer-turned-reliever had known for 24 hours already that Thursday’s game would be a bullpen start. He had less than 24 hours, then, to process that he’d be getting the ball first.

In that time, the 25-year-old from Tupelo, Mississippi prioritized routine. He spent Wednesday evening with his wife, deriving no more or no less interest in the Oakland A’s bullpen start that would transpire that night at Yankee Stadium than any other bystander. He watched the first bit of the American League Wild Card game—the worst bit for anyone advocating what the Brewers were about to unleash—and then he mellowed. “There’s no sense in switching up that routine,” he said. So on Thursday, he stuck to his typical pregame warmup, stuck to it down to the very last detail.

That’s right: The man who started Milwaukee’s first playoff game since Oct. 16, 2011 ran to the mound from the Brewers’ left-centerfield bullpen.

The optics were insane. The pitching was lights-out. Woodruff tossed three hitless innings, walking one and earning every bit of Counsell’s pregame praise. “Woody is ... not a reliever,” the manager said Thursday afternoon. “He has the ability to do more than that, if that's what the game calls for.”

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When Woodruff was pulled for a pinch-hitter, Domingo Santana, in the third inning, righthander Corbin Burnes followed for the fourth and fifth, allowing the Rockies the only hit they’d log until the ninth. Corey Knebel and Josh Hader combined for the next three frames, holding Colorado’s offense hitless, and all Jeremy Jeffress’s three-hit, two-run ninth proved was that it’s still incredibly difficult to close a tight postseason game.

Though Jeffress allowed the Rockies to tie things up, Counsell trusted the righty to get out of the inning, which he did with a fielder’s choice and then a strikeout of Trevor Story. Colorado went hitless in the 10th against Joakim Soria, and when Mike Moustakas’s walkoff single sent fans for the exits, Counsell’s pitching experiment was vindicated. It may not have been the 27 outs he hoped for, but 30 and a 3-2 win did the trick. Milwaukee’s trust that what it did best in September would also work in October—and maybe even work better—paid off.

“I think it's part of the strengths of this team that we're trying to take advantage of,” Counsell said. “At this time of the year, the off-days, you know, the all-hands-on-deck mentality that you're able to take because it's a five-game season essentially, you can think about (pitching) differently. And that does mean we're going to ask some guys to do some different things.”

In 2018, the Brewers’ bullpen had the second-lowest ERA of any National League team, 3.47, and batters hit just .230 against Milwaukee’s relievers. The group pitched 614 innings, too, more than any NL team but the Padres, so not only was it stingy, it worked. And in the postseason, when everything matters and anything goes, the bullpen might be the Brewers’ biggest asset—as important, at least, as the man for whom Miller Park chanted M-V-P at every at-bat, outfielder Christian Yelich, who scored Thursday’s winning run.

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 “We want it,” Jeffress said of the playoff spotlight. “We want the ball.”

Going forward, it’ll be fascinating to see how Counsell deploys his bullpen, both on Friday in relief of Jhoulys Chacin on short rest, and potentially in another tag-team start down the line. The method to the madness, it seems, is one part Woodruff’s routine and another chaos, the sense that after that first guy, who knows what comes next. In the interview room postgame, Counsell referred to the game as a “living, breathing organism”—and that’s apparent in how he deploys his arms. Jeffress laughed in the clubhouse; he said he had no idea he’d be the guy to get the ball for a potential save.

It could drive a man insane—but these Brewers love it. They’re greedy, even, for the ball, to take their inning or two or three and spin them into something memorable. “We want to outdo each other,” Woodruff said, “and I think that’s a big part of coming out and competing.”

And so not 24 hours after Oakland’s attempt at a bullpen start sputtered and sent the team home—the A’s pitched six men, allowing seven hits, seven runs and four walks—Milwaukee navigated the maze to victory. It did it efficiently, too; had Jeffress not stumbled, it’d have played just five pitchers, and Woodruff’s 48 pitches were the most of the bunch. In an era when teams are anything but shy to open up the outfield door to get a postseason win—according to STATS, 11 different playoff games since 2010 have seen one team send seven or more guys to the mound—the Brewers have five pitchers on their NLDS roster who saw no action Thursday afternoon.

Before his 10th-inning at-bat, Moustakas got his deep, echoing “Mooooooose” cheer. After bat hit ball, he got the frenzied yells. Yelich got his chant. The Brewers’ relievers were in the dugout by then, an afterthought to the scene, maybe, but undoubtedly the architects of the win.