Crew KO'd in Atlanta: 'Our best vs. their best'

Hader gives up Freeman's go-ahead HR in 8th inning of back-and-forth Game 4

October 13th, 2021

ATLANTA -- Now knows two types of postseason heartbreak.

It can happen in a series of small cuts like the 2019 National League Wild Card Game against the Nationals, with a disputed hit by pitch, a broken-bat base hit and a game-winning single that touched the outfield turf and took a left turn.

And it can happen in an instant like it did in Game 4 of the NL Division Series against the Braves, when Hader misfired a slider and Freddie Freeman sent it to the seats. Freeman’s tiebreaking home run with two outs in the eighth inning gave the Braves a 5-4 win over the Brewers on Tuesday, sending Atlanta to the NL Championship Series and sending Milwaukee home in familiarly bitter fashion.

For four straight years, Hader and the Brewers have made the postseason and fallen short of the World Series. Given the leap their pitching took in 2021 -- from , and at the front of a stellar starting rotation and Hader more reliable than ever at the back of the bullpen -- this exit hurt Hader the worst.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Like we said early on, we had a team to do some damage.”

The Brewers believed all season that they had the pitching to not just make the World Series, but to win it. But after coasting to the earliest division clinch in franchise history and resting players for what they hoped would be a long ride through the postseason, the Braves put up a roadblock.

In the big picture, this is not the end for this group of Brewers players. Their five best starters are all under club control for multiple seasons beyond this one, and now prime prospect has high-stress Major League innings on his resume like the ones Burnes, Woodruff and Peralta all started compiling back when Milwaukee began this run of postseason berths. But in the immediate aftermath of a loss that gave the Braves a 3-1 series victory, that bigger picture was hard to see.

“It's hard to get past the disappointment sitting here right now. It just is,” Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell said. “We had big goals. We didn't quite get there. But you win 95 games, it's a special group. And they did accomplish some special things. That's what we talked about a little bit.”

The Brewers opted against starting Burnes, their NL Cy Young Award contender, on short rest but otherwise emptied the tank in a must-win game that see-sawed back and forth after Milwaukee finally ended a 22-inning scoreless streak in the series and an 0-for-20 start with runners in scoring position. Run-scoring hits in the fourth inning came from and , the latter playing through so much pain from a crash into the center-field fence the night before that he was nearly scratched from the starting lineup.

The Braves promptly answered with two runs.

The Brewers pushed ahead again in the fifth when hit the longest home run of this postseason, a 448-footer into the greenery in center field. Again, the Braves answered with two runs, this time charged to Ashby as he navigated the highest-leverage appearance, all things considered, of his life. Just like the inning before, it was a walk and a hit-by-pitch just off the plate that put Atlanta in position to tie the game.

So, knotted at 4-4 with two outs in the sixth, Counsell started making more unconventional calls. Woodruff, on two days’ rest, was called upon for four outs that carried a tie score to Hader in the bottom of the eighth. Hader hadn’t been asked for more than three outs in an appearance since Game 2 of last year’s NL Wild Card Series against the Dodgers, but with two lefties due up for Atlanta, this was his spot.

“He had to pitch in this game and it was the right part of the lineup for him to pitch to,” Counsell said. “It was our best against their best. ... That's how it's supposed to work.”

Hader struck out Eddie Rosario and Dansby Swanson to bring up Freeman, the perennial NL MVP Award contender who had already homered off Hader -- a walk-off in this stadium in May 2019. Hader threw a slider that caught too much of the plate and Freeman hit it over the center-field wall for the first homer by a left-handed hitter off Hader all year. It made Freeman the only lefty to hit multiple home runs off Hader in the big leagues.

Entering Tuesday, left-handed batters were 11-for-88 (.125) with 49 strikeouts in at-bats (including postseason games) ending with Hader's slider. Only one left-handed hitter had homered off that pitch, the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger in April 2019.

“He got my mistake and that’s why he is such a good hitter,” Hader said of Freeman. “That’s what they do.”

Freeman said he benefited from a plate appearance against Hader in the Brewers' Game 1 win and noticed that Hader was throwing a higher than usual percentage of sliders -- seven sliders and four fastballs by the time the inning was over. So, Freeman looked for something on the outer half of home plate, and that’s what he got.

“I’ve had a lot of cool moments in my career, but so far I think that's going to top them right there,” Freeman said. “Hopefully that's not the last cool one. I've got a couple more in these playoffs.”

The Brewers will be observers. They were 34 games over .500 and 14 games up in the NL Central with 18 regular-season games to play before the offense fell silent and they lost 15 of the final 22 games they played, including the last three of the NLDS.

“We've got a really good team,” Woodruff said. “We knew that it was going to be a challenge coming into the series, just with the way that they can swing the bat and pitch the ball, and their defense is really good. But it just felt like it's a tough way to end the year. We felt we would be a special group. It's going to hurt for a while, but we'll get over it and move on to next year.”