MILWAUKEE -- Craig Counsell predicted back in Spring Training that relief ace Josh Hader was so talented and versatile that a spot would arise in most every game that called for his services. Answer every time, and Hader's arm would be dragging when the Brewers needed him most.
In a 5-1 loss to the Braves on Saturday at Miller Park, that spot arose in the eighth inning. Milwaukee trailed by a run and had Hader warmed up in the bullpen in the event the Brewers tied the game or took a lead in the seventh. They did not, so Hader remained in the 'pen while Atlanta put the game away with a trio of insurance runs off recent callups Mike Zagurski and Jorge Lopez.
The loss snapped Milwaukee's five-game winning streak and resurrected a common question: why won't the Brewers pitch Hader when they are behind in a close game?
"You're not going to have him when you want him, and you're going to run out of games," Counsell said. "He can't pitch 90 games. It's just not going to work. If anybody thinks it's going to work, show me how. It's pretty simple: he's going to pitch if it's tied. He's not going to pitch if we're losing.
"There are circumstances when he will pitch if we're losing, but a lot of other stuff has to be lined up. ... Today just wasn't one of those days."
The Brewers being unable grab a lead had much to do with veteran right-hander Anibal Sanchez, who bucked his 6.37 ERA in eight previous starts against the Brewers by setting a season high with eight strikeouts in 6 2/3 quality innings.
Sanchez carried a shutout into the seventh, when Brad Miller's line drive single off Sanchez's hip drove in the Brewers' first run. It represented their first hit since the opening inning.
"When he's dotting like that, it's tough," said Eric Thames, whose leadoff single was one of Milwaukee's four hits. "You want to be aggressive, but he did a good job of keeping the ball away from our barrels."
Miller's hit made it 2-1, but the Brewers missed their chance to get Hader into the game when when Tyler Saladino grounded out against reliever Dan Winkler. The Braves tacked on three runs in an eighth inning, highlighted by back-to-back RBI triples by Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis off the left-hander Zagurski.
Wilkerson, another callup from Triple-A Colorado Springs, who started in place of injured left-hander Brent Suter, had similar trouble in the top of the first. Five straight Braves batters reached safely with one out, including Johan Camargo with a two-run single. Wilkerson retired the final two men he faced in the inning to strand the bases loaded and begin a stretch in which he retired 14 of the final 16 batters he faced.
Over the five innings of his first 2018 start in the Majors, Wilkerson was charged with two runs on four hits with three walks and five strikeouts.
"He gave up three ground balls that first inning," Counsell said. "He did his job, for sure. Five good innings. He kept us in the game."
Freeman finished a home run shy of the cycle for the Braves, who improved to 50-38 and joined the 53-39 Brewers as the National League's only 50-win teams.
MOMENT THAT MATTERED
In hindsight, the Brewers' best chance to get to Sanchez was in the very first inning, when Thames led off with a single and Jesus Aguilar was hit by a pitch with one out. Travis Shaw followed with what looked like a single to right field but turned into a rare 9-6 fielder's choice because Aguilar had to briefly hold between first and second base to see if the baseball would drop. When it did, right fielder Markakis threw to second base for an out.
Instead of having the bases loaded with one out, the Brewers had runners at the corners with two outs, and Hernan Perez took a called strike three to end the threat. Shaw ended up being the first of 19 retired in a row by Sanchez.
"Tough read for Jesus," Thames said. "It's one of those things where it would have been a different ballgame if that fell and it was bases loaded. But it happens. [Sanchez] was locating everything so well."
"That was our opportunity against Sanchez, for sure," Counsell said.
HE SAID IT
"[The Brewers] are such a good ballclub, and they just keep coming at you and coming at you. They're so deep player-wise. I think every run you can add on is huge against a team like this. That is a great club. They have done a great job here of putting together a really strong, deep team." -- Braves manager Brian Snitker
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
Just as Sanchez's opening inning turned on one close play, so did Wilkerson's. Braves leadoff man Ender Inciarte flew out before Ozzie Albies grounded out to the right side of the infield, with Wilkerson covering the bag. But the Braves challenged that call at first base, and it was overturned, starting a streak of five batters reaching base (three singles and two walks), and left Wilkerson in a 2-0 deficit.
"That play Albies beats out, it's a different inning if [Wilkerson] starts with two out and nobody on," Counsell said. "He did a nice job. He had to work hard to get through that first inning, but he got pretty locked in after that."
"I felt like I was in position to get there," Wilkerson said of the play with Albies. "I got my steps mixed up a little bit, and trying to judge who was throwing and fielding the ball. It was another little key factor there that turned that first inning."
Junior Guerra (5-5, 2.87 ERA) takes the mound Sunday afternoon in Milwaukee's final home game before the All-Star break, as the Brewers finish their four-game series against the Braves at 1:10 p.m. CT. Guerra has a 3.24 ERA in his last six starts and pitched five shutout innings in a win over the Twins last time out. Lefty Sean Newcomb (8-3, 3.10) starts for Atlanta.