When the Milwaukee Brewers advanced to the National League Championship Series in 2011, they had remarkable stability in their starting rotation that teams seldom enjoy.
Three pitchers, Yovani Gallardo, Randy Wolf and Shaun Marcum, did not miss a start that season, each making 33 appearances. The other two, Zack Greinke and Chris Narveson, were limited to 28 starts each by minor injuries. Only one other pitcher made starts — Marco Estrada, who filled in seven times.
Contrast that season-long stability with the constant state of flux in the Brewers’ starting rotation in 2018. Only one pitcher, Jhoulys Chacín, who emerged as the staff ace, made every start, taking the mound 35 times and going 15-8 with a 3.50 earned run average. On a team that won 96 games, Chacín was the only starter to record at least 10 victories.
In 2017, when the Brewers fell just one game short of qualifying for a wild-card berth, Jimmy Nelson (12-6, 3.49), Chase Anderson (12-4, 2.74) and Zach Davies (17-9, 3.90) were the top starters in the rotation. This season, Nelson never threw a pitch in a game while recovering from major shoulder surgery, and Anderson and Davies were excluded from the NL Division Series roster.
As you might have guessed by now, the Brewers’ rotation had many moving parts this year but it didn’t stop them from making it to the final four and a date with the Dodgers beginning Friday night at Miller Park. More than anything, the depth of starting pitching in the organization was tested, and passed with flying colors.
“You just have to stay ready,” said rookie Brandon Woodruff, who was in and out of the rotation and up and down from the minors all season but still started Game 1 of the NLDS sweep of Colorado. “When your name is called, go out and pitch and get the team off to a good start.
“I hadn’t really thought that Jhoulys was the only one (to pitch in the rotation all season). The front office knows what they’re doing, so we do whatever it takes to win games. As long as we win, it doesn’t matter how we do it.
Here is a look at the comings and goings among the “initial out-getters,” chronicled in the nine innings it takes to play a baseball game (and a distance no Brewers’ starter covered):
Veteran left-hander Wade Miley, signed to a minor-league deal shortly before spring training, had an excellent camp and was on the verge of being added to the roster when he strained a groin in his final exhibition start. A deal was struck in which Miley would stay in the organization and open the season on the disabled list. The Brewers headed to San Diego with a rotation of Chase Anderson, Chacin, Brent Suter, Davies and Woodruff. But Woodruff was sent down to Class AAA Colorado Springs after his first start, beginning a period of going up and down many times over the first two months of the season. In mid-April, Junior Guerra – the opening-day starter in 2017 whose season was marred by injuries and inconsistency – was recalled from Colorado Springs and began taking regular turns in the rotation, with solid results.
Having successfully completed a minor-league rehab assignment with Class AA Biloxi, Miley was summoned May 2 and inserted in the rotation. Suter, who struggled to a 2-3 record and 5.34 ERA over his first six starts, was reassigned to bullpen duty. But that switch did not last long. In his second start against Cleveland on May 8, Miley suffered an oblique strain in the first inning and returned to the disabled list. Remarkably, Suter took over in that game, turned in 4 2/3 solid innings and hit a home run off Indians ace Corey Kluber in a 3-2 victory. Just like that, he was back in the rotation. Five days before that game, Davies was placed on the disabled list with rotator cuff inflammation, beginning a frustrating odyssey that would see him miss more than half the season.
Woodruff was recalled May 11 for his third stint with the Brewers. He was roughed up in a start in Colorado, allowing nine hits and seven runs in three innings, but the offense covered him by overcoming a seven-run deficit and eventually winning, 11-10, in 10 innings. Anderson became ill that weekend in Denver, was placed on the DL and 21-year-old Freddy Peralta was summoned from nearby Colorado Springs to make an emergency start on Mother’s Day. In one of the most stunning debuts in franchise history, Peralta took a no-hitter into the sixth and recorded 13 strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings. Peralta would make one more start before returning to the minors when Anderson recovered from his illness and returned from the DL.
After a one-game rehab assignment with Class A Wisconsin, Davies was re-instated from the DL on May 24 but his return would be short-lived. After two poor outings (nine earned runs in nine innings), he returned to the DL with ongoing shoulder issues, which later would morph into an ailing lower back. Davies would not throw another pitch for the Brewers until September. Woodruff, the human yo-yo, was recalled to make one start in Philadelphia before being sent back to Colorado Springs, where he would remain for a month. Peralta was recalled June 19 and re-inserted in the rotation, and would stay there through August.
