- Craig Counsell's innovative bullpen strategy, as well as his baseball life journey, has the manager and Brewers fully prepared for Game 7 of the NLCS.
MILWAUKEE — Game 7. The proper way to say it is with solemnity and a slight bow of the head in appreciation of the benevolence of the baseball gods. Today is a gift, a day that comes around less often than the Perseids, Christmas or your birthday.
Tonight the Dodgers and Brewers will decide the National League pennant with the 58th decisive Game 7 in the 115 years of the World Series era. The NL Championship Series distills seven months of baseball–345 games between the two teams–into one night of winner-take-all baseball for the league.
We are here because not only did Milwaukee beat Los Angeles in Game 6, 7-2, but also because Brewers manager Craig Counsell has managed rings around baseball convention.
The Dodgers veritably scoffed at Counsell’s bullpen plans. Over a seven-game series, they sneered, fatigue and familiarity would doom the relief machinations of Counsell. They were dead wrong.
The Brewers reached Game 7 with a fully rested bullpen–only Game 6 star Corbin Burnes is not in play–and most importantly that includes uber-reliever Josh Hader, who with two days off is available for three innings tonight.
With at least two days of rest this year, Hader is 5-0 with a 2.07 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 65.1 innings.
Why the Dodgers or anybody should be surprised at this development is a mystery. This is how Milwaukee has done it all year. The Brewers asked 614 innings out of their bullpen in the regular season; no team has ever advanced this far with so much use. And their starters have thrown five innings or less 91 times, tying the 2016 Dodgers for the most abbreviated starts of any postseason team in history–including all nine postseason games.
Yet the Milwaukee bullpen is so deep and Counsell so deft at deploying it that its use over this series or even the year is a non-issue.
In Game 6, Counsell asked his bullpen to protect a three-run lead over 14 outs. Not only did the relievers seal the deal, but they also did not even allow a hit–and none of them were named Hader. Corey Knebel, Jeremy Jeffress and Burnes were so good they gave Hader the night off. Counsell has promised before the series that for his team to go to the World Series it would have to win one game without using Hader. It got it Friday night.
“We’re in good shape,” Counsell said. “Right where we want to be.”
Few men know the import of Game 7 as intimately as does Counsell. He was in the middle of two walkoff World Series Game 7 rallies: 1997 with the Florida Marlins and 2001 with the Arizona Diamondbacks. He is one of only 20 men in baseball history with as many as 10 plate appearances in Game 7 wins.
I asked him if he thought home field created an advantage in a Game 7.
“Well, I thought it mattered tonight [in Game 6],” he said. “So yes.”
Especially, I reminded him, if the game is close. The advantage of batting last is that once the game gets to the ninth inning tied, the home team does not have to defend a lead.
“True, true,” he said.
Home field mattered in Game 6 because of Manny Machado, whose leg-clipping of Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar in Game 4 made him a villain here. The Brewers fell behind in Game 6 when David Freese led off the game with a home run, the kind of punch in the mouth that can deflate a nervous crowd when its team is facing elimination. But three batters later, the mere announcement of Machado’s name for his at-bat brought life—and malevolence—back in the building.
“When they booed Manny, oh, man, it was like nothing I ever heard before,” Milwaukee starting pitcher Wade Miley said. “It was so loud standing there on the mound. The noise was so loud, it jolted your heartbeat.”
Miley whiffed Machado, and the crowd responded with equal decibels of joy to match the disdain that had greeted his mere name. Machado had been forced to pay a $10,000 fine to MLB for his unsportsmanlike conduct, but in roundabout way, the Dodgers also were paying for it in Game 6. With the crowd back at it in full throttle, the Brewers busted loose with four runs in their first at-bat against Hyun-Jin Ryu—more than they had scored in their previous 22 turns at bat.
The four runs scored on three straight pitches: a two-run double by Aguilar on an outside changeup and a double by Mike Moustakas and a single by Eric Kratz, both on first-pitch curveballs.
“We did a good job of taking what they gave us,” said Aguilar, who had three hits, all of them to the opposite field. “They’ve been pitching me away the whole series. I just took what they gave me.”
Ryu had thrown 83 first-pitch curveballs this year and allowed just one hit. Yet Moustakas and Kratz jumped him back-to-back for more first-pitch hits on hooks than he had allowed all year. The looping, first-pitch curve is designed to get a first-pitch called strike. The Brewers hit Ryu as if they knew what was coming.
“Maybe you’re right,” Kratz said with a smile. “Maybe we did know what was coming. We do are homework.”
It also helped the Brewers that Ryu’s curveball was popping up out of his hand, an early tip that a curveball was coming. Braun later whacked another pop-up curve for a double.
“I was sitting on heater,” Moustakas said. “I saw curveball out of his hand and had time to react.”
The first inning was a snowball running downhill. The Dodgers couldn’t stop the crowd or the Brewers’ momentum. The game effectively was over.
Still, every Milwaukee game, because there are so many branches to Counsell’s “decision tree” of pitching, has some crisis point, and this one happened in the seventh inning. He entrusted his 5-2 lead to Jeffress, who has been shaky this postseason.
