- It's easy to imagine what could have happened had Craig Counsell let starter Wade Miley stay in the game. But Counsell shouldn't change his approach after what did happen.
MILWAUKEE — “I mean, look. You’re either too early or too late. At some point, you’ve got to make a decision.”
Brewers manager Craig Counsell had been asked about the philosophy behind pulling his starter. His statement was, in a vacuum, hard to argue against. The pitching change is a science that inevitably includes a little bit of art; it’s a process built for a hyper-finicky Goldilocks, with no guaranteed option of a comfortable middle ground. Perfection isn’t possible, and the judgment exists in the land of the hypothetical. What could have happened is measured against what did happen. It does not necessarily matter if what did happen is good or bad or somewhere in the middle. There’s always something better—a run saved, a pitcher rested, a strategy guarded—that could have happened.
Here is what did happen in the Brewers' 4-3 loss in Game 2 of the NLCS: Milwaukee’s Wade Miley allowed one hit in the first inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers, facing his second batter of the day. He retired the next 16. The 31-year-old groundballer cruised through five innings and into the sixth, relying on the cutter that’s brought him so much success this season. With two outs in the sixth, he threw a 2-2 fastball to Chris Taylor. It yielded a bloop single to centerfield, Miley’s second baserunner of the night. Counsell pulled him.
If the decision sounds unthinkable—well, it would have been, for almost any other team in any other year. Until Saturday, there had only been one starter in postseason history who had been pulled before he could finish the sixth despite not allowing any runs or walks, with two or fewer hits. That situation was unique, to say the least: Ryan Merritt, the rookie called upon as a last-minute replacement to make a start for injury-ravaged Cleveland in the 2016 ALCS. This was different. The Brewers weren’t backed into this move as an emergency cover plan. This was their plan, and it’s precisely this plan that helped land them in the playoffs. The team’s success was built on leveraging the depth of its bullpen and being flexible with relievers’ roles. It was built on decisions like this one—pulling a pitcher at the first hint of trouble, before he had a chance to move three times through the order.
Here is what did happen: It didn’t work. Milwaukee had exhausted much of its ‘pen in Game 1, running through seven pitchers. Counsell replaced Miley with arguably his best fresh option, Corbin Burnes. After quickly wrapping the sixth inning, though, the rookie melted. A leadoff walk, followed by one single and then another, scoring the lead runner. Counsell called to make a change. This time, he went with a riskier choice: Jeremy Jeffress. The All-Star reliever had pitched in each of the team’s postseason games so far, and he’d struggled in all but one of them. In Game 1, Jeffress entered with the bases loaded and promptly gave up back-to-back singles, allowing all three runs to score. After Game 1 and again just before Game 2, Counsell insisted that Jeffress was fine. It had been soft contact, he’d said, “bad fortune.” He claimed that he had no concerns, and clearly, he meant that. Otherwise, it’d be just about indefensible to turn to him with two men on and none out.
It turned out looking indefensible, anyway. Jeffress first gave up a single to load the bases. Then, he struck out Yasiel Puig. On paper, it should have been easy from here—the bottom of the order, starting with light-hitting catcher Austin Barnes. Jeffress got him to a full count; next, he served up a sweeping curveball. Barnes didn’t fall for it. The reliever had just walked in a run, cutting Milwaukee’s lead to 3-2.
Here is what did happen: Counsell stuck with him. Jeffress finished the inning by inducing a double play, and he came out again for the eighth. He began with a single to Chris Taylor, a soft groundball. Justin Turner was up next. Jeffress missed inside on the first pitch, and he missed low on the second. On a 2-0 count, he missed in the worst spot of all—right over the middle. The ball was gone. So was Milwaukee’s lead, and it wasn’t coming back.
Here is what did happen: The Brewers lost. With the series tied at one, they head to Los Angeles.
Here is what could have happened: Miley could have had the best game of his career. He has never allowed fewer than three baserunners in a start, however brief—not even when he was 2012 Miley, All-Star Miley, Rookie-of-the-Year-candidate Miley. The Taylor single could have been just a momentary blip, and he could have cruised through the rest of the sixth and seventh, maybe even the eighth. He was at 74 pitches when he was pulled, giving him plenty of room to work. The Brewers’ dependence on this bullpen strategy means that he is used to getting pulled early, he said after the game. But that doesn’t mean that it’s simple.
“I don’t think it’s ever easier, because obviously you want to be in the game,” Miley said. “But at the same time, I think there’s more understanding. With the bullpen that we have now, as effective as they’ve been all year long, you trust them.”
Here is what could have happened: Miley could have blown it, struggling the third time through the order. A perfectly conventional way to lose a baseball game, if not any less painful of one.
Here is what could have happened: Jeffress could have done something, anything, to avoid the game-winning home run. It was the 196th time that he had thrown his splitter this year, and it was the first that he had seen the ball leave the yard, which made it just the latest in a string of bad pitches that have haunted him throughout this postseason. But Jeffress said that he is healthy—“Right now, I feel great,” he told reporters after the game— and Counsell said that he has no concerns about the reliever. “For me, J.J. made one bad pitch today, and it cost him,” the manager said, noting that he’d also made plenty of “really good pitches.” For Jeffress, it was not just one bad pitch. It was bad luck. He was sure of it.
“I don’t need to tell nobody, man. If I say it’s lucky, that means it’s lucky,” Jeffress said. “Everybody sees a lucky hit. It is. It just is.”
Here is what could have happened: Anything. Christian Yelich could have hit a game-winning home run, with a man in scoring position and two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Jesús Aguilar could have done anything other than strike out to strand two men in the fifth inning. Anything.
Here is what did happen: The Brewers have embraced a bullpen strategy that allows for extreme flexibility, an unconventionally modular pitching staff. That flexibility introduces a slew of additional variables. There is more opportunity for the perfect match-up, for covering up a bad day, for limiting statistical liability. There is also more opportunity for fatigue, for exposure, for damage. There is little routine. There are more places to consider the split between did happen and could have happened. A manager has more chances to be too early or too late.
In Game 2, Counsell wasn’t on time.