MILWAUKEE -- It's not that Craig Counsell and the Brewers are philosophically averse to your idea of what a Game 1 starter is supposed to be."Randy Johnson would be probably first on my draft list," said Counsell, referring to his former D-backs teammate who dominated during the 2001 postseason. "If
MILWAUKEE -- It's not that Craig Counsell and the Brewers are philosophically averse to your idea of what a Game 1 starter is supposed to be.
"Randy Johnson would be probably first on my draft list," said Counsell, referring to his former D-backs teammate who dominated during the 2001 postseason. "If you could pick a player for me to take in the series, I'd say him in a heartbeat, you know? It would be nice to have him.
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"Our team's different."
There's no Johnson, but there is a Giovany Gonzalez. Springing a surprise for the second straight postseason series, Milwaukee announced it will send the veteran left-hander to the mound to start Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against the Dodgers tonight at Miller Park, despite the fact Gonzalez didn't throw a single pitch in the NL Division Series against the Rockies.
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Another veteran lefty, Wade Miley, will start Game 2. Right-hander Jhoulys Chacin, the Brewers' steadiest starter all season and the presumptive favorite to pitch Game 1, was instead penciled in to start Game 3 at Dodger Stadium.
Unless he's needed before then.
"[Chacin] is available in Game 1," Counsell said.
This untraditional approach has worked for Milwaukee all year. The Brewers rode just enough starting pitching and a fantastic bullpen to an NL-best and franchise-record-tying 96 regular-season victories before sweeping the Rockies in the NLDS.
Rest along the way has allowed Counsell, pitching coach Derek Johnson and Milwaukee's analytically minded front office to make creative choices. The Brewers were off every Thursday in September, then had two full days off before the NLDS by virtue of winning the NL Central and will be coming off four full days off when they take the field against the Dodgers.
"From what I see, they didn't need me in the first round," Gonzalez said.
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This round looks different. While the Rockies mashed left-handers in the run to the NLDS, the Dodgers were just as good against right-handers. Even after acquiring Manny Machado, Los Angeles logged a .750 OPS against left-handers after the All-Star break, including their NLDS win over the Braves. Compare that to an NL-best .833 OPS against righties after the break.
Gonzalez will be well rested. He didn't appear in the Brewers' NL Division Series sweep of the Rockies and hasn't pitched since Sept. 30. The 33-year-old was acquired in a trade with the Nationals on Aug. 31 and went 3-0 with a 2.13 ERA in five September starts with Milwaukee.
This will be Gonzalez's seventh postseason start. He owns a 4.78 ERA through 26 1/3 playoff innings, including a start against the Dodgers in Game 3 of the 2016 NLDS. He allowed three runs on four hits (one home run) and a walk over 4 1/3 innings at Dodger Stadium.
"Look, it's no secret that we're going to use our pitching a little differently than the traditionalists would like," Counsell said. "For us, the first matchup that we liked was Gio on the mound. We're asking Gio to go out there and get a bunch of outs. How many? You know, we'll just see how it goes."
That raises the prospect that Gonzalez could be used as a sort of "opener" in an effort to take away some of the Los Angeles' bench options. If the Dodgers stack the lineup with right-handed hitters and the Brewers switch from Gonzalez to a right-handed reliever earlier in the game, it would force manager Dave Roberts to make some difficult choices. Roberts announced one of them on Thursday night: Right-handed hitter David Freese will start at first base over Player Page for Max Muncy. The last time Miller Park hosted an NLCS in 2011, Freese was series MVP for the Cardinals.
"How long each guy goes, that's up to Craig," Roberts said. "But I do think that in a seven-game series, regardless of how good a bullpen is, the more innings you can have them log, I think that that's in our best interest. So the idea of 'beating the starter' still for me makes sense."
Asked about the possibility of an early bullpen call, Gonzalez said he told Counsell, "Any way you need me, any style of pitching, I'm in."
It's worked for the Brewers so far.
