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Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell wasn’t kidding when he said he’d use his bullpen aggressively early in the National League Championship Series.
Bullpen ace Josh Hader was warming up halfway through the fourth inning, and in the game by the fifth inning of the Brewers 6-5 Game 1 victory against the Los Angeles Dodgers. And he wasn’t even the first reliever Counsell called on. That distinction belonged to Brandon Woodruff, who relieved starter Gio Gonzalez after just two innings and actually homered off Clayton Kershaw in his lone at-bat.
Yeah, it was a wild Game 1 at Miller Park. A wild game that gave us a deep look into what baseball has become in 2018.
Postseason baseball has always been a different animal, especially when it comes to pitching strategy. This season has taken that to another level with bullpenning becoming more prevalent even during the regular season. Now Counsell is taking it to another level still with his usage of Hader in Game 1.
Hader entered with Milwaukee holding a four-run lead. When his scoreless outing wrapped up three innings later, the Brewers held the same four-run lead, but Hader had also thrown a season-high 46 pitches.
Hader was his usual lethal self on the hill. He allowed just two hits while striking out four during his appearance. The extended usage though is one of the biggest storylines from the Brewers victory, mainly because of the great unknown. How will it impact the Brewers most valuable reliever moving forward in the series?
We already know Hader isn’t available for Game 2 on Saturday.
Hader is *officially* unavailable tomorrow, Counsell said they’re in good shape, considers it a plus that Burnes is available tomorrow. #Brewers
— Cat Garcia 🇲🇽 (@TheBaseballGirl) October 13, 2018
What about Game 3? Will he be just as effective then?
Just as important. Will it have been worth it to the Brewers?
For one night, we can safely say it was. A win is a win, so one really can’t argue with the outcome.
Moving forward, it’s far more difficult to answer that question.
Counsell has taken to using Hader and his unique talent in the relief ace role that Andrew Miller made famous with the Cleveland Indians. That means he’s comfortable using Hader at any point in the game to get what he feels are the most important outs.
Ideally, that role doesn’t call for nine outs. In Game 1, Counsell needed every one of those nine outs more than he even realized. Xavier Cedeno, Joakim Soria, Jeremy Jeffress and Corey Knebel struggled mightily to record the final six outs, allowing the Dodgers four runs in the final two innings. How close to the edge did the game get? The Dodgers left the tying run 90 feet away from home as the game ended.
Had the Brewers lost this game and gone into Game 2 without Hader, that would be a near disaster scenario. That they won keeps the Brewers on schedule, and should allow Counsell to continue using Hader in ways he’s most effective.
“Well, you won’t see Josh tomorrow, for sure,” Counsell acknowledged after the game. “I mean, he’s got two days off and then he’ll be good to go. You know, everybody else we’re good with. We’re in good shape tomorrow. Corbin Burnes did not pitch today and was not up. So we’re in good shape. We got possibilities, a lot of possibilities for tomorrow, so good stuff.”
When is Hader most effective?
Counsell may have sacrificed Hader’s availability in Game 2, but he knew exactly what he was doing. Over the last six weeks of the season, Hader pitched on consecutive days only once. The team has learned that’s the best way to manage Hader while maximizing his effectiveness.
Beyond that, the Brewers are now 24-0 in games in which Hader has completed at least two innings. The first 23 such outings happened during the regular season, but only two (July 21 and Aug. 24) weren’t followed with multiple days of rest. In other words, Counsell knows the more outs Hader gets, the better chance the Brewers have of winning. Once Hader got through two innings, Counsell may have figured there was more to gain than lose by giving him three innings. After all, Game 2 was already off the table anyway.
It’s a difficult thought process for most of us to wrap our head around, but the Brewers know exactly what they’re dealing with in Hader. That they’ve been observant enough to form this gameplan, and disciplined enough to adhere to it to, has given them a major edge in games where they’ve turned Hader loose.
Now though, they have something new to study.
The question is how Hader will bounce back from throwing three innings and a season-high 46 pitches. He only pitched three innings once during the regular season, but had five days off before his next outing. Here, he’ll likely have two at most.
How Hader responds will give Milwaukee an even better idea of how far he can be pushed. Perhaps more importantly, it will give Counsell a better idea of what he’ll need from everyone else on his pitching staff.
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