You could almost hear the armchair managers up Interstate 94. Why were the Brewers lifting Brandon Woodruff after 74 pitches in seven scoreless innings when he’d only just allowed his first hit?
That decision was the demarcation point in what transformed from a pitching clinic by Woodruff and Cubs counterpart Kyle Hendricks into a heart-pumping, 4-2 Brewers win in 10 innings at Wrigley Field on Wednesday. Woodruff flirted with a no-hitter and Lorenzo Cain hit a pair of go-ahead home runs that accounted for all of Milwaukee’s scoring -- only to see those efforts nearly go for naught.
It turns out there was a good explanation.
That pitch count was deceiving, Woodruff said. He was cooked.
“I had to kind of empty the tank in a sense, and even though it wasn’t that many pitches, the ups and downs is what gets you a little bit,” Woodruff said. “After getting out of that inning and basically just emptying the tank there in the seventh just to get through that, I was a little tired coming out. I think that was the right time. I think that was the right moment to [go to the bullpen] because I was losing myself in my delivery a little bit on some pitches there. Not too much, but a few pitches there toward the end and I think ‘Hooky’ [pitching coach Chris Hook] and ‘Couns’ [manager Craig Counsell] identified that as well. I think it was the right move.
“Hopefully going forward, if I get through seven on  pitches they’ll have to pretty much rip me off the mound to take me out. But it’s still early and I was glad they pulled out that win.”
The Brewers pulled out the win -- and their first series victory of the young season -- thanks to Cain’s first multihomer game in four years, Josh Hader stranding the winning run in scoring position in the ninth inning and Brad Boxberger coming on with the bases loaded for the final out of the 10th.
That saved the day for Woodruff, who channeled his inner Greg Maddux -- if Maddux had a 98 mph fastball -- through the game’s first six innings, facing the minimum on 56 pitches and allowing no hits and no walks against a scuffling Cubs lineup. Through six, Woodruff threw first-pitch strikes to 12 of 18 Cubs batters. He didn’t face a single three-ball count. His fastball got up to 98.5 mph on Javier Báez’s swinging strike three to end the fifth. Not a single plate appearance went past five pitches. Woodruff’s pitches per inning went 11, seven, seven, 10, 11, 10. He was the first Brewers pitcher to face the minimum over six frames since Mike Fiers against the Royals in August 2012.
“We tried to jump on the fastball -- didn't have a lot of success,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “He's a really good pitcher. But then, we continued to fight.”
It was still a scoreless game after the seventh-inning stretch when Woodruff finally yielded a hit. Ian Happ worked a 3-1 count before grounding a single into right-center field, through the Brewers’ shift. The inning continued when the Brewers failed to turn a double play two batters later, but Woodruff preserved the shutout with an assist from Avisaíl García, who covered 106 feet in right field to make a sliding, run-saving catch of a Kris Bryant fly ball.
“When Bryant hit that I did not think that there was going to be a shot to catch it,” Woodruff said. “Then the ball just kind of hung up there the last second and [García] kind of closed in on it and made a heck of a catch.”
Woodruff exhaled and headed to the dugout. He was spent.
“He said so immediately when he came in,” Counsell said.
Cain hadn’t started since Saturday or played since Sunday because of a bout of oblique soreness -- the latest physical hurdle to overcome as he returns from sitting out most of the shortened 2020 season. He promptly provided a lead with a solo home run off Alec Mills that sailed over the bleachers onto Waveland Ave., but Joc Pederson and the Cubs answered leading off the bottom of the eighth inning with a solo shot off Devin Williams, who has now allowed more earned runs in his first two appearances of 2021 -- two -- than he allowed in 22 appearances in all of 2020, when Williams won the National League Rookie of the Year Award.
Things got interesting again in the 10th, when the Cubs pulled within two and loaded the bases against J.P. Feyereisen before Counsell summoned the veteran Boxberger, just activated from the alternate training site the day before, to retire Happ to end the game.
The Brewers still aren’t moving the line offensively the way they want, but they did enough to pull out another Wrigley Field thriller.
“You're always happy to pull out a win, especially with the way Big Woo [Woodruff] pitched,” Cain said. “The guy's unbelievable. I mean, lights-out. He's got some nasty stuff. So you definitely want to go up there and get a win not only for him but this team as well. So, great day by everybody.”