"I'm grateful I get to pitch another postseason game and with another team now," Gonzalez said. "I was almost on my way home at the end of September [had I stayed with the Nationals]. So to sit here, and I'm pitching Game 1 of the second round, I think that's pretty remarkable, pretty incredible, and hopefully, I get to tell my kids about this one day."
As for the Brewers' other scheduled starters, Miley made his first career postseason appearance and pitched 4 2/3 scoreless innings against the Rockies in Sunday's NLDS clincher. He went 5-2 with a 2.57 ERA in 16 regular-season starts.
Chacin hurled 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball in the Brewers' victory in the NL Central tiebreaker over the Cubs and followed that up with five shutout innings in Game 2 of the NLDS. A free-agent acquisition last offseason, Chacin posted a 3.50 ERA in a career-high 35 starts with Milwaukee in 2018.
"It doesn't matter what game you pitch, whether you're the first or Game 7," Chacin said. "The only thing you want is to win and keep moving forward. [Gonzalez] has been in the playoffs a lot, and you see how he prepares mentally for every game. … I think it's good we have him here. I think he's a good guy to pitch the first game."
Jeffress explains absence in Game 163
Closer Jeremy Jeffress and the Brewers had been reluctant to explain why the All-Star reliever was unavailable to pitch in the NL Central tiebreaker against the Cubs on Oct. 1, but Jeffress shared it with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Thursday: He was sidelined with issues related to epilepsy.
Jeffress has had periodic seizures since 2008 when he was in Milwaukee's Minor League system, but he wasn't diagnosed with juvenile epilepsy until five years later. Since then, he has worked to manage the symptoms and has done so with great success. That final week of the regular season, however, the Brewers opted to hold him out of Game 163. Josh Hader covered the final two innings against the Cubs while Jeffress sat in the clubhouse.
"I've had to deal with issues related to epilepsy throughout my life," Jeffress told the Journal Sentinel. "It's not an everyday thing, not something that happens a lot, but it's part of my life. That Monday in Chicago, I was working through it and they decided to hold me out. I was good to pitch and ready to go but respect their decision."
He returned to action in the NLDS against the Rockies with a blown save in Game 1, which Milwaukee won in 10 innings. Jeffress bounced back and registered a two-inning save in Game 2, and then in Game 3, he surrendered a single and a walk in the ninth inning before Hader finished a 6-0 shutout.
Stearns not going anywhere
The Brewers' resurgence continues to draw attention of clubs looking to return to contention in a similar way. MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal reported on Thursday that the Giants asked for permission to interview Milwaukee general manager David Stearns to become their next president of baseball operations.
Rosenthal reported that Brewers owner Mark Attanasio denied the request from San Francisco, which fired GM Bobby Evans earlier this month. Giants executive chief vice president of baseball operations Brian Sabean is believed to be leading their search along with club president Larry Baer.
The news came on the same day Milwaukee senior advisor Doug Melvin was scheduled to interview for the Mets' GM opening, according to several reports. Melvin, 66, served as the Brewers' GM from 2002-15, when Stearns was hired.
When he retired from playing after the 2011 season, Counsell said on Thursday that his goal was to remain with the Brewers "to help baseball in Milwaukee and in Wisconsin." Those motives feel crystallized for Counsell, given where the Brewers are under his watch: four wins away from their first World Series since 1982.
That history isn't lost on the skipper, who was born in nearby Whitefish Bay, raised in Milwaukee and spent six seasons of his 16-year playing career with the Brewers. Those roots make him more public a figure in Milwaukee than most managers. Counsell is greeted by strangers while getting his morning coffee and regularly spotted around town. Interactions with fans have only become more frequent during the Brewers' postseason push.
"It's a thrill," Counsell said. "I do feel like baseball in Wisconsin and Milwaukee is part of my responsibility, and the best reason to celebrate this, for me, is how you see it makes everybody feel and how we've been able to take our fans on a journey here this month and hopefully find some new fans that are enjoying baseball."
Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy and like him on Facebook.
Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.