October staffing: Sale, Kershaw, aces become bullpen aces

BEN WALKER (AP Baseball Writer)
The Associated Press

Chris Sale is all set to start Game 1 at Fenway Park. If the Boston Red Sox later need him for middle relief, he's ready. Or a setup spot, sure.

''I mean, it's postseason baseball. You have to be prepared for anything,'' the All-Star lefty said.

Especially when it comes to pitching, particularly after seeing the likes of Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and other All-Star aces working in unusual roles during recent Octobers.

Because as managers' moves this month have proven - some worked, some didn't - the winning strategy might be getting the best guy on the mound at the key moment, no matter when that comes.

''That's what it is. You're using your team's talents the best way you can to win games,'' Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell said Thursday, a day before the Brewers host the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL Championship Series.

Sale and the Red Sox take on the Houston Astros in the ALCS beginning Saturday night.

Relievers have accounted for 48.8 percent of innings in the playoffs so far, topping last year's record of 46.5 percent for the whole postseason. By comparison, five years ago in 2013, relievers threw 35.7 percent of postseason innings.

But the remaining teams haven't been as quick to the bullpen as the trend might suggest.

The World Series champion Astros and Los Angeles are bucking the relief revolution movement, with the Dodgers at 30 percent bullpen usage and Houston at 36. Interestingly, those 'pens are also 1-2 in lowest ERA this postseason with marks under 1.00.

Kershaw will start the NLCS opener for the Dodgers. He threw four scoreless innings in middle relief in Game 7 of the World Series last year, and earned his only big league save in the clinching game of the 2016 playoffs against Washington.

As for letting bullpens handle a bulk of the load, ''If it works, it's great,'' he said Thursday.

''I'm kind of a traditionalist when it comes to baseball. But when it comes down the postseason, you've got to win games,'' Kershaw said. ''It's probably tough to sustain for a full season ... but definitely makes sense for a postseason.''

Even when teams have gone to the bullpen, it hasn't necessarily been for a traditional reliever. The Red Sox bullpen was seen as a potential weakness this October, so rookie manager Alex Cora didn't hesitate to use Sale - who started Game 1 of the ALDS - for the eighth inning this week, trying to finish off New York at Yankee Stadium.

''He was in the bullpen, but it was kind of like his day. Everybody was on board. I even shouted to the dugout, 'Hey, we're all in! He's coming in,''' Cora said.

Cora also employed former Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello to start and relieve against the Yankees.

The Brewers are the only team among the final four to use relievers for more outs than starters. At a time when more teams are using relievers to start for an inning or two, the Brewers went that way in their NL Division Series opener against Colorado. Reliever Brandon Woodruff began with three hitless innings.

''Look, it's no secret that we're going to use our pitching a little differently than traditionally, than the traditionalists would like,'' Counsell said.

''We know we've got a lot of guys, the depth of our staff is what is the most meaningful thing for me when we kind of figure out how we do this,'' he said.

Cora was Houston's bench coach last year when Astros manager AJ Hinch mixed and matched. Verlander and Sale started against each other in Game 1 of the ALDS, then worked opposite each other as relievers in Game 4.

In Game 7 of the ALCS versus the Yankees, Charlie Morton started for the Astros with five shutout innings and Lance McCullers Jr. finished with four shutout frames.

In Game 7 of the World Series at Dodger Stadium, McCullers started and was pulled in the third. Morton finished with four strong innings, while Verlander and former Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel were loose in the Houston bullpen.

Morton and Keuchel both threw simulated games Thursday, prompting a question about whether either could relieve in the first two games at Boston. Verlander and Gerrit Cole will start those matchups.

''I know that the days of creativity and how pitchers are being used and how I used our rotation last year is probably why you're asking the question,'' Hinch said.

''I think given the agony that we're going through in these bullpen decisions and the options that we have in the 'pen and the performance of our 'pen and the depth of 'pen, I see it less likely than ever initially in this series for me having to get that creative with our starters,'' he said.

Counsell played for the Arizona Diamondbacks when they won the 2001 World Series. Imposing aces Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling started five times in the seven-game win over the Yankees, with Johnson also working once in relief.

''I'm not trying to - we're not trying to eliminate the need for great starting pitching,'' Counsell said. ''I mean, Randy Johnson would be probably first in my draft list. If you could pick a player for me to take in the series, I'd say him in a heartbeat.''

''It would be nice to have him. Our team's different, you know, and so we're going to try to - and we're trying to figure out what's the best way for us to put together a tough 27 outs and make it tough on them and get those outs as fast as we can,'' he said. ''And so we're considering a different way to put that puzzle together.''

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