SportsPulse: MLB insider Bob Nightengale breaks down the NLCS and predicts who’s going to the World Series.
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. 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 National League Championship Series. Manager Craig Counsell pulled 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.
“We’re a fun team to watch,” infielder Travis Shaw told USA TODAY Sports. “I think once people get to watch us a little bit, they’ll enjoy watching us.”
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.
Part of that is the length of games and the late starts – Friday’s game lasted 4 hours and 2 minutes and 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.
Take Friday’s game.
Gonzalez hadn’t pitched since Sept. 30, so he was fresh enough to pitch a complete game. Yet Counsell’s plan was to have him go two innings and let the bullpen take over. Sure enough, he 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.
“It certainly changed the energy in our dugout from what you think is going to be the kind of grind-it-out game against Clayton,” Counsell said. “That happens, it gives everybody life.”
With Woodruff dealing as he was, you’d think Counsell might have let him go deeper in the game. Nope. When Woodruff’s spot in the order came up in the fourth, Counsell brought Domingo Santana in to pinch-hit.
Smart move, as Santana drove in a pair of runs with a single to left.
“It’s a breath of fresh air,” Gonzalez said. “You’ve got this kind of stuff where you’ve never been a part of it and now you’re doing it. It’s exciting to see the revolution.”
OK, but some pitchers would be less than pleased at getting such a quick hook. When that question was posed to him, however, Gonzalez’s face left no doubt how crazy that idea is.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “At the end of the day, everybody’s pitching. Everybody gets a chance to pitch. Which is what you’re playing this game for. Everybody wants to be a part of it. Everybody wants to grab an at-bat.”
That’s the most appealing part of these Brewers. They’re playing with the kind of abandon that made them fall in love with the game in the first place. The roster is a glorious mishmash of home-grown products and castoffs reveling in a second chance, so they don’t much care what roles they’re playing or who’s getting the credit.
Derek Jeter will rue the day he thought trading Christian Yelich was a good idea — if he doesn’t already. Jesus Aguilar, whose solo homer in the seventh turned out to be the game-winner, 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.
“We play like a family,” Aguilar said. “We don’t got like a specific hero. The most important thing is to win games.”
And win games they are, 12 in a row — thus, the free hamburgers from local institution George Webb.
The team that wins Game 1 of the NLCS is an overwhelming favorite to reach the World Series. Since the NLCS expanded to seven games 32 years ago, the Game 1 winner has gone on to clinch the pennant 23 times. The last team to buck that trend was the San Francisco Giants back in 2012.
Which means the whole country could be seeing more of the Brewers, like it or not.
“It’s something different,” Shaw said. “The three teams that are left besides us have all been there, done that. We haven’t been … so it’ll be a nice change.”
If you don’t enjoy what the Brewers are doing, then you don’t really enjoy baseball.
And you sure don’t enjoy fun.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.