Saturday, October 20, 2018

Ignore the haters, quirky Milwaukee Brewers are team baseball should love

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SportsPulse: MLB insider Bob Nightengale breaks down the NLCS and predicts who’s going to the World Series.
USA TODAY

MILWAUKEE — The Milwaukee Brewers are the last team Major League Baseball and Fox executives want to see in the World Series.

Why do they hate fun?

Yes, the Brewers are a small-market team. The smallest of the small markets, to be exact. They don’t have the cachet of the Los Angeles Dodgers or the Boston Red Sox, and they don’t have Houston’s bragging rights. Their manager defies baseball convention every chance he gets. The radio guy rivals the soon-to-be NL MVP for star power. 

But, man, is Milwaukee fun.

Just the kind of wacky fun baseball needs.

The Brewers took down the mighty Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers on Friday night with the kind of quirky game you’d normally see in spring training, not Game 1 of the NL Championship Series. Manager Craig Counsell yanked the not-awful Gio Gonzalez after two innings, the pitcher who relieved him took Kershaw deep and the guy who pinch-hit for him singled in a pair of runs.

There also was a catcher’s interference call to keep one inning alive, and an overturned call on a steal to extend another one. The closer nearly gave the game away, only to strike Yasiel Puig out. 

And if that’s not enough for you, the 6-5 victory gives all of Milwaukee a free hamburger.

See, wacky.   

You wouldn’t know it from the rabid, towel-waving, sold-out crowd at Miller Park, but baseball is in the doldrums. Attendance was down sharply this season, TV ratings lag well behind the NFL’s and kids just don’t dig baseball like they used to.

More: NFL certainly has its issues, but Major League Baseball is the one that’s truly suffering

More: Baseball will experience its first big attendance dip in a decade. Can MLB regain lost ground?

More: As Dodgers win big with extreme platooning, a theme emerges: ‘Throw your ego out the door’

Part of that is the length of games and the late starts – Friday’s game ended at 12:14 p.m. Eastern. But the bigger problem is that all the fun has been sucked out of baseball by esoteric stats, shifts and pitch counts that serve the same purpose as bubble wrap.

The Brewers are not immune to this. Few other managers have embraced the shift like Counsell, and he’s a matchup savant.

But he’s not afraid to turn traditional philosophy on its head, either.

Friday’s game was a perfect example. It’s true Gonzalez, who went 2-0 in five starts after the Brewers acquired him at the trade deadline, had given up a leadoff homer to Manny Machado in the second and walked Enrique Hernandez two batters later. But the Dodgers didn’t look to be getting to him by any stretch.

No matter. Counsell brought Brandon Woodruff in to pitch the third, and he retired the Dodgers in order the next two innings.

He also took Kershaw deep to right-center to lead off the bottom of the inning and tie the game.

With Woodruff dealing like that, you’d think Counsell might have let him go. Nope. When Woodruff’s spot in the order came up in the fourth, he brought Domingo Santana in to pinch-hit. Smart move, as Santana drove in a pair of runs with a single to left.

This is the same manager who had a bullpen day in Game 1 of the NL Divisional Series, mind you. And has raised a few eyebrows by not announcing his starting pitcher in timely fashion.

“Look, it’s no secret that we’re going to use our pitching a little differently than the traditionalists would like,” Counsell said Thursday.

“You’re using your team’s talents the best way you can to win games,” he added. “We’re trying to figure out what’s the best way for us to put together a tough 27 outs and make it tough on them and get those outs as fast as we can. And so we’re considering a different way to put that puzzle together.”

The Brewers have now won 12 in a row – thus, the free hamburgers from local institution George Webb – and are playing with the kind of abandon that made them fall in love with the game in the first place. And why shouldn’t they? The roster is a glorious mishmash of home-grown products and castoffs reveling in a second chance.

Derek Jeter will rue the day he thought trading Christian Yelich was a good idea — if he doesn’t already. Jesus Aguilar, who hit a solo homer in the seventh, bounced around the minors and had a few cups of coffee in Cleveland over three seasons before the Brewers claimed him off waivers before last season. Mike Moustakas escaped the purgatory that is now Kansas City before the trade deadline.

“The best part about this team is we’re having fun doing what we’re doing right now,” Moustakas said during the NLDS. “We’re enjoying coming to work every single day.”

That kind of fun is infectious. Baseball could do a lot worse than catch it this postseason. 

***

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

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