MILWAUKEE -- With an eye toward how teams across Major League Baseball spent 2018 experimenting with openers, and the way relievers spent the last few postseasons elbowing themselves more and more onto the big stage, this October, and which team survives it, figure to rest as heavily in the hands of relief pitching as perhaps any other.
That was true before the Brewers decided to open the National League Division Series with a bullpen game, Milwaukee opting to tackle Game 1 in the same way the A's did the American League Wild Card Game. Manager Craig Counsell's announcement on Wednesday shocked few in the Brewers or Rockies clubhouses, given how both sides paved their roads to the playoffs on the backs of vaunted bullpens.
Right-hander Brandon Woodruff will open for the Brewers. He made 17 starts in Triple-A and four in the Majors this season, but was at his best late in the season out of the bullpen, compiling a 0.73 ERA and 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings in September.
"Nowadays in the current game, the bullpen plays a huge part of successful postseasons," Rockies manager Bud Black said. "It's imperative that bullpen success in playoffs happen for W's. I mean, that's just the way it is. It's going to hinge on that for both teams. It's going to hinge on that, I believe, in every series that's played."
:: NLDS schedule and results ::
In that sense, the NLDS is set to be a showcase. No postseason team asked its starters for fewer innings this season than the Brewers, who enter their first postseason since 2011 with Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress leading the NL's deepest relief corps. With Adam Ottavino, Wade Davis and Scott Oberg carrying the load, Rockies relievers posted a 3.27 ERA in September. That ranked fourth among NL clubs over the season's final month. Milwaukee's 2.70 mark ranked first.
"We want to get a lead, get to the sixth inning or the fifth inning, then turn it over to those guys," Brewers infielder Mike Moustakas said. "If we can get a lead and turn it over to that bullpen, we're extremely confident we can win that game. That's how baseball is played nowadays. Most teams have good bullpens, for the most part, but ours is unbelievable."
Moustakas has seen the modern template work to perfection, his Royals practically inventing it on their way to two AL pennants (and the 2015 World Series title) earlier this decade. Those teams closed games formulaically, with Kelvin Herrera, Greg Holland and Davis forming dominant bridges to the 27th out. The model has since expanded.
Davis is now the Rockies' closer, and Black will call on Ottavino (who struck out more batters than any NL reliever besides Hader) to extinguish threats in nearly any late-inning situation in front of him. Though Jeffress mostly closed down the stretch, Counsell won't hesitate to deploy him, Hader or Corey Knebel in high-leverage situations regardless of inning, like the Indians did with Andrew Miller to great success in 2016.
The re-emergence of Knebel, a 2017 All-Star who was briefly demoted in August, provides Counsell even more flexibility. The right-hander earned NL Reliever of the Month honors by holding opponents scoreless over 16 appearances in September, striking out 33 across 16 1/3 innings. Jeffress, who led all NL relievers with a 1.29 ERA and 92 percent strand rate, logged 10 scoreless appearances last month. Hitters went 8-for-94 (.085 average) against Jeffress and Knebel combined. Hader led all NL relievers with 143 strikeouts in 81 1/3 innings.
"The depth of the roster is one of our true strengths this year, and that's something that we're going to lean on the whole way through here," Counsell said. "We've got to take advantage of what our players are good at and what their strengths are and how collectively we are strong."
How much these strategies have shifts is not lost on Black, Counsell or veterans in either clubhouse. Black noted that when he won the 1985 World Series as a pitcher with the Royals, Bret Saberhagen threw two complete games. When Craig Counsell won the 2001 World Series, his D-backs did so behind historic performances from starters Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.
"That's a stark comparison what we see now, with bullpen games," said Brewers catcher Erik Kratz. "But nothing has really changed, just the personnel. There were people back in the day who scoffed at relievers in general. All you're trying to do is put the best pitchers out there."