MILWAUKEE – There’s a postseason playoff series going on featuring two very evenly-matched teams. In fact, from a pitching standpoint, it’s almost impossible to tell them apart.
Team A has a 2.81 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP.
Team B has a 2.83 ERA and 1.15 WHIP.
Team A has 52 strikeouts in 48 innings, Team B 61 strikeouts in 47 2/3 innings.
Team A has given up 16 runs, as has Team B.
What if you found out Team A was the Los Angeles Dodgers, who trotted out future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw twice, along with dominant rookie Walker Buehler and reliable veteran Rich Hill to start the first five games of the National League Championship Series?
And that Team B was the Milwaukee Brewers, who are deploying starting pitchers as much for misdirection and matchup optimizing as out-getting?
In some quarters, the Brewers’ approach is viewed as an affront to baseball, that the intentional starting and lifting of lefty Wade Miley after one batter in Game 5 of the NLCS was a classless crescendo to an era of analytics gone mad.
If you must, cast them as the pariahs in this clash of two of the brainiest organizations in baseball.
The numbers, however, spin a different narrative: That there’s two altogether different routes that can lead to the same destination.
Certainly, the starting pitcher as we know it is an endangered species. There are fewer 200-inning pitchers every season – a new low of just 13 this season – as teams avoid the third-time-through-the-order penalty like the flu.
Yet, the Dodgers’ quartet, along with beastly aces like Chris Sale and Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole in the ALCS, show us that the more and greater horses you have, the likelier you’re still playing after the leaves turn.
The Brewers are showing us there’s more than one path there.
As Game 6 of the NLCS approaches Friday night at Miller Park, with the Dodgers needing just one win to advance to their second consecutive World Series, know this: Milwaukee’s opener/bullpenning/subterfuge gambit was an undeniable success.
Games 3, 4 and 5 – contested with no off days in between – represented the gauntlet the Brewers could not survive and yes, they lost two of three games at Dodger Stadium.
To blame that on their pitching, however, is incorrect. Jhoulys Chacin and four relievers tossed a shutout in Game 3. The next night, their bullpen hung 11 zeroes on the scoreboard, only for their offense to be similarly impotent against the Dodgers’ bullpen in a 2-1, 13-inning loss.
That Herculean effort ostensibly should have wiped them out for Game 5, but after Counsell’s Miley Manuever, Brandon Woodruff took a shutout into the fifth inning. Even after the Dodgers chased Woodruff and a gassed pen coughed up some insurance runs, the Brewers brought the tying run to the on-deck in the ninth inning.
Counsell’s message? Don’t hate him because it’s working.
“Teams are pinch-hitting for hitters before they take (at-bats) in the playoffs, or after one at-bat in the playoffs,” he said on a conference call Thursday as the series came back to Miller Park. “I don't see it any different than that.
“So, we're using a roster.”
To great effect.
The 115-win Red Sox await in Game 1 of the World Series, Tuesday night at Fenway Park. They look unbeatable after hanging a 5.52 ERA and 27 runs on the Astros' excellent staff, but they surely have one eye on this NLCS.
Perhaps they’ll notice the manner in which Dodgers pitchers have shut down lefty sluggers Christian Yelich and Mike Moustakas – a combined 5 for 41 (.122) with no extra-base hits – and wonder if L.A. will construct a similarly effective attack for Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers.
They’ll surely note a rejuvenated group of Dodgers relievers, from the suddenly untouchable Pedro Baez to lesser lights like Dylan Floro and Caleb Ferguson, who have handled big October moments with aplomb.
And no doubt, they’ve kept an eye on how the Brewers have gone about their business. They got their off day Thursday, giving the bullpen – and Miley after his one-batter "start" in Game 5 – a chance to reset and take aim at two wins and the NL pennant.
They may be harder on the eyes – and the time of game – than any other team in this postseason derby.
Just don’t call them bad for baseball. Winning never is.
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