Paul Sullivan: Craig Counsell’s reunion with Brewers turns sour when Cubs manager turns to struggling Adbert Alzolay

CHICAGO — Craig Counsell’s shocking decision to leave the Milwaukee Brewers for the Chicago Cubs managerial job last fall ensured he would be the focus of the I-94 rivalry for the immediate future.

While Cubs-Brewers never will be mistaken for Bears-Packers, it has been one of the more entertaining rivalries in baseball over the last decade — and Counsell’s defection only increased the intensity.

The low-key Counsell, who might be the most unexcitable Cubs manager in recent history, was unsurprisingly unenthused.

“Look, we’re just trying to win a baseball game,” he said before Friday’s series opener at Wrigley Field. “This is a good team. You spend most of your time trying to figure out how to beat the team. There are people there I have really good relationships with. … You miss people for sure.”

What could have been a memorable day for Counsell turned into an ugly one in the eighth inning of a 3-1 loss before 33,557 at Wrigley.

Counsell threw caution to the wind and brought in Adbert Alzolay with a 1-0 lead, only to watch the struggling reliever give up three runs on four singles to the five batters he faced.

Alzolay left to a chorus of boos after being yanked following his major league-leading fifth blown save — and the eighth blown save in 18 opportunities by the Cubs bullpen.

“It feels awful,” Counsell said. “It feels bad for sure, and you feel for Adbert for sure. He’s struggling right now for sure, but we need Adbert to be an effective member of the bullpen and we need to keep giving him opportunities to do that.”

That’s the question Cubs fans are asking: Why keep tempting fate?

Counsell said the current stretch of 16 games in 16 days factored into his decision to use Alzolay in a high-leverage situation.

“We went with the guy in that situation that was best suited for that spot in the lineup in that part of the game,” he said. “And it just didn’t work.”

Alzolay is out of options and can’t be sent down to Triple-A Iowa. Counsell said on April 21 that he would use Alzolay in lower-leverage situations, but he brought him in Friday with one out in the eighth after Hayden Wesneski threw 6 1/3 shutout innings and Richard Lovelady got the next three outs.

Alzolay allowed three runs on RBI singles, all after stolen bases.

“He picked me up last year,” Wesneski said of Alzolay. “I didn’t have a great year last year. He had a really good year. You feel for the guy. It hurts me, it really does. I’m cheering for him. You just keep bringing a positive attitude.”

Alzolay said he’s just not “getting the results” despite putting in the work. Being booed at home didn’t bother him.

“Not really,” he said. “You’re there, you’re competing. If you let that get to you, you have a much bigger problem.”

Counsell has a bigger problem with his bullpen than anyone predicted, while the Cubs offense continues to flounder. Christopher Morel’s sixth-inning home run, his third homer in five games, provided their only scoring. The Cubs are hitting .181 with 59 strikeouts over the last seven games, going 2-5 while scoring 17 runs.

Baserunning mistakes by Nico Hoerner and Miguel Amaya also hurt Friday. Counsell said Hoerner was victimized by a flukish bounce off Michael Tauchman’s bat and back to catcher William Contreras, who threw out Hoerner between second and third. Counsell said Amaya was just being aggressive trying to stretch a single into a double with two outs in the seventh.

“Not a bad idea, but obviously he was thrown out by quite a bit,” Counsell said.

Before the game, Counsell’s reunion with the Brewers was the media focus. He didn’t kibitz with any of his former players or manager Pat Murphy, who was serving the final game of his two-game suspension for inappropriate conduct stemming from Tuesday’s brawl with the Tampa Bay Rays.

But it wasn’t because Counsell doesn’t like fraternizing with the enemy.

“No, I think that’s generally a rule for a different generation,” he said.

A Wisconsin native who still has a home outside Milwaukee, Counsell said he didn’t grow up disliking Chicago teams and was unaware of the derisive term “flatlanders” that some Wisconsinites use for Illinoisans.

“I remember trips to Chicago as a kid, going to see that big baseball bat downtown,” he said, referring to Batcolumn, the 101-foot sculpture by Claes Oldenburg. “I probably didn’t have (the animosity). Look, when you’re with the Brewers, beating the Cubs, yeah, a lot of it is because the stadium, the home crowd, it’s a different atmosphere. That charged it up for sure.

“And then when I was part of the Milwaukee team, early in my tenure there, the Cubs were really good. They were tough to beat.”

Now the shoe is on the other foot, and Counsell’s Cubs fell two games behind the scrappy Brewers in the National League Central.

Counsell, who opted to go through the final year of his contract in Milwaukee in 2023 without re-signing to explore free agency, wound up signing a record five-year, $40 million deal to replace David Ross.

Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts and President Jed Hoyer lauded Ross’ performance at the end of the season, then fired him a month later when Counsell said he was interested. The early returns have been mostly good, but bullpen failures have marred Counsell’s start, just as they hurt Ross the first 2 1/2 months of 2023, when the Cubs fell 10 games under .500.

The only positive Friday was Wesneski, who continued a stretch of sterling pitching by youngsters filling in for injured starters. He should remain in the rotation when Justin Steele returns, barring a surprise.

Steele is on schedule to start Monday against the San Diego Padres, while Kyle Hendricks will make another rehab start Tuesday for Triple-A Iowa after an encouraging outing Thursday at Double-A Tennessee, striking out seven with no walks.

But what to do with Alzolay remains Counsell’s most pressing issue.

“We’ve got to put our heads together and figure out what’s next there,” he said.

That was also the plan two weeks ago.

Maybe this time they’ll come up with a new idea.