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Original Issue

LAST MEN STANDING

THE BUSINESS OF MANAGING IN OCTOBER IS FRAUGHT WITH MORE PERIL THAN EVER

WHEN BASEBALL seasons end, Brewers manager Craig Counsell has always disconnected from the game by playing golf most days in October. Not last year. After his team won 86 games and missed a wild-card spot by one game, Counsell kept the golf bag stored another month so that he could watch almost every inning of postseason games. He kept notes on what essentially was an auditing of Postseason Managing 101. "I figured I better prepare myself for these games," Counsell, now in his fourth season as Milwaukee's skipper, said as his Brewers played the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series, "because I knew you must manage them differently than regular-season games."

From watching L.A. manager Dave Roberts, Counsell learned the importance of matching up relievers on hitters throughout the game, not just in the late innings. From watching Astros manager A.J. Hinch, he learned the need for conviction by riding a hot hand on the mound.

Actually running a playoff game, however, especially against the noise of a hyperanalytical, hypercritical world, is like skydiving or baking a soufflé: the approximations of it don't do justice to the difficulty of the real thing. It took running only his fifth postseason game for Counsell's soufflé to drop. In Game 2 of the NLCS, he pulled his starting pitcher, Wade Miley, with a 3--0 lead after a harmless two-out single in the sixth inning, even though Miley had thrown only 74 pitches and was the first starter in 166 games to hold the Dodgers without a run or a walk for more than four innings. You know what happened next: a cascade of relievers blew the game. Milwaukee lost 4--3 on a home run by Justin Turner.

"Look, you're either too early or too late," Counsell said about pulling a pitcher.

The business of managing in October is more of a high-wire act than it's ever been. That's because how baseball is played has changed drastically in just the past four years. Since 2014, homers have increased by 46% and pitching changes by 13%. To keep the ball in the ballpark managers are running out more and more pitchers. The paradox is that as they run out more pitchers, like hitting on 16, they increase the risk one of them will go bust. In the NLCS Counsell and Roberts shattered a record by using 27 pitchers to cover the first two games of a postseason series. (The teams split before the series moved to Los Angeles.) The old record was 23. The Yankees and the Braves used 27 pitchers to cover the entire 1999 World Series. The constant switching by Counsell and Roberts meant all pitchers—starters included—faced an average of only 5.5 batters.

"You plan things out, but every game is different," said Roberts, who entered his third straight NLCS having already run 32 postseason games in just four seasons as a big league manager. "There are so many twists and turns. You have to watch the game. By that I mean there is a feel to running these games.

"You have to resist the urge to blink. At the first sign of trouble and pressure you have to understand the leverage and ask yourself, 'Is it worth it?' You have to resist the urge to react quickly."

More and more, however, managers do react quickly and aggressively. Boston manager Alex Cora used two starters as relievers in two Division Series games (Chris Sale and Rick Porcello). Only once in 38 team games did a manager not call on multiple relievers.

Managers used five relievers or more 20 times in those first 38 team games this October. In 2000, Joe Torre won the last of his four titles as Yankees manager without ever using five relievers in his 15 postseason games. It happened only seven times overall in 62 team games that postseason.

Current Yankees manager Aaron Boone (above) found out quickly how different his job is from the one Torre had. Boone, who had never managed on any level before this year and who picked an inexperienced bench coach in Josh Bard, went home because of two Division Series losses in which he was slow to go to his bullpen. In Game 3 against Boston, for instance, he stuck with Luis Severino for a fourth inning even though, Boone admitted, "he wasn't on top of his game." The game devolved into a 16--1 disaster for New York.

Leaving a pitcher in too long has become even more taboo because we're conditioned to seeing so many more pitching changes. It's also because the wide availability of data means second-guessers are armed with far more information than Torre faced. It's a smarter, angrier and, with the bullhorns of social media, louder rabble to which a manager must answer.

How a manager might survive that gauntlet is anyone's guess until they're under the bright lights of October. What Counsell calls "the decision tree" of running a postseason game today is more complicated than ever because of bullpen use and frequency of home runs. It is a conspicuous, tricky and often humbling job—though still preferable over October golf.

"THE WIDE AVAILABILITY OF DATA MEANS SECOND-GUESSERS ARE ARMED WITH FAR MORE INFORMATION—IT'S A SMARTER, ANGRIER, AND WITH THE BULLHORNS OF SOCIAL MEDIA, LOUDER RABBLE TO WHICH A MANAGER MUST ANSWER."

NEWSMAKERS

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EXTRA MUSTARD

P. 22

A LIFE REMEMBERED

P.23

GAMEPLAN

P. 24

SI EATS

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FACES IN THE CROWD

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