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Brewers ride dominant relief corps to NLCS

Milwaukee has rested bullpen for upcoming best-of-seven series
@DKramer_
October 7, 2018

DENVER -- The Brewers have maintained belief that their bullpen is built for a lengthy October run but admittedly suggest that their path through the postseason will be predicated on rest. That's what makes their three-game sweep over the Rockies in the National League Division Series so valuable. After Sunday's

DENVER -- The Brewers have maintained belief that their bullpen is built for a lengthy October run but admittedly suggest that their path through the postseason will be predicated on rest. That's what makes their three-game sweep over the Rockies in the National League Division Series so valuable.

After Sunday's 6-0 win at Coors Field, Milwaukee is moving on to the NL Championship Series, which begins Friday at Miller Park. The Brewers' bevy of power relief arms, which were their catalyst in their sweep of Colorado, have four days off ahead of a matchup against either the Braves or Dodgers.

Milwaukee dodged Game 4 on Monday that forecasted a chance of snow, avoided a trip back to Milwaukee for a would-be Game 5 and put a bow on a series that the Brewers dominated with pitching.

The Brewers' tactics were tailored for the best-of-five NLDS that has never has more than two games in a row without a day off. But in the seven-game NLCS ahead, general manager David Stearns suggested that the team's relief-heavy approach would likely be altered within its NLCS roster construction.

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"I think throughout the entire season, we've relied on our pitching unit as a whole," Stearns said. "We're blurring the lines a little bit between starter and relievers. We've done that through the entire year. A shorter series allows you to accentuate that and we've been able to do it. … We came in with a really solid game plan and we executed it."

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Their methodology isn't completely novel, but it's not unorthodox either, and it requires astute supervision from manager Craig Counsell and pitching coach Derek Johnson, beyond game-by-game matchups. All-Star closer Jeremy Jeffress is working on a career-high 80 innings, setup man Josh Hader, a former starter, has appeared in 58 games and shown fatigue when pitching on back-to-back days. And Corey Knebel was optioned to the Minors in late August for a physical and mental break.

Given their workloads, the Brewers' pitchers will use Monday as a full off-day and will resume workouts Tuesday. Johnson said they may opt for some relievers to throw a scrimmage or live batting practice before Friday to stay conditioned.

"We've put a lot of innings on them. We've put a lot of pitches on them," Johnson said. "I think the good thing about now is adrenaline takes over a little bit because we're in high-pressure situations. It's do or die."

"Counsell knows how to use a bullpen," Jeffress said. "To have these four days off, it's going to be great for us. It's much needed. We'll see what matchups come up, see who we're playing and go from there."

This is how the Brewers plan to beat the opposition: Build an early lead and turn it over to an army of relief arms that offer versatility and variety.

Jeffress, a right-hander, enjoyed a kind of rejuvenation by expanding his repertoire to include a split-changeup that's worked wonders all season long with a polished grip on his curveball that has given him a four-pitch mix. Hader has blossomed into one of the most revered left-handed specialists. Knebel has given up just five hits and zero runs in 19 outings since his Minor League stint. And there are contributors such as Corbin Burnes, who threw two perfect innings on Sunday, and Joakim Soria, whom the Brewers acquired ahead of the Deadline for next to nothing and who allowed just two baserunners over three appearances in the NLDS.

"Honestly, this is the best bullpen I've ever seen in the big leagues ever put together," said Giovany Gonzalez, an 11-year veteran and the outlier of sorts as an Aug. 31 trade acquisition from the Nats.

This is why they like their chances against the Braves or Dodgers -- both of whom have shown late-innings vulnerability on the mound.

The Brewers played perhaps their oddest series of the season against the Dodgers in L.A. two months ago, winning one game, 1-0, on a seven-shutout-inning performance by Wade Miley, and losing another, 21-5, in a game Clayton Kershaw delivered six solid innings. For the season, Milwaukee went 3-4 against the reigning NL champs. Against the Braves, the Brewers went 4-3 and outscored them, 35-34, despite a 10-1 loss on Aug. 10. They won three in a four-game series against Atlanta at Miller Park in early July.

From a bullpen matchup, Los Angeles relievers have been credited with 10 losses in 49 games since All-Star closer Kenley Jansen was placed on the disabled list with an irregular heartbeat in August, and Jansen himself has struggled since returning, posting a 5.40 ERA and giving up seven homers in 19 outings. The Braves are largely riding on youth and inexperience, particularly at the postseason level, with a nucleus of Arodys Vizcaino, A.J. Minter, Brad Brach and Touki Toussaint among others.

In an era where bullpens are the catalyst or focal part for championship clubs, the Brewers believe they have the best one left standing in the National League.

Daniel Kramer is a reporter for MLB.com based in Denver. Follow him on Twitter at @DKramer_.