“If the lineup at that point had the lefties coming up, it would have been Hader,” Counsell said.
Instead, Jeffress started with Brian Dozier, a righthanded hitter, in the game because Dodgers manager Dave Roberts left him in after pinch-hitting in the pitcher’s spot. Roberts moved the pitcher’s spot only one spot at the cost of removing the hot-hitting Freese, a pricey switch.
Jeffress proceeded to pitch a 1-2-3 inning.
“That was huge,” Counsell said. “That was the key to the entire game.”
What if a runner had reached base?
“Hader’s in the game,” he said.
Likewise, Counsell avoided using Hader when Dodgers reliever Kenta Maeda wild-pitched a run home in the seventh, making the score 6-2. It allowed more breathing room.
Still, Counsell said, if Burnes had allowed one runner on, he would have brought in Hader. Yet Jeffress and Burnes were perfect, which meant Hader had the night off, which meant the Brewers are at full strength in Game 7.
There was a game 15 years ago that nobody paid much attention to, but has gained significance today. On Sept. 17, 2003, the Diamondbacks played the Dodgers. The game is noteworthy now because Counsell started at third base for Arizona, Roberts started in centerfield for the Dodgers and Alex Cora, now the manager of the American League champion Red Sox, started at second base for the Dodgers.
At the trade deadline the next year, Boston GM Theo Epstein was busy working on the trade to send Nomar Garciaparra out of town when he told one of his statistical analysts, Zach Scott, to come up with a list of four names the Red Sox might be able to acquire as a pinch-running specialist.
Scott came up with a list. Epstein handed it to one of his assistants, Josh Byrnes, and said, “Start making calls.”
Byrnes called Paul DePodesta of the Dodgers about Roberts, one of the names on Scott’s list. DePodesta came back with four names in the Boston farm system he liked. Epstein went through the list, refusing to give up the first, second and third names on DePodesta’s list. The fourth name was Henri Stanley, a minor league outfielder who had been in the Red Sox system only two months and was in his third organization.
“Do it,” Epstein said.
So the Red Sox traded Stanley to the Dodgers for Roberts.
Roberts stole the base against the Yankees in 2004 ALCS that launched the Red Sox’s comeback from down three games to none—capped with a win in Game 7. Stanley never made the majors. Byrnes now works for the Dodgers.
Counsell prepared his whole life for this game. He was born in South Bend, Ind., where his father, John, played and coached at Notre Dame in the 1960s and 70s. Craig grew up in Whitefish, Wisc., after John took a job in the community relations department of the Brewers. One of Craig’s jobs was to handle the fan mail of Robin Yount.
Pat Murphy, then the second-year coach at Notre Dame, recruited Craig there. He offered him a partial scholarship. Very partial: $750. Craig wound up as team captain, making the Counsells the only father-son combination to captain the Notre Dame baseball team.
“Coaches often get credited with developing players,” Murphy said. “In this case, Craig developed me.”
Murphy is now Counsell’s bench coach.
Counsell played 16 years, retiring at 40 years old. Like Roberts, he, too, once played for the Dodgers, a short run that ended in spring training in 2000. One day he was robbed of a hit by moonlighting singer Garth Brooks; the next day the Dodgers cut him. (He swears the events are unrelated.)
Five days later he was signed by Arizona’s GM, Joe Garagiola Jr., who had played freshman baseball at Notre Dame for … John Counsell. Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenley would call Craig the smartest player he’s ever been around.
A lifetime of baseball for Craig typically gets reduced to two days: Game 7 in 1997, when he tied to game with a sacrifice fly and scored the winning run, and Game 7 in 2001, when Mariano Rivera hit him with a pitch to load the bases with two outs. Counsell was on first when Luis Gonzalez blooped home the winning run.
Counsell returns to this baseball high holy day known as Game 7 for the first time since that night in the desert. Walker Buehler will start for the Dodgers and Jhoulys Chacin will start for the Brewers, which means Los Angeles has the edge in stuff and Milwaukee has the edge in experience. And Clayton Kershaw, as he did in World Series Game 7 last year, figures to come out of the bullpen for the Dodgers.
But this game is more about Counsell vs. Roberts than it is Buehler vs. Chacin. These games tend to managers’ games, because all the usual rules of engagement go out the window—if they haven’t already for these Brewers.
Counsell compromised Game 5 because he knew “this was always going to be the toughest game for us,” because it’s the one time in the series the clubs play three straight days, which can tax a bullpen. When Game 4 went 13 innings, levying an even bigger tax, Counsell smartly played the gambit of the decoy starter in Game 5, pulling Miley after one batter.
His decision was to play to his strengths in Games 6 and 7 rather than exhaust his best arms in Game 5. He placed his chips on playing at home, having Miley and Chacin on full rest, and an off day entering this pair of games. So far so good. Already 2-0 in Game 7s, Counsell brought this series to its limit, arriving here with all he could have wanted when it began.