MILWAUKEE – The challenge is to guess right, and then hope a line drive finds a glove for no reason other than good fortune, and that’s the whole job. That, and keeping 25 men with little in common but their work clothing from inflicting permanent harm on each other. That, and agreeing with mostly everything sent down from your boss’ office. That, and appearing tranquil and not panic-stricken for the TV cameras.
That, and bearing the responsibility if any of the above happens to go wrong, the consequence being condemnation and ridicule at least until another baseball game is played, at which point it’ll be some other poor sap’s turn.
Just this week, New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone was browbeaten into admitting that on his drive home from an especially ugly splash of juju (and, granted, judgment) he tuned his car radio to ’80s on 8, a transparent appeal for compassion. And more Jack Wagner.
It is fall, which means a struggling ace must be pitch tipping, a helpless cleanup hitter must be choking, a losing team must be autopsied, and all but one manager must be overmatched. The remaining manager? Sainted.
(Just Thursday in Houston, Alex Cora told reporters, “At the end, honestly, A.J. [Hinch] is not throwing a ball, I’m not throwing a ball. At the end, my last at-bat was 2011. And A.J.’s was a while ago. It’s not about us.”)
So, happy October baseball to you, Dave Roberts. And merry October to you, Craig Counsell. It’s the National League Championship Series, one of you has a guaranteed contract for next season, and it’s not the guy who managed in the World Series last year, the NLCS the year before that, and has done nothing but win division titles, which is how the gig goes sometimes.
In the interest of time, we’ll outline the challenges that are to come for both managers, even if these aren’t entirely their decisions, because they’ll be the ones to defend them if they go horribly haywire.
First, Counsell, the boyish-visaged Brewers manager and Wisconsin native who has guided the local squad in his three full seasons to 73, 86 and, in 2018, 96 wins.
The Dodgers will start three left-handers and Counsell’s regular position players include left-handed hitters Mike Moustakas and Travis Shaw. Shaw is a career .234 hitters against lefties. He hit .209 against them this season. Moustakas actually had a better batting average against lefties than he did righties, if lower on-base and slugging percentages. Generally, Counsell would not start both against a left-hander, particularly a good left-hander, which Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-jin Ryu and Rich Hill would qualify. You could see Jonathan Schoop at second base for Shaw against Kershaw, though Schoop batted .202 as a Brewer. He’s also a combined 0 for 11 against Kershaw and Hill (which means all but nothing) and has never faced Ryu.
The golden bullet. The brilliant lefty pitched six times on consecutive days all season. On a day’s rest his ERA was 4.15. The remainder of the time hardly anybody hit him, ever. When Counsell deploys him, therefore, will not only have a huge impact on that game, but possibly on the next game. Or two.
Milwaukee’s starting pitching
Counsell announced Gio Gonzalez in Game 1. Gonzalez has not pitched since Sept. 30 and has thrown nine innings since the middle of September. Wade Miley starts Game 2. Miley threw 64 pitches in Game 3 of the Division Series and seven innings in the second half of September. Counsell said Jhoulys Chacín, the presumed Game 1 starter until Thursday’s announcement and the presumed Game 3 starter after that, would be available in Game 1. It’s what the Brewers do. They bullpened Game 1 of the Division Series and presumably could again at some point in the NLCS. The decision, then, on when a starter is nearing his limit – third inning, fourth, whenever – and when to unleash one of the better bullpens in the game will carry the postgame conversation.
The platoon-heavy Dodgers can be a handful, even for a taut and balanced bullpen. Does Counsell thread out the matchups one at a time, all at once, not at all?
“Look, I think that’s what happens generally as the course of the game goes on,” Counsell said. “Their right-handed hitters are perfectly capable of hitting against right-handed pitching. … Managers are going to try to capture matchups and that’s why these guys are playing and a lot of these guys are playing. But we’re still gotta get outs and we gotta make pitches and our guys gotta make pitches. … You know, we’ll have right-handers, and obviously Josh [Hader] is a big weapon for us that makes the other guys think. He’s tough on everybody, but I think he’s really tough on left-handed hitters, as he’s shown. So we have some choices there and that’s part of the reason we feel like we’ve had some success.
“Really, after playing a month of September baseball, there’s only five players on the bench, it feels like nothing, to be honest with you.”
Second, Roberts, who is a Yu Darvish start from already having won this once, who is in the squishy position of having to win every game every day, and who arrives with the far more experienced team.
Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-jin Ryu, Walker Buehler, Rich Hill (in that order)
Even mid-game deficits against the Brewers are dangerous and possibly fatal, so how long Roberts sticks with even the best of his starters while trying to protect the Dodgers’ soft middle relief could determine the series.
He’s the closer. He pitches the ninth inning with a lead. Because he suffers from a heart ailment and more frequent ninth-inning volatility, he does not appear to be the same pitcher who last October pitched more than an inning five times. The seventh- and eighth-inning matchups with Pedro Báez, Kenta Maeda, Scott Alexander and Dylan Floro become critical.
The Dodgers platoon in as many as four positions. The Brewers will start left-handed pitchers – Gonzalez and Miley – in Games 1 and 2. So, do the Dodgers go right-handed heavy, knowing both Brewers starters might not be asked to pitch any more than once through the order? Or do they sell out early, grabbing the favorable matchups – David Freese at first base, for example – while they exist? Kikè Hernández (and not Brian Dozier) was the choice at second in the Division Series against all comers, narrowing the possible platoons to first base (Max Muncy or Freese), left field (Joc Pederson or Chris Taylor) and right field (Yasiel Puig against righties, Matt Kemp against lefties). Cody Bellinger has become the regular center fielder, though he frequently finishes games at first base. In Game 1, Roberts said Thursday night, Freese will start at first and Muncy, 7 for 24 with three home runs as a pinch-hitter, will be on the bench.
“There’s gonna be some chess played this series,” Roberts said. “And that’s part of the fun.”
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