BALTIMORE — Josh Hader remembers what it felt like to sit in the upper deck at Camden Yards in the ninth inning with a knot in his stomach. So when he took the mound in his boyhood ballpark on Tuesday night with a one-run lead, and the Orioles’ Cedric Mullins launched a leadoff double off the right-field wall, Hader permitted himself a moment to look up at the stands.
“I don’t think I’d like to have it any other way,” Hader said. “Put my back against the wall and kind of enjoy that moment, being in the ballpark I used to watch as a fan and being on the edge of your seat when it was the other way.
“Shutting it down was a pretty cool feeling. Also, having all those friends and family out there and seeing them when I was walking out the bullpen was pretty special.”
Hader estimates he had 40 supporters in the stands for the 5-4 win over the Orioles, a solid team victory for the Brewers. They got three RBIs from Andrew McCutchen, a big night at the plate and in the field from Willy Adames and nail-biting relief performances from their ace bullpen arms, Devin Williams and Hader, who together account for the last four National League Reliever of the Year Awards.
Williams was first, inheriting a 5-4 lead in the eighth inning, and quickly put himself in trouble with a pair of walks following Austin Hays’ leadoff single. Williams’ fastball didn’t have its midseason zip — he topped out at 94.9 mph, down from the 95.3 mph he averaged last year — but he used his air-bending changeup to strike out Chris Owings, Jorge Mateo and Ryan McKenna to preserve the advantage.
“I mean, when your back’s against the wall, there’s no other option,” Williams said. “It’s kind of just, ‘I’ve got to make pitches.’ I feel like that’s probably when I’m at my best, when I have nowhere to put a guy. It’s me or him, and that’s kind of my mindset.”
The limited numbers back that up. Including Tuesday, opposing hitters are 0-for-12 with seven strikeouts and no walks against Williams with the bases loaded.
Then came Hader. Again, the Orioles didn’t make it easy.
“He did it right after me — leadoff double and that guy didn’t move,” Williams said. “He’s done it a million times. I’m just taking a little bit out of his book and using it for my game.”
For a moment, Hader thought Mullins’ leadoff fly ball in the ninth inning would find the seats. When it banged off the wall for a double, he breathed a sigh of relief.
What made this escape special for Hader was the venue. He grew up in Millersville, Md., less than 20 miles south of downtown Baltimore, and after he gave up his dream of being the rare left-handed catcher and embraced pitching, he wondered whether someday he might play a Major League game at home.
“We used to do Little League where we walked around the field in a parade before the game,” Hader said. “That was the dream to play baseball. Being back home and playing at Camden Yards, it’s pretty special to me.”