ST. LOUIS -- How will the Brewers navigate the stunning loss of their Rookie of the Year Award-winning, “Airbender”-throwing setup man, Devin Williams?
Wednesday’s 4-0, streak-busting win over the Cardinals at Busch Stadium offered a blueprint.
Starter Adrian Houser lowered his ERA to 3.22 with five scoreless innings in his final tuneup for the postseason, three relievers combined for four innings of scoreless work and the Brewers hit two home runs to ground a Cardinals team that had won 17 games in a row and clinched the second NL Wild Card spot.
The Brewers relievers who got work were Brent Suter, Brad Boxberger and Aaron Ashby, all of whom are more important to the Brewers than ever with the abrupt loss of Williams on Wednesday. Last year’s National League Reliever of the Year Award and Rookie of the Year Award winner won’t pitch again until a potential World Series at the earliest after fracturing his pitching hand punching a wall in the wake of Sunday’s National League Central Division-clinching victory.
“Everybody’s going to have to step up and do a little bit more than they have been all season and I think tonight definitely showed it. It was a step forward,” said Houser, who allowed one earned run in 25 innings against the Cardinals this season. “We’re out-getters and we’ll be ready for anything whenever our name is called.”
When the Williams move was made Wednesday afternoon, Brewers manager Craig Counsell said club officials were already kicking around ideas about filling the significant hole left in the bullpen pecking order for the postseason. Will it mean some multi-inning appearances for All-Star closer Josh Hader, who has been used exclusively in one-inning stints the past two years? Will veteran Boxberger, the workhorse of Milwaukee’s staff this year, slide from the seventh inning to the eighth?
Has Hunter Strickland, the eight-year veteran with experience pitching in three different postseasons, including with the World Series champion Giants in 2014, proven steady enough for high-leverage work with a 1.83 ERA in 33 appearances with Milwaukee following mixed results in earlier 2021 stints with the Rays and Angels?
Could rookie Jake Cousins be back from a minor right biceps injury in time to take on a more prominent role, and is he even ready for such a role in the postseason? Is another rookie, the left-handed Ashby, ready for higher-leverage work as well?
“We're bouncing ideas off of each other,” Counsell said. “How I like to do it is just take a period of time to share ideas with each other, let it soak in a little bit, then come to some conclusions. And look, the best thing we have going for us is we have Corbin Burnes going for us, we have Brandon Woodruff going for us, we have Freddy [Peralta] going for us. We've got some really good choices -- some great choices. Those choices, those are the guys who are going to have a big say in what we do.”
Then there are Houser and left-hander Eric Lauer, each of whom have taken significant steps forward this season. Teams need no more than four starters in a five-game postseason series, and Houser is looking forward with an open mind.
“Just like we’ve talked about in the past and throughout the years -- we’re out-getters, we’re going to be ready, we’re going to get in there and do our job and help the team win and do the best we can,” Houser said.
In the bullpen, meanwhile, it’s next man up.
“It's definitely a huge impact to lose him,” Boxberger said. “We were without him for a little bit earlier in the year and managed to find our way around that.”
With the NL Central won and the league’s No. 2 seed secured, the Brewers are tapering their starts and scripting reliever usage to some degree over these final regular season games. Wednesday was deemed the day to pitch for Suter, Boxberger and Ashby, the latter covering the final two innings without allowing a hit.
That might have been a spot for Williams, who was in street clothes Wednesday when he addressed teammates and apologized for his lapse in judgement.
“I think it takes a man to stand up and talk about it and admit it and talk to you guys about it. So, good for him,” said Daniel Vogelbach, who hit the first of the Brewers’ two home runs. “Everybody makes mistakes. It’s easy to point fingers. But what we’ve done all year is pick each other up. The next guy steps up in a big situation and we’ve got to keep being good teammates and keep being good people and get behind each other."