MILWAUKEE — Jordan Lyles has become the outlier in the Milwaukee Brewers rotation.
Acquired in July, Lyles has become a rare Brewers starter who is allowed to pitch past the fifth inning in September.
Lyles couldn’t quite get there Thursday, going 4⅔ innings in the Brewers’ 5-1 victory over the San Diego Padres at Miller Park. But the right-hander has reached the sixth inning in two of his four September starts, making him the only starter to do so since the rosters expanded on Sept. 1.
Normally, that many short starts would indicate an utter failure of the rotation, but not with the Brewers, not in September.
A second consecutive late-season run has put Milwaukee back in the thick of the National League Central Division race with 10 days to play. Thursday’s victory put the Brewers at 14-4 in September, the best record in the major leagues. A year ago, the Brewers roared back with a 20-7 record after Sept. 1, running down the Chicago Cubs to win the division title.
People have been searching for reasons why the Brewers have gone 34-11 the last two Septembers and some are obvious. They’re a resilient bunch, they’ve started getting clutch hits again and they suddenly got healthy (other than Christian Yelich, of course). But the common thread for the Brewers over the last two Septembers has been a dominant bullpen.
Indeed, the combination of an extraordinarily deep bullpen, manager Craig Counsell’s willingness to use it creatively and starters who embrace his methods has given the Brewers a late-season advantage. They’ve found a formula that works for them with the expanded rosters of September and they’re rolling with it.
“It’s the strategy that we used last year and it certainly led to a good September,” said Brent Suter, a former starter who joined the bullpen after returning from Tommy John surgery on Sept. 1. “With all the guys we have — I think we have 20 pitchers on the staff right now — the whole is better than the parts.”
A year ago, it was Corey Knebel, Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress who provided air-tight coverage over the final three innings. After a brief stumble in early August, Hader has once again become unhittable, but Knebel missed the season following Tommy John surgery and Jeffress was released after battling a dead arm all season.
Replacing them has been a new cast of September savants. Joining Hader are Suter, Drew Pomeranz, who was acquired at the trade deadline, situational lefty Alex Claudio, young Freddie Peralta, who opened the season as a starter, and capable veterans Junior Guerra, Jay Jackson and Matt Albers.
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“We’ve gotten ourselves in a place where I feel like we’ve got a bunch of weapons in the bullpen again,” Counsell said. “It’s not one guy. It’s multiple guys we can go to. To go through a stretch like this, that’s what you need.”
Having so many arms at his disposal means Counsell can manage differently than he did the first five months of the season. There’s safety in numbers and with 14 relief pitchers, Counsell has almost developed a platoon system to keep them fresh.
“You’re never going to run out,” he said. “That’s always a luxury. It just is. It allows you to be more aggressive. It allows you to get guys rest. I think it’s allowed our guys to get into a lot of big situations and they’ve had success and they’ve gotten confidence from that. I think really what it’s done for us it has almost expanded our group of guys that we’re leaning on. I think that’s worked for us. I think it’s helped our starters just from the fact that they just go hard for as long as they can.”
The strong, deep bullpen perfectly complements a starting staff that for the most part lacks top-of-the-rotation arms. The bullpen has been outstanding since September began, but the starters have also pitched better knowing they’re only going to go twice through the order.
It can be a hard sell for a manager to remove a starter who is pitching well in the fourth or fifth inning. Nevertheless, Counsell thinks the starters understand the Brewers are in must-win mode and he’s managing with that in mind.
“From my perspective, we’ve been in playoff games from the last day of August,” he said. “That’s how we’ve treated the games. We’ve had to. So we’re going to do everything we can to win every game. Sometimes it’s just, ‘Hey, your spot’s up in the lineup and we’re going to try to score. That may cost you an inning, but that’s just a tradeoff we have to make.’ It’s got nothing to do with not thinking they can get outs. It’s just a tradeoff that you’re making. ... My thought process right now is, lets be aggressive and try to score and because we have numbers in the bullpen, we’ll still be able to put together 12 outs or 15 outs.”
According to Counsell, the No. 1 priority of general manager David Stearns is building depth. He said it’s at the forefront of every conversation they have, one reason the Brewers have so many capable pitchers in the bullpen.
Relievers allowed only one run in 19⅓ innings as Milwaukee won three of four against San Diego.
With new rules going into place next season that will cap the final-month roster at 28, this might be the last year the Brewers can use their “bullpenning” strategy. But they can worry about that later. For now, it’s the reason they’re playing meaningful games in September.