MILWAUKEE — Craig Counsell had this week circled on his calendar since the start of spring training.
The Milwaukee Brewers’ manager knew the three-game series against the Reds in Cincinnati would be important in terms of the standings, but it also marked the start of a daunting stretch of 33 games in 34 days leading up to the All-Star break.
It’s the kind of span that can wreak havoc on a team’s pitching staff. It’s even more concerning this year since Tuesday’s game marks Milwaukee’s 60th of the season, which matches the total number of games played during the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign.
Heading into the season, how best to manage pitchers’ workloads while returning to a normal 162-game schedule was one of the biggest questions faced by all 30 teams.
“I think we’re in a good spot with our (pitchers),” Counsell said. “I’m really happy with that part of it. We’ve been relatively healthy and I think those guys are in a really good place.”
Getting to that “good spot” was a result of several proactive approaches, starting with an adjustments to spring training work followed by some early exits during games in April and May.
The Brewers also have managed to give their starters an extra day of rest ahead of nearly every one of their starts by taking advantage of scheduled off days and using an extra starter when the schedule doesn’t provide a break.
“We thought early in the year that it could be a significant difference for these guys if give them an extra day between every start that they make,” Counsell said. “We’re putting these guys in a good position to bounce back and recover because the season gets harder as it goes along.”
Right-hander Freddy Peralta has made the biggest jump, covering 64 innings this year after working 29⅓ in 2020, while Brandon Woodruff’s 76 innings are 2⅓ more than he threw all of last season. Corbin Burnes will equal his 2020 total when he records his first out in his next outing.
“I think we’ve done a great job so far,” said right-hander Adrian Houser, who’ll also pass his 2020 total in his next appearance. “We’ve been open with each other about how we’re all feeling and stuff like that so I think we’re on the right track.”
The increased workload also is a concern for the relief corps, possibly more so because it’s more difficult to build in extra days of rest for pitchers such as closer Josh Hader, who is 4⅔ innings beyond the 19 he worked in 2020, and Brent Suter, who is one inning behind his 31⅔ last season.
To help ease pressure on the bullpen, president of baseball operations David Stearns put an emphasis on stockpiling pitching depth during the offseason. The team has traditionally been fluid with the final spots on its roster in order to keep fresh arms available throughout the season but some pitchers — such as Hader, Devin Williams and even Suter — are nearly impossible to replace, even temporarily.
“The guys who are going to pitch — Devin, Bent, Josh, Brad — we’re counting on those guys that, when the score is such and they’re able to pitch, they pitch,” Counsell said. “We’ve got four more months of that.”
If the Brewers’ offense can continue its recent surge, it would go a long way to helping Counsell protect his late-inning, high-leverage relief options. Twenty-one home runs were produced during the past 10 games, all but one of which were victories.
When the offense is clicking and putting early runs on the board, starting pitchers can be more aggressive and, as a result, be more efficient and work deeper into games, which allows Counsell to conserve his relievers.
Late-inning insurance runs play an even bigger role because in many cases, they can create enough separation that Counsell doesn’t have to turn to Williams or Hader to protect and save close contests.
“Score separation is critical,” Counsell said. “We have to allow (the relievers) to have rest so we can put these guys in the right spots when we do have narrow leads.”