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In the crowd and on the field, the Brewers sent a clear message during Craig Counsell's return

The assumption of many was that these Milwaukee Brewers were due for a rebuild.

Lose the manager. Trade the ace. Suffer a season-ending injury to the other ace. And do it all while playing in the smallest market in the major leagues?

At the outset of this season, it admittedly wasn’t far-fetched logic.

Yet here they were on Memorial Day afternoon at American Family Field, coming in 3.5 games up in the division on the rival Chicago Cubs and bumping that lead up by another game with a 5-1 victory that was driven by a pair of players that define why, year-in and year-out, these Brewers just seem to defy external expectations.

And, to top it all off, they did it Monday in front of the manager who spurned them six months ago to go to one of the game’s largest markets, seeking out a different challenge than bringing a World Series, the first in franchise history, to his hometown.

The boos for Craig Counsell were loud. The play for nine innings was louder.

More: 'Cheer, boo, whatever': Craig Counsell faces the music in his return to Milwaukee as Cubs manager

The Brewers hope than are many more memorable moments to come yet this season. Yet, for now at least, this one had to be the most satisfying yet.

“Today was electric,” said Brewers reliever Bryan Hudson. “It was fun. There was a lot of energy going through that stadium. Guys were playing with a lot of energy and we got it done.”

Hudson is one of those two aforementioned players.

Brewers pitcher Robert Gasser throws against the Cubs during the first inning Monday at American Family Field.
Brewers pitcher Robert Gasser throws against the Cubs during the first inning Monday at American Family Field.

The second is starting pitcher Robert Gasser, who threw six shutout innings with seven strikeouts to keep the Brewers in the ballgame as his counterpart, Justin Steele, was carving up Milwaukee’s offense with a rising, cutting four-seamer inning after inning. As Gasser faced just one over the minimum through his first six frames, it was easy to forget that he was the team’s seventh or eighth starter on the depth chart coming out of camp. Despite his status as one of the Brewers’ top prospects, he wasn’t making the team to begin with to start the year – and then he got hurt and missed a month.

“I feel really confident,” Gasser said. “Today, I kind of had an ease to it. The confidence isn’t necessarily me throwing strikes. It’s me knowing my stuff works and I can challenge guys.”

Now four starts into his MLB career, Gasser has a 1.96 earned run average and 0.96 WHIP. He stepped onto the mound in front of a crowd of 41,882 that was extra rambunctious for Counsell’s first game back in Milwaukee in Cubbie blue and he shoved.

“It’s not totally surprising but it is remarkable,” Brewers manager Pat Murphy said. “Watch what he did today. His focus was impeccable.”

When Gasser was done governing the Cubs’ bats with stern command of a sweeper, four-seamer and cutter – his only walk through 23 big-league innings remains a plate appearance in which he got squeezed twice – and ran into some trouble in the seventh, Hudson trotted in from the pen.

Another no-name castaway who found his way to the shores of Lake Michigan, where players like him are maximized and careers like his are revitalized.

Hudson entered with runners on first and second after Gasser had left them there with nobody out in a scoreless tie in the top of the seventh. The margin for error was thin as his former teammate in the Cubs organization, Christopher Morel, stepped in. Hudson struck him out, got Patrick Wisdom to pop out to second and then dotted a sweeper perfectly to Dansby Swanson to escape the jam.

For good measure, Hudson came out for the eighth and threw another scoreless frame, striking out Nico Hoerner to move things along to the bottom of the eighth where the Brewers offense broke out the moment the Cubs went to the bullpen.

Hudson, if he weren’t 6 foot 8, likely wouldn't have stood out in the clubhouse this spring as a new arrival to the Brewers organization. The left-hander spent eight years grinding in the Cubs minor-league system after being a third-round pick in 2015 but reached minor-league free agency before ever getting a crack at the big leagues or even a 40-man roster. The Dodgers signed him to a minors deal in 2023 and gave him a five-game cup of coffee before trading him to Milwaukee for a 20th-round pick, the very final selection of last year’s draft by the club.

Now he’s pitched in 20 games, covered 30 ⅓ innings and has a 0.59 ERA. He’s doing it a bit deceptively, too, just like his delivery.

Brewers shortstop Willy Adames celebrates his three-run home run during the eight inning Monday against the Cubs.
Brewers shortstop Willy Adames celebrates his three-run home run during the eight inning Monday against the Cubs.

“The worst thing you can do on him is you can look up at the board and see 91 (mph) and say, ‘I can get there,’” Murphy said. “But he’s releasing it from down here and it looks like he’s shooting above your head. And then it looks like he’s way out here (laterally). It’s deceptive. It’s pretty effective.”

Trevor Megill has taken over the closer’s role while Devin Williams, yet another big name the Brewers are down while he recovers from a back injury, is out, yet it’s Hudson who has become the most trusted in arm in a bullpen that is perennially among the best in the game.

“I don’t try to think about that stuff,” Hudson said. “I want to go out there and get my outs as quick as possible.”

Hudson is part of a stable of arms in the bullpen that were acquired via means far more plebeian than patrician. Megill was acquired when the Twins designated him for assignment last April. Joel Payamps and Elvis Peguero were small parts of bigger deals the off-season prior. Hoby Milner signed a minor-league deal. So did Jared Koenig.

This is how the Brewers operate. And, Monday, they screamed it on the field in the same vein as the fans who voiced their displeasure for the former manager.

Loudly.

More: Social media reacts to Cubs manager Craig Counsell's return to Milwaukee

“It was amazing,” said shortstop Willy Adames, whose three-run homer in the eighth broke the game open. “How loud it was, we were waiting for this series because it was intense when we're playing the Cubs, especially because we have Counsell coming for the first time after he left.

"When you're playing in energy like that and an atmosphere like that, it's incredible. I hope we have that every night, because it would be incredible, but when you have it, I feel like everybody is just so energized and enjoying the moments.”

Brewers shortstop Willy Adames hits a three-run home run during the eighth inning against the Chicago Cubs on Monday at American Family Field.
Brewers shortstop Willy Adames hits a three-run home run during the eighth inning against the Chicago Cubs on Monday at American Family Field.

Games in this rivalry always carry a certain level of passion that emanates from the stands on down to in between the white lines, but this one was even a bit more palpable.

“I feel like there was a little extra today because of Counsell, but we love that,” Adames said. “I feel like we feed off that energy that the fans bring to the table, so we expect that the whole series.”

Adames may get his wish. If Monday was any indication, the prevailing fan sentiment about Counsell leaving isn’t going anywhere.

The Brewers believe that, as a team, they aren’t, either. Staying competitive with a new manager, a new pitching staff and new faces in the lineup?

That's the challenge they want.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Brewers win and send a message in Craig Counsell's return to Milwaukee