February 3, 2023

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After tending to family, Hader continues dominance

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ST. LOUIS — The Brewers’ bullpen, long a team strength, had a different look the previous three games in San Diego. Life got in the way of Josh Hader’s run of sheer dominance.

The Brewers’ bullpen ace skipped the trip out West to remain back in Milwaukee with his wife, Maria, who is 34 weeks pregnant and dealing with a rare complication called placenta previa. Hader said his wife and the baby boy are both doing well, but she has been experiencing some bleeding, and doctors have told them she likely will need a C-section.

“It’s family. I mean, I love the game of baseball, but it doesn’t come before my family,” Hader said before the game.

Without Hader, the Brewers had used St. Louis native Devin Williams in all three games in San Diego, and he picked up saves in two of those games. That heavy workload meant Williams was unavailable Thursday night, putting the spotlight back on Hader.

Hader’s departure to care for his family didn’t seem to slow his roll. He pitched around a leadoff single by Tommy Edman to stymie the heart of the Cardinals’ order in the ninth inning of the Brewers’ 4-3 win at Busch Stadium.

The lefty remains one of the most dominant pitchers in the National League and one of the best relievers in baseball. Teams that can’t grab a lead before Hader gets in the game just don’t beat the Brewers. He has converted 30 straight save chances, with his last blown save coming on July 7 of last season. His past 37 appearances have been scoreless, with his last run allowed coming last July 28.

Hader had to get through one of the best hitters in the National League. He blew away Paul Goldschmidt on three pitches, the last of which was a 98.6-mph fastball. After he walked Nolan Arenado, he had to face a legend, Albert Pujols, whose role these days, at 42, is to punish left-handed pitching. Hader’s not your average left-hander. He got Pujols to pop out in foul territory, then finished off rookie Juan Yepez with an infield pop out.

“Josh just has such a good feel for who he is, what he needs to do, what his routine needs to be, how to prepare and then what his heartbeat’s going to do when he gets out there,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “This is his job, he knows it, he loves it, he’s really good at it. You can put him in strange situations, and he’s going to excel because he’s really good at his job.”

With a bullpen this good, it’s no wonder the Brewers are hard to beat in one-run games. They’re now 11-4 in them, the best winning percentage in such games in the Majors. It’s easier to hold on in those close games when your bullpen is this good.

“We only play eight innings,” starting pitcher Eric Lauer quipped. “Seven, really. When you’ve got a guy that good at the back end, the end of the game doesn’t seem like the end of the game. It’s like it’s already over almost.”

The Brewers seem to find pitching gems wherever they turn. Lauer himself has blossomed into one of the most underrated starters in the National League in recent months. Coming into Thursday’s game, he had gone 10-3 with a 2.19 ERA in his previous 21 starts, dating back to the middle of last season. That’s the best ERA over that stretch of games of any MLB starter aside from Dodgers lefty Julio Urías.

His improving changeup was an important pitch Thursday night against a Cardinals team that has mashed left-handed pitching.

“[Catcher] Omar [Narváez] was kind of laughing at me, because I was like, ‘We’re going to throw a lot of changeups,’ and he’s like, ‘Your changeup’s your sixth-best pitch. It’s the worst pitch you throw,'” Lauer said. “So, I said, ‘Well, let’s see how it goes.’ Today, it was on for me.”

Lauer’s night didn’t start off particularly well. After his team staked him to a 2-0 lead against Cardinals veteran Adam Wainwright in the first inning, Lauer gave it right back. Pujols lined a ball inside the third-base line to drive in Tommy Edman, who had led off with a double, and Yepez added a sacrifice fly.

But Lauer found his footing in the middle innings, retiring nine straight batters before walking Pujols with two outs in the fifth. Lauer’s early inefficiency cost him, as his pitch count had reached 96 at the end of the fifth, tying his second-shortest outing of the season. He only struck out one batter but limited the damage by inducing poor contact.

The Brewers’ offense, meanwhile, kept churning off Wainwright, pounding out 10 hits in his five innings to seize a 4-2 lead. Luis Urías homered and Christian Yelich and Andrew McCutchen had clutch two-out RBI hits off the Cardinals’ 40-year-old right-hander.

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