Just before the all-star break, Suter began experiencing forearm tightness and was placed on the DL. Unfortunately, it would lead to something much more serious a few weeks later. In his second start upon returning to action July 22, Suter’s discomfort level increased and he exited after three ineffective innings (seven hits, six runs in three innings). He underwent an MRI that revealed an injury every pitcher fears – a torn ulnar collateral ligament. Suter would undergo Tommy John surgery and was done for the year, with hopes of returning sometime late next season. Just like that, the Brewers lost the Swiss army knife of their staff, a pitcher who could perform effectively in any role.
After 60 agonizing days on the DL, Miley returned to action July 12 and immediately became one of the most reliable starters in the rotation, dominating opponents with his new best friend, the cutter. In 13 starts in the second half, Miley went 4-1 with a 2.60 ERA. With the all-star break approaching, Peralta was optioned to Class A Wisconsin, more of a paperwork move than anything. Guerra went on the DL with forearm tightness and returned after the 10-day minimum but would become increasingly ineffective as the second half progressed, leading to his exodus from the rotation in early September. Peralta returned after a two-week absence and was reinstated as a starter.
The Brewers were on the hunt for a starting pitcher before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, showing interest in Cincinnati’s Matt Harvey, among others. They were unable to strike a deal, so they forged ahead through August with a rotation of Chacín, Miley, Anderson, Peralta and Guerra. The entire pitching staff, starters and relievers, struggled throughout the month, posting a league-worst 5.33 ERA. Guerra went 0-2, 7.03 in five starts, pitching his way to bullpen duty. Struggling with his mechanics and home-run balls, Anderson posted a 5.61 ERA over five outings. With the offense picking up some of the slack, the Brewers were able to tread water, posting a 13-13 record to remain in the playoff hunt. Davies spent the entire month on minor-league rehab, trying to prove his shoulder and back were sufficiently healed to allow him to return to action.
On Aug. 31, the last day to acquire players and retain postseason eligibility, the Brewers finally satisfied those clamoring for a trade for an experienced starter. They picked up veteran lefty Gio Gonzalez, who was struggling badly in Washington, and added him to the rotation, replacing Guerra. One day earlier, Peralta was optioned to Colorado Springs after a rough start in Cincinnati, in part to control his innings for the season. In 14 starts, he went 6-4 with a 4.40 ERA, with 91 strikeouts in 73 2/3 innings, proving he has the stuff to be a big-league starter. Davies finally returned to action after a three-month absence and rejoined the rotation. With expanded rosters providing extra arms in an already stout bullpen, manager Craig Counsell shortened the leash on his “initial out-getters” throughout September, resulting in only two outings of at least six innings. That strategy proved quite successful, with the Brewers going 20-7 that month to catch the Cubs and beat them in Game 163, 3-1, to claim the NL Central crown.
The Brewers announced an 11-man pitching staff for the NLDS against Colorado, and Anderson – who was removed from the rotation with a week to go – and Davies were excluded. Three pitchers who had been starters at one point or another, Woodruff, Guerra and Peralta, were placed on the staff to provide multi-inning arms. Using the best-of-five format to their advantage, the Brewers showed a willingness to think out of the box by going with a “bullpen game” in the series opener, including three scoreless innings by Woodruff out of the chute. Chacín pitched on short rest in Game 2 and turned in five scoreless innings, and Miley nearly followed suit in Game 3 with 4 2/3 innings in the Brewers’ second consecutive shutout. The sweep allowed the Brewers to get by with only three “initial out-getters,” with Gonzalez warming up a few times in the bullpen but never seeing action. The NLCS is best-of-seven and usually prompts teams to use four starters, but the Brewers have shown a willingness to think out of the box.
It still seems a good bet that Chacín will start Game 1 against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday evening at Miller Park, and Miley would be ready for Game 2 if that’s the way the Brewers decide to go. After that, stay tuned.
“I think through the entire season we’ve relied on our pitching unit as a whole,” general manager David Stearns said. “We’re blurring the lines between starters and relievers. We’ve done that the entire year.
“Shorter series allow you to accentuate that. It worked well this year (against Colorado). Our group stepped up as a whole. We came in with a really solid game plan and we executed it. It’s really fun when you’re able to do that. It’s tremendous credit to our staff.”