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  • The Brewers Survived at Wrigley Field, and Now It's Craigtember

    Matthew Trueblood

    Leading the NL Central by four games when they began a three-game series at Wrigley Field Monday, the Brewers needed only to avoid a sweep to stay in control. They did that, and a little more, and now it's Craig Counsell's time to shine.

    Image courtesy of © Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

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    When the odds tilt in the Brewers' favor, Counsell is as aggressive as any manager in baseball about securing a victory. When things break against him, though, Counsell knows how to keep his powder dry and manage the grind of the long season. That, along with the assiduous roster construction the Milwaukee front office has always paired with him, is why the Brewers so consistently win more close games than they lose, and why they often seem to have more left in the final throes of a playoff race than do the teams they're battling.

    Still, no team can win every contest decided by a run or two, and anyone who tried too hard to do so would only damage themselves in the process. On Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon, the Cubs took back-to-back one-run games over the visiting Brewers, as Counsell managed carefully. He wanted the series victory, especially after the team won Wade Miley's start Monday night and turned to its twin aces for the last two games of the set, but he wants another division flag more.

    You could see the wheels turning in the seventh frame on Tuesday, when Counsell elected to let Corbin Burnes face Ian Happ with two runners on base and two outs. The Cubs already led the game 1-0, and Counsell had both Andrew Chafin and Abner Uribe warm in the bullpen. Chafin would have turned the switch-hitting Happ around, to his weaker side. Uribe has the dominant stuff to come into a tough spot like that one and generate a strikeout. However, Uribe also had serious control problems in Sunday's win over the Padres, and Chafin has been disappointing since the Brewers acquired him at the beginning of this month. 

    Even so, by the numbers, either guy would have been a better bet to get the team out of that situation than Burnes, whom Happ was seeing for the fourth time in the game and whose pitch count had climbed past 100. To maximize the chances of winning that game, Counsell could have gone to Chafin. To best preserve the arms of his whole staff, he could have gone to Uribe. Instead, he stuck with Burnes, which nicely illustrates the balance he's always seeking to strike. He gave the Brewers a chance to win the game, without chasing that win from behind via pitching decisions--a counterproductive trap into which many managers fall on a regular basis.

    The offense never got untracked on Tuesday or Wednesday, against the Cubs' best starters and highest-leverage bullpen arms. Counsell's ability to make something happen on that score was limited, as Carlos Santana missed Tuesday night's game with a sore ankle, and although they were largely successful on the bases and applied some pressure, they couldn't push runs across with the wind howling in off of Lake Michigan.

    However, because they played from behind much of the time and won comfortably on Monday night, Devin Williams didn't make an appearance in the series. After pitching seven times in the first 12 days of August, he'll finish the month having worked just four times over the final 19. A day off Thursday sets the Brewers up to charge into another big series, this time at home against the Wild Card-leading Phillies. When next they take the field, the team will have two new roster spots to play with, and their bullpen will be as fresh as it has been since Opening Day.

    For that reason, expect Counsell to flip a switch and get more proactive this weekend. With the injured Adrian Houser's roster spot coming up Saturday, either Colin Rea or lefty prospect Robert Gasser figures to get the start, and in either case, Counsell will be careful not to let the powerful Philadelphia lineup see the starter a third time. This is when the man who has only missed out on the NL Manager of the Year Award this long through the folly of the voters makes his money. Counsell has set his team up to hold serve against stiff competition this week, then rip through a softer stretch of the schedule, with the goal being to lock up the division crown and be a fresh, healthy bunch come the postseason. There have been better teams under Counsell's charge, but rarely have they entered the final month in better position than they're in right now.

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