It will be all hands on deck for Brewers' make-or-break final homestand of the season

Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell waits for relief pitcher Hoby Milner (55) to enter the game  during the fourth inning of their game against the New York Mets Tuesday, September 20, 2022 at American Family Field in Milwaukee, Wis.
Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell waits for relief pitcher Hoby Milner (55) to enter the game during the fourth inning of their game against the New York Mets Tuesday, September 20, 2022 at American Family Field in Milwaukee, Wis.

In each of the previous four Septembers, the Milwaukee Brewers’ charge into the postseason was defined by manager Craig Counsell’s all-hands-on-deck approach with his pitching.

“Bullpenning” became the norm and worked extremely well – so much so that other teams began to employ similar methods following the Brewers’ first crack at it back in 2018, when they finished a game shy of their second-ever World Series appearance.

Milwaukee now finds itself in a do-or-die stretch with nine remaining home games that will determine whether it advances to the postseason yet again.

Will he manage yet again in the same manner?

“I think we have,” he said prior to Tuesday’s series opener with the St. Louis Cardinals at American Family Field. The Brewers ultimately lost, 6-2, to fall to 13-12 for the month but remained 1½ games behind the Philadelphia Phillies for the third and final wild-card spot in the National League after they fell to the Chicago Cubs.

“I think we've done everything for a while now that would indicate that it has been (do or die),” he continued. “I think our guys have responded. I think we've pitched really well. We pitched really well in Cincinnati. I think we've pitched pretty well for a while now.

“We've got to get 27 outs for nine straight games. You think about that in a playoff series, too. There's no magic that happens. There's nothing different.

“We'll just try to get 27 outs.”

With starters Eric Lauer and Freddy Peralta each returning from the injured list in a three-day span in Cincinnati over the weekend, Counsell eased both back into action.

Lauer threw 66 pitches in 2⅔ innings of work in a Brewers victory Friday while Peralta lasted 44 over two innings in what might wind up being a very costly 2-1 loss Sunday.

Aaron Ashby, who like Lauer and Peralta had spent a spell on the IL, made his second appearance since returning in relief of Peralta but it didn’t go well as he struggled with his command.

Beyond rotation anchors Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff, the plan moving forward is going to be a bit more fluid with who starts and who will provide innings out of the bullpen.

“Eric, we've got a start scheduled for him so I don't think you'll see him,” Counsell said with regard to starters who might pitch out of the ‘pen. “But there's a chance you see Freddy and Aaron in both roles.”

The picture became even murkier on Tuesday when Houser strained his right groin delivering a pitch in the fourth inning. Counsell said it will likely require an IL stint, meaning Houser is done for at least the rest of the regular season.

"We’re trying to make a postseason push and we need everybody healthy," Houser said afterward. "So this definitely sucks a little worse."

It's been a forgettable season for Houser, who dropped to 6-10 and saw his ERA rise to 4.73 after 23 appearances (22 starts). He missed two months with an elbow injury earlier in the season, and also lost his arbitration case against the Brewers.

"Started off good, then I had a rough patch and then the injury," he said. "I felt like we were starting to get back into a good groove here after the rehab for the elbow. Just kind of a tough-luck year for me.

"Wasn’t able to get into the right groove and stay there."

Counsell generally can count on Burnes and Woodruff to deliver a minimum of six innings per start.

Beyond them, it’s fair to assume Counsell will be fairly aggressive in how he manages his staff of relievers.

He has versatility at the back end of games. But beyond Devin Williams and Brad Boxberger as well as Hoby Milner in a matchup/bridge role, the rest of the bullpen has performed rather inconsistently.

Getting the likes of Taylor Rogers and Matt Bush on track could prove huge.

“I think it remains to be seen,” said Counsell of whether there’s going to be more pressure on the bullpen the rest of the way. “I think it's a little bit of how the games go. That's probably where it's different. I don't think you send your starter out there counting on a certain number of pitches necessarily at this point.

“You look at the number of outs and where you are in the game. You're not necessarily just worried about the number of pitches they're thrown.”

Home sweet home

The Brewers are now 42-31 at home, sixth-best in the NL.

After one more against the Cardinals, they host the Miami Marlins for four games Thursday through Sunday and then finish up their home slate with three against the Arizona Diamondbacks – games that were originally scheduled to open the season but were pushed back to the finale because of the lockout.

Considering what's at stake, the way things have shaken out couldn't have been laid out more perfectly as Milwaukee seeks to join the Los Angeles Dodgers (10), Houston Astros (six), New York Yankees (six) and Atlanta Braves (five) as the only teams in the majors to advance to the playoffs each of the last five years.

"You get two choices there and we'll take the option that we've got," Counsell said. "We've got the good side of the coin, and we hope to use it to our advantage."

Knowing what's at stake, Counsell was asked if there's an even greater sense of urgency facing the team.

"You can say that, but I don't know what changes," he said. "That's the best way to say it. There's urgency in every game but the fewer games you have, the less time there is for things to happen.

"There's urgency every single time you play, and you have to treat it like that."

If there was one positive to come out of Tuesday, it was that the Phillies also lost.

"That’s the stuff that’s out of our control," Counsell said. "It helps that they lost. It puts us in the same position going into tomorrow and gives us more control.

"It’s a good thing."

Sounding off

Despite being entrenched in his own team's battles, Counsell is well aware of the season the Brewers' Class AAA affiliate, the Nashville Sounds, have turned in.

With two games remaining, Nashville (91-57) has clinched the International League's West Division (the franchise's 12th division crown) as well as the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in Triple-A Championship Weekend.

The Sounds will face the East Division champion and the winner of that series will face the Pacific Coast League champion on Oct. 2 in Las Vegas.

"There's a number of players who have spent a large chunk of the season there or the whole year there -- I think of Brice Turang right away -- and I think it's really meaningful," Counsell said. "And I think it's meaningful for the staff there that puts in all that work and has earned a reward for that.

"Just to be able to focus on winning, to have it matter, to have it play a part in your day every day, there's benefits to that. Exactly where and when, you don't necessarily know. But going through those experiences help."

In addition to Turang, outfielders Sal Frelick, Esteury Ruiz and Joey Wiemer as well as catcher Mario Feliciano and left-handers Ethan Small and Robert Gasser are among the organization's top overall prospects who are playing for the Sounds.

Garrett Mitchell, currently up with the Brewers, was another who contributed to Nashville.

"There's no question that a lot of members of that team are going to be big contributing members of the Milwaukee Brewers in 2023," Counsell said.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: All hands on deck for Brewers in their final homestand of the season