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The Brewers Tried to Fool the Dodgers With a Pitching Trick From a Century Ago

Milwaukee lost Game 5 to fall behind L.A., 3-2, in the NLCS, but not because of Craig Counsell’s innovative starting-pitching tomfoolery, which worked—kind of

League Championship Series - Milwaukee Brewers v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Five Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

“Well, it appears we’re in a bit of a pickle.”

Joe Buck’s hologrammed head beams from the living room wall, his brow furrowing as he explains to the viewing public why tonight’s game is in an unexpected delay.

“Game 2 of the 2028 World Series was scheduled to start at 8:07, but it’s already 8:05, and we’re still waiting on tonight’s lineups. The Marlins have four arms warming up to pitch, but player-manager Giancarlo Stanton, back in Miami for the final season of his contract, won’t announce which one will start until he sees his counterpart’s lineup card.

“But Mexico City’s manager won’t turn in that card until he learns the identity of the starting pitcher. If Stanton calls on Smith, a lefty, he’ll go one way—but if Stanton chooses Veras, a righty with a power sinker; or Williams, a righty who throws from a sidearm crouch; or Valderrama, a righty who can hit 107 with his fastball and 99 with his changeup, he’ll go a different direction.

“It’s all about the matchups in the playoffs, folks, and neither manager wants to surrender the advantage. The World Series will return when they break their staredown, but for now, a message from our sponsor, Facebook—making the world a safer, happier, and more peaceful place since 2004.”

Brewers manager Craig Counsell fooled everyone—kind of. In the first inning of Game 5 of this year’s NLCS—an eventual 5-2 win for the Dodgers and Clayton Kershaw—on a sunny afternoon in Los Angeles just half a day after Game 4 ended in an extra-inning whirlwind, Milwaukee starter Wade Miley walked leadoff batter Cody Bellinger, and Miley’s manager immediately strode to the mound. Miley walked off, the bullpen gate opened, and the Dodger Stadium crowd booed, hollered, and booed some more.

Miley was starting on short rest for the first time in his career—and, by his telling, his life. The day before, the 31-year-old lefty laughed when asked about his upcoming start, telling reporters, “I guess it’s a new experience. We’ll see how it goes. Looking forward to it.” But the Brewers didn’t have another available starter on their initial NLCS roster, with Jhoulys Chacín throwing in Game 3 and Gio González in Game 4, so Miley it was. Until, one batter in, it wasn’t.

In came Brandon Woodruff, a right-handed complement to southpaw Miley, and the Brewers’ bullpen succession began. It was a calculated and premeditated gamble by Milwaukee, which evidently planned all along to start Miley on usual rest in Game 6 and use Wednesday’s brief outing as the equivalent to his normal between-starts bullpen session.

“That’s what we were going to do all along,” Counsell said after the game, explaining that the Brewers conceived of this plan as soon as they won Game 3 to guarantee that there would be a Game 6 for Miley to start. “They’re trying to get matchups; we’re trying to get matchups. They’re a very tough team to get matchups against.”

As a manufactured effort to create those advantageous matchups, the ploy paid off, but again, only kind of. Because Miley was starting, the left-handed Max Muncy was hitting fifth, below his usual spot in the order, and righty David Freese, who typically doesn’t face same-handed pitchers, was hitting third. Had the Dodgers been caught more unawares, Counsell’s trick would have resulted in an unqualified strategic success, regardless of the game’s result—L.A. has already run out of bench players twice in this series, so manager Dave Roberts could ill afford to accelerate his bench usage.

But Muncy and Bellinger, who usually sit against left-handed pitchers, were both in the lineup, and Matt Kemp, who serves as a strict platoon batter like Freese, wasn’t. Ken Rosenthal reported that L.A. suspected what was coming, which is why they made those lineup decisions rather than bench Muncy and Bellinger and start Kemp, as they did against Miley in his Game 2 start. As it turned out, Freese batted just once, with two runners on in the first inning, and Woodruff struck him out swinging. Before his second at-bat, Freese was removed for—of course—a left-handed hitter, so all the tomfoolery, which apparently lasted multiple days and involved multiple parties, carried the ultimate outcome of burning Freese, perhaps the Dodgers’ least important position player.

Counsell was drawing on a nearly century-old example. In Game 7 of the 1924 World Series, Washington Senators manager Bucky Harris used the same gambit, pulling nominal starter Curly Ogden, a righty, for the left-handed George Mogridge after just two batters. Harris’s opponent, Hall of Fame Giants manager John McGraw, eventually pinch-hit for left-handed middle-of-the-order hitter Bill Terry in the sixth inning because of the platoon difference, leaving Terry unable to hit later in the game when Washington used righty relievers. Ogden secured one out, Mogridge 14, and the Senators eventually won in 12 innings for their first World Series title.

Milwaukee wasn’t so fortunate on Wednesday, as Woodruff ran out of steam in the middle innings and the Dodgers won to take a 3-2 series lead. But the Miley-Woodruff swap isn’t the reason the Brewers now trail. (Their offense, which scored three runs across 22 innings the last two days, is a much greater culprit than the pitching staff.) Sometimes the smart strategy doesn’t work because a baseball game involves hundreds of other factors, and luck and execution and weather and ballpark dimensions get in the way. Other times, apparently, the smart strategy is rendered less effective because the opposing manager has the chance to strategize, too, and Roberts anticipated Counsell’s chicanery and ably managed around it.

Counsell didn’t cost Milwaukee the game, and on a more macro level, his brand of managerial meddling doesn’t make playoff games less interesting, either. Milwaukee’s ploy isn’t a problem for the sport, and MLB needn’t legislate against it. It was the result of a very specific circumstance (key playoff game, with an off day to follow) and a very specific team (the bullpen-rich, generally rotation-poor Brewers) facing a very specific opponent (the Dodgers, who have, if anything, grown too enamored of their platoons this month).

Clayton Kershaw threw seven innings of one-run ball, striking out nine in a critical playoff game, to continue his personal playoff rollercoaster, and the main story instead is how Wade Miley, Brandon Woodruff, and Craig Counsell pulled off a pitching maneuver the sport hadn’t seen since, well, the Washington Senators and New York Giants were league powers. That’s fascinating. It’s also, perhaps, the future, but again, only in limited circumstances. The Kershaws of the sport will still pitch like they always have, and if fans are lucky, they’ll excel like Kershaw did on Wednesday.

Game 5 was a clash between the Dodgers and Brewers, between Kershaw and a surprising pitching counterpart, between a more traditional and a more hands-on approach to pitching and playoff gamesmanship. Milwaukee lost while employing the latter plan, but not because it employed the latter plan. And now, with L.A. one game away from the World Series, Miley is scheduled to start again, this time after an off day that allows the Brewers’ bullpen to rest. One wonders what tactics Counsell will cook up for that game.