MESA, Ariz. -- The National League’s nastiest left-hander over the past three seasons had an inauspicious -- yet productive, he said -- 2021 Cactus League debut. Brewers closer Josh Hader faced five batters in Wednesday’s game at the A’s, surrendered two home runs and a four-pitch walk, struck out a pair, and departed after reaching his pitch limit before the third inning was complete.
Hader surrendered a homer on his third pitch, a 2-0 fastball to left-handed-hitting A’s catcher Austin Allen after falling behind with offspeed pitches. Two batters later, he surrendered another homer to right-handed-hitting center fielder Ramón Laureano. Again, it came on a fastball behind in the count after he missed with the offspeed.
“When you’re getting behind guys with the offspeed, it only gives you one option,” Hader said. “That’s the reason why we need to [work] on these secondaries, so when they’re both playing at a high level, [the hitter] can’t really sit on one.”
He considered the outing a success. The slider came out of the hand well, Hader said. The changeup felt good, but hitters’ reactions told him that it looked like a ball coming out. Hader will have to adjust his release.
“The priority is being able to get the shape and the lane I want on these secondaries,” he said, “and just being able to see reactions from