Brewers pull out all stops for biggest win of '23

May 17th, 2023

ST. LOUIS -- Throttled by 17 runs the night before, the Brewers lost starter Wade Miley five outs into Tuesday’s rematch with the rival Cardinals. Then the Brewers fell behind. It was shaping into a disaster for a team that learned last year how losses to a contender in May can sting in September.

But instead of a nightmare, they emptied the bullpen for their biggest win of the season.

Joey Wiemer and Brian Anderson hit solo home runs to reclaim a lead and five Brewers relievers covered the final 7 1/3 innings of a nail-biting, 3-2 win at Busch Stadium that featured relievers Elvis Peguero, Hoby Milner, Joel Payamps, Peter Strzelecki and Devin Williams all pitching in multiple innings.

“I think we’re the two best teams in our division, if you ask me,” said Williams, who twice stranded the potential go-ahead runner on base for the first five-out save of his career. “We always play each other tough. You know coming in here, that’s what it’s going to be.”

'Tough' was the right word after Miley, the Brewers’ best starter throughout the month of April, suffered a lat strain behind his left shoulder that will send him to the injured list. After that, it became clear how badly manager Craig Counsell wanted this game.

Here’s how it played out: Peguero for four outs (and no hits) to stabilize things and Milner for four more, a stint that included the only run off a Brewers reliever in the game. When Milner yielded to Payamps in the fifth, the Brewers had just tied the game on Wiemer’s towering home run to center field. When Payamps took the mound for his second inning of work in the sixth, the Brewers had just reclaimed the lead on Anderson’s first home run since April 23.

Payamps passed the lead to Strzelecki for four outs at the top of the Cardinals’ dangerous lineup, then to St. Louis-area native Williams for his first multi-inning appearance since Sept. 28 of last season -- also against the Cardinals.

“You know when [the starter goes out early],” Williams said, “they’re going to ask us to do a little bit more.”

Counsell was willing to push his top relievers farther than usual because this series against the Cardinals carries some additional heft. After Wednesday’s series finale, the teams don’t meet again until the second half of September, when, despite St. Louis’ early-season struggles, they both hope to be fighting for the division. Last year, the Brewers lost their regular-season series with the Phillies by May, which loomed enormously large when those teams were fighting for an NL Wild Card at the end. With no more tiebreaker games, that was crucial.

So, Counsell and pitching coach Chris Hook quickly mapped out a plan as Peguero took his time warming up. Then, they altered that plan based on feel, finishing the night with arguably their four highest-leverage relievers even if it meant the next day might be a challenge.

“You’ve got to win these because they come at a cost,” Counsell said. “We’re fortunate that we did. Look, anytime you beat a division opponent it’s a big win.”

Payamps preserved the lead in the sixth and Strzelecki worked a scoreless seventh before allowing a one-out walk and a single to put runners at the corners with one out in the eighth. That’s when Counsell called for Williams, who’d anticipated the earlier-than-usual entrance.

"I knew when Pete went in in the seventh it was going to be him handing the ball off to me,” Williams said. “I was ready for the challenge.”

It proved a double challenge.

After Tommy Edman stole second base in the eighth, Williams stranded the tying runner at third and the go-ahead runner at second by striking out Brendan Donovan -- arguably the pivotal at-bat of the game -- and inducing a comebacker from pinch-hitter Alec Burleson.

And in the ninth, Williams was on his way to a clean inning when Willson Contreras’ two-out line drive to center field tailed and eluded the usually reliable Wiemer. It was the toughest play for a center fielder: a knuckling line drive right at him. In this case, it extended the game and put the tying run in scoring position.

“That was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” Wiemer said. “It knuckled on me. It just turned into a slider at the end and I was lost.”

“I’m used to Joey catching everything, so it was a little surprising,” Williams said. “But I can’t be mad at him. That guy has saved runs for us all year, and aside from that, it was a terrible pitch. So I kind of deserved that one.”

Williams took a breath and retired Paul DeJong on a bouncer to seal the win. In his first 14 appearances this season, Williams has surrendered seven hits and one run.

"For him to get five outs there and going through the top of their order and a huge jam," Counsell said, "that’s a big-time closer."

“You kind of get used to it,” Strzelecki said. “Obviously, not multi-inning like that. But when he’s out there, you’re like, ‘All right, it’s pretty much a done deal.’”

Payamps picked up the win and Williams the save, but Counsell spread the praise around the bullpen.

“They were incredible, they really were,” he said. “Losing your starter five outs into the game, and the job that all of them did, and doing some different things tonight, and all pitching multiple innings was really, really impressive.”