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Brewers manager Craig Counsell implements plan to help curb spread of COVID-19
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Brewers manager Craig Counsell implements plan to help curb spread of COVID-19

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MILWAUKEE — Chemistry and a tight-knit clubhouse have been leading ingredients for the Milwaukee Brewers’ success under manager Craig Counsell, who has preached the importance of staying connected and being a good teammate since taking over in 2015.

During the team’s off day Thursday, though, Counsell made it clear that camaraderie was strictly forbidden.

“It’s official,” Counsell said after Milwaukee’s 4-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday at American Family Field. “We’re going to stay away from each other.”

The dictum comes as the Brewers try to suppress a slow but growing outbreak of COVID-19 cases. Since losing outfielder Christian Yelich to a positive test on July 27, Milwaukee has placed seven more players into Major League Baseball’s protocols: pitchers Josh Hader, Hunter Strickland, Jake Cousins, Jandal Gustave and Eric Lauer; utility player Jace Peterson and first baseman Keston Hiura, who tested positive after he was optioned to Class AAA Nashville over the weekend.

Peterson did not test positive, but was placed in quarantine due to contact tracing. So was Gustave, who has spent the week quarantining in an Atlanta hotel after he was deemed to have come in close contact with a teammate who tested positive.

“It’s certainly on everybody’s mind because it keeps popping up but you do the best you can,” Counsell said. “You’re not really sure but the fact that we can stay away from each other (Thursday), hopefully that helps us.

“It’s something that’s around us, for sure, so we have to be mindful of it and do our best.”

The Brewers were one of MLB’s first teams to reach an 85% vaccination level, which allowed for loosening of some restrictions regarding masks, distancing and leaving the team hotel while on the road.

The high vaccination rate makes the recent outbreak frustrating and makes mitigation efforts difficult.

“It’s confusing for everybody because you become less sure how to protect yourself,” Counsell said. “We’re trying to kind of get guys away from each other when we can. We sent some guys home the other night that we knew were going to be involved in the game. We’ll continue to do that in order to separate guys.”

Yelich was among a group of players to take part in a team vaccination event earlier this season, receiving the one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot. Despite the inoculation, Yelich reported mild symptoms, which led to a test, then a positive result and ultimately more than a week of quarantine.

He underwent another round of testing Wednesday and, depending on the results, was scheduled to go through a physical workout Thursday with an eye on returning perhaps as early this weekend. The Brewers haven’t ruled out getting him at-bats in a minor league game before putting him back in the starting lineup.

“We’re going to need to figure out a plan with activity for him,” Counsell said.

The spread has had a drastic effect on the bullpen, especially in the late innings.

Hader has converted 22 of 23 save opportunities. Cousins has emerged as a dependable seventh-inning option, ahead of setup man Devin Williams and Hader. Gustave and Strickland also were regular choices for high-leverage situations.

The Brewers added bullpen depth at the trade deadline, dealing for right-hander John Curtiss and left-hander Daniel Norris. But the depleted ranks have led to a scramble to find more help which is why the team acquired veteran right-handers John Axford (now out for the season with an arm injury) and Sal Romano.

“There feels like a lot of unknown right now,” Counsell said. “So (the front office is) going to be active.”

In the meantime, relievers such as Brad Boxberger and Williams, who earned his first career save on Wednesday, will find themselves pitching in slightly different roles until the team is back to full strength.

“Different names have to step up,” Counsell said. “That’s how it’s going to have to work. We’ve dealt with this off and on throughout the year, whether it was injuries and now COVID so other guys are going to get the ball and have to step up.”

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