LOS ANGELES -- Five games into the postseason, the Brewers' innovative bullpen strategy is set to face its biggest test yet.
The scheduled off-days that allowed manager Craig Counsell's relievers the luxury of built-in rest, as he tasked them with getting through the bulk of Milwaukee's innings this month, have become more scarce. If the Brewers are to advance to their first World Series in 36 years, they're going to have to at least survive three games in three consecutive days at Dodger Stadium this week. And that'll mean finding ways to lean on their bullpen without pushing it to the brink.
"We know we have three games in a row. We know we've got to have pitching for three days," Counsell said. "We think we have a way to map out [each] game no matter what we have to do the night before."
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That's all Counsell will divulge at this point, and that's by design. But it's the particulars of that plan that will remain a central focus of the rest of this series. No decision will be made in a vacuum. When you rely as heavily on your bullpen as Counsell does, every move must strike a balance: between the moment at hand and another soon to come. At this point, each choice comes with ripple effects that could potentially swing the season.
Take Game 2, for example. Cradling a 3-0 lead, Counsell would've likely turned to Josh Hader if he could've in the seventh, after the Dodgers opened the inning with three consecutive baserunners against Corbin Burnes. But with Hader unavailable after throwing a season-high 46 pitches in Game 1, Counsell was forced to pivot. He and Hader both eventually watched as Jeremy Jeffress let the Dodgers inch within a run, then gave up the lead an inning later in what turned into a 4-3 loss.
Had Counsell not asked Hader for three innings in Game 1, the situation may have played out differently. But had Hader not held the Dodgers scoreless over those three innings, the Brewers may not have held on to their 6-5 win, which they barely did anyway.
Hader will be ready for Game 3, but how far he's pushed figures to dictate his availability for Games 4 and 5. The Brewers rarely used Hader on back-to-back days this season, citing his decreased effectiveness without at least one day of rest. He was more often deployed in multi-inning bursts, then given at least a day to recover before his next outing. That model could change given the situation and stakes.
"At this point, you think about tomorrow's game as important," Counsell said. "But if you've got wins kind of under your belt, you're going to go for it."
Hader did not pitch in three consecutive games at any point this season. The rest of the group the Brewers call their "A" relievers all have: Joakim Soria did so thrice, and twice after being acquired from the White Sox in July; Corey Knebel did three times, twice in September; Jeffress pitched three straight twice. He has appeared in all five games this postseason and is well past his career high in innings pitched.
"It's a team effort," Hader said. "I can't do anything to control the whole game. It takes all these guys to win a ballgame."
But to get through three, Counsell acknowledged Game 3 starter Jhoulys Chacin "is capable of going deep into the game, and that's ideal."
Chacin led the Brewers with 192 2/3 innings this season, and he could potentially provide the type of length Wade Miley (5 2/3 innings) did in Game 2. He could also be used more creatively, as Giovany Gonzalez (two innings) was in Game 1.
Gonzalez, Junior Guerra, Freddy Peralta and Brandon Woodruff could all pitch multiple innings if Chacin struggles or is lifted early for tactical reasons. All are also in the mix to contribute in Game 4, in what could be another bullpen game for Milwaukee.
Who, how, in what order -- that all remains to be seen. And subject to change.
"The way we're going to use our pitching is that we gotta count on all these guys," Counsell said. "I think you also have to watch the game and see what's going on. We'll be fresh tomorrow and ready to go, so that's good."