Craig Counsell’s unique use of Cubs pitching staff leads to a win

CHICAGO — It nearly went perfectly for Craig Counsell. The Chicago Cubs’ new manager’s unique pitching usage appeared to be working swimmingly. But a meltdown in the eighth inning nearly cost his team an easy victory. Thankfully for the Cubs, they were bailed out by an offense that put up nine runs in blustery conditions Wednesday to take down the Colorado Rockies 9-8.

The eighth inning was ugly. Yency Almonte struggled to find the zone and exited with the bases loaded and just one out. The Cubs had a comfortable five-run lead, though, and Héctor Neris was ready to come in and clean up the mess. But Neris had his first off night in his young Cubs career, allowing three hits and enough runs to finish the top half of the inning with the score tied at 8.

“It was a crazy game for sure,” Counsell said. “It was tough conditions tonight for both sides. It’s just a game you want to come out with a win. We found a way to come out with a win. Tells us it was a really good series with a sweep and a well-deserved off day for these guys.”

It was nearly the first heartbreaker of the year for the Cubs. Instead, they head into Thursday’s off day on a four-game winning streak after starting the season 0-2. Questions about Almonte can be saved for another day. More importantly, this game gave a glimpse into how Counsell is going to run things. Because how he goes about business won’t be what many are used to seeing.

Did the decision to start Luke Little come as a surprise to you? Was pitching Ben Brown on Saturday while knowing there was no obvious starter available for Wednesday confusing? It’s time to get used to the non-traditional.

Even if Justin Steele hadn’t gotten injured on Opening Day, Counsell knew he wasn’t going with five starters all year. His plan for his pitching staff has always included finding ways to get extra rest and to try to avoid sticking to one plan. Because things change, often quickly, and being able to adjust and alter what you once thought was best is part of the gig.

“The most important part about that is you have to be willing to change your mind,” Counsell said. “You can’t get too stuck on ‘it has to be this way.’ If you’re willing to change your mind you’re better to make a decision that makes sense for everybody involved.”

That likely came into play once Steele was shelved with a hamstring injury that’s expected to keep him out for at least all of April. Counsell isn’t going to plan out a 162-game season in advance. He knows that’s just not how the game works. But it goes beyond that with him. He’s well aware that there’s no one path to success.

“Every season, every team and every group of players presents their own strengths and their own set of challenges,” Counsell said. “Things we’re going to try to protect and the strengths we’re going to try and accentuate. So every team is a little different and every roster is a little bit different. During the season the roster changes. That’s why there’s just not one, ‘This is how you do it.’ You’re just trying to read your team and put people into positions to succeed.”

Against the Rockies, he decided the best way to succeed was to put Little on the mound to start the game. Why?

“A bunch of things, really,” Counsell said. “One, we got two great starts the last two days. That gave us a very fresh bullpen. The Rockies have a lineup that’s generally consistent, so felt pretty confident in the hitters we were going to face. Kind of thought we’d get two left-handers against Luke in the first three hitters. Then you also do it to change the job of the guy that goes length and maybe they don’t have to face the top of the order as many times.”

The Cubs had gotten two quality starts to begin their series against the Rockies. Shota Imanaga and Javier Assad each delivered six shutout frames. The bullpen was well rested and they knew they had a day off before the dangerous Los Angeles Dodgers came into town for the weekend. It could be viewed as odd that Little pitched the ninth on Tuesday and then was slated to open Wednesday’s game, but Counsell admitted that his low pitch count (12) allowed them to feel comfortable with that.

“Essentially we went with three rookie starters (this series),” Counsell said, admitting that Assad wasn’t technically a rookie. “If you count Ben in that group, we did really well. Those three guys did a heck of a job. The pitching staff is connected. How one guy covers innings, that makes it easier for the next guy and gets guys rest. That’s how you put together a series and that’s hopefully how you put together winning baseball games.”

Little retired all three batters he faced in the first — two were lefties. Brown was already warming up before the inning had finished. He came in to start the second and worked into the sixth, ending his night with one run allowed on three hits while striking out five and walking just one. Counsell was able to squeeze four innings out of Brown and limit him in facing the top three in the Rockies order just one time.

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Ben Brown pitched four innings against the Rockies, giving up one run on three hits and five strikeouts. (David Banks / USA Today)

“I thought he was really good against right-handed hitters tonight,” Counsell said. “I thought his breaking ball was exceptional. It felt like he was on the attack tonight. That worked out for him.”

All five of Brown’s strikeouts came against righties. His six whiffs came on his curveball and he got 12 called strikes on his four-seam fastball. Brown’s future role both near- and long-term, is not clear. He could be a lights-out reliever or perhaps a solid starter. Counsell has experience breaking in high-end pitching talent, having watched impressive starters like Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta all blossom under his watch. Whatever the future holds, players like Brown, young and brimming with talent, can feel comfortable they are in good hands with Counsell leading the way.

“I’m really impressed by everything he does,” Brown said of Counsell. “He’s an awesome guy. I trust him and believe in him. That makes a world of difference just knowing he’s there for my development and success.”

It wasn’t the prettiest win, but the first five innings probably couldn’t have gone any better. Counsell used a unique strategy and was set up perfectly with a well-rested bullpen and a big lead. That some veteran relievers couldn’t finish it off is less on Counsell and more something to watch going forward. Was it the poor weather that led to those issues or will there be concerns with any of these arms?

One thing is clear: Counsell won’t be easy to predict. But whatever he chooses, he has the trust of his team and a history of success to back up his decisions — traditional or not.

(Top photo of Luke Little: David Banks / USA Today)

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