MILWAUKEE — Craig Counsell and the Milwaukee Brewers relied on their bullpen all season long.
Those hard-throwing relievers finally ran out of gas in the NL Championship Series.
Josh Hader was brilliant as usual, but Jeremy Jeffress was tagged for a crucial three-run homer by Yasiel Puig and the Brewers never recovered, losing 5-1 to the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 7 on Saturday night.
“Devastated. We were right there,” Jeffress said.
Milwaukee’s deep bullpen played a key role in its closing push to a surprising NL Central title. Led by Hader, Jeffress and Corey Knebel, the Brewers led the National League with 42 wins by their relievers and finished second in the league with a 3.47 bullpen ERA.
Counsell continued to lean on Hader and Co. in the playoffs, with the Milwaukee manager putting his own spin on the “opener” strategy most notably employed by Tampa Bay this season. Brandon Woodruff replaced Gio Gonzalez after two innings in Game 1 against Los Angeles. Counsell had Wade Miley pitch to just one batter in Game 5 before pulling him, then started him again in Milwaukee’s 7-2 victory Friday night in Game 6.
But all those innings, getting up and down and warming up repeatedly, finally got to Milwaukee’s bullpen in the NLCS — especially Jeffress. The Dodgers got a good, long look at the Brewers’ best relievers in the first two games, and it helped them close out the series in Game 7.
Milwaukee’s starters had a 2.66 ERA in the NLCS, but they accounted for only 20 1/3 innings. The Brewers’ bullpen allowed 17 of the Dodgers’ 23 runs, finishing with a 3.38 ERA.
Throw out Hader’s 7 2/3 scoreless innings, and the bullpen ERA balloons to 4.06.
Counsell brought in Hader after starter Jhoulys Chacin allowed two runs over two innings in Game 7. A rested Hader then tossed three innings of one-hit ball in his first appearance since Tuesday.
Once the nasty left-hander departed, everything fell apart for Milwaukee.
Xavier Cedeno allowed Max Muncy’s leadoff single in the sixth before Jeffress came in. Justin Turner singled before Jeffress retired Manny Machado and Cody Bellinger.
Just when it looked as if Jeffress might escape the jam, Puig drove a 1-1 pitch over the wall in left-centre for his first homer of the series.
“This guy got outs better than anybody in the National League out of the bullpen this year,” Counsell said. “He was wonderful. And the playoffs did not go well for him.”
Puig was 0 for 5 with five strikeouts against Jeffress before he went deep.
“Yeah, it’s baseball, man. I mean, it was a good pitch for me,” Jeffress said. “That at-bat, the whole series, I’ve been throwing good pitches. They’ve just been getting hit.”
Jeffress finished the inning, but the damage was done. The right-hander had a 7.71 ERA in the NLCS, allowing four runs and 10 hits in 4 2/3 innings.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap