Image credit: Craig Counsell (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
No major league manager makes better use of an overcrowded clubhouse than Craig Counsell.
For the second consecutive season, the Brewers’ homegrown manager took full advantage of expanded September rosters to do what seemed impossible at the outset of the month—lead Milwaukee to a playoff berth.
When you don’t have Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole in your rotation, or Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, you do what is necessary to record 27 outs and notch a victory. For Counsell and the Brewers, that meant “bullpening” the heck out of games over the final month, using the extra arms provided by expanded rosters.
How tunnel-visioned was Counsell in doing whatever was necessary to achieve those 27 outs? So much so that he often refrained from using the terms “starters” and “relievers” when referring to those who parade to the mound. Instead, he merely refers to them as “out-getters.”
Counsell also eschewed longtime norms such as pitch counts, often pulling his pitcher before nearing 100 pitches. Sometimes, that was done primarily to get a pinch-hitter to the plate in a close game. But more often than not Counsell relied on analytical information that cautioned against letting his starter go through a lineup the third time.
Counsell’s pitcher flexibility was essential over the final weeks of the season, with budding ace Brandon Woodruff sidelined with an oblique strain. The workhorse righthander had been the one pitcher whom Counsell could depend on to go deep into games, and in his absence, the Brewers’ bullpen door swung open early and often.
It didn’t look good on Sept. 5 when the Brewers dropped the opener of a four-game series at home against the Cubs. The loss dropped them to 7.5 games behind the first-place Cardinals in the rugged National League Central and also five games in back of the Cubs for the second NL wild card. With several other clubs in that wild card race, it didn’t look favorable for Milwaukee to return to the postseason for the second consecutive season.
The previous September, the Brewers trailed the first-place Cubs by five games in the division race on Labor Day but had the safety net of sitting in the first wild card spot. They put together a remarkable final-month surge, culminating with seven consecutive victories to pull even with Chicago and force a Game No. 163 at Wrigley Field. The Brewers won that showdown to claim an improbable division crown and went on to push the heavily-favored Dodgers to a Game 7 in the NL Championship Series before bowing.
Once again in 2019, the Brewers were in must-win mode virtually every game down the stretch. And they came close to doing exactly that, going 18-2 to reel in the Cubs once again, this time for a wild card spot. In the process, the Brewers forced the Cardinals to keep winning to capture the division, which wasn’t secured until the final game of the season.
Along the way, the Brewers suffered what many considered a death knell to their playoff hopes. On Sept. 10 in Miami, reigning MVP Christian Yelich fouled a pitch off his right kneecap, fracturing it.
The consensus was that the Brewers were done. But Counsell had established a winning culture in the clubhouse, one in which he stressed staying “connected,” meaning they would always have each other’s backs.
So the Brewers plowed forward, with Counsell’s deft manipulation of the pitching staff becoming more important than ever. He had a unique weapon at the end of games in closer Josh Hader, a strikeout sensation, and it was up to Counsell to figure out how to get to him near the end of games with a lead.
Even the manner in which Counsell deployed Hader was unique. Rather than limit him to the final three outs of a game, which would have made him available more frequently, Counsell didn’t hesitate to ask five or six outs from Hader, realizing that he would be off-limits for the next game or two.
The thinking was to win today’s game and worry about tomorrow’s game tomorrow. When you can’t afford to lose a game, it’s the only sensible M.O. Counsell proved to be a master at it, leading his team to a second consecutive 20-7 record over the final month.
A complicating factor in 2019 was the loss of two reliable bullpen arms to support Hader. Corey Knebel was lost for the season when he had Tommy John surgery in spring training. Jeremy Jeffress began the year on the injured list with a shoulder issue and never really caught up, struggling through outings before finally being released on Sept. 1.
That left Counsell to plot and plan a course every night to get the game to Hader with a lead, assuming he was available to pitch. That became easier when rosters expanded, but Counsell still had to rely on unheralded arms such as Junior Guerra, Alex Claudio and Jay Jackson, with a late boost from trade acquisition Drew Pomeranz.
On the night the Brewers clinched a playoff berth in Cincinnati, before the champagne spraying began in earnest, Counsell gathered his players and gave them this message: “Look around. This is what a team looks like.”
Woodruff returned in time to start the Wild Card Game against the Nationals, and Counsell didn’t hesitate to give Hader the ball in the eighth inning with a 3-1 lead. This time, the Nationals rallied for three runs to pull out a tense 4-3 victory, jump-starting an improbable October run to their first World Series crown.
But Counsell again had squeezed blood out of the proverbial baseball turnip, getting everything he could out of his team to notch the Brewers’ first back-to-back playoff berths since 1981 and ’82.
Managing can be a volatile position. Counsell was hired by the Brewers a month into the 2015 season, signaling the beginning of an organization-wide rebuild. He is still going strong, even as other managers fall by the wayside, and Counsell is now the longest-tenured manager in the NL.
“I think we’re fortunate that we’ve had the stability in that position that we’ve had,” said Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns, who joined the team after Counsell was in place as manager and wisely kept him.
“Obviously, that’s something that a lot of organizations are seeking right now, and Craig’s been a big part of the success we’ve had here over the last couple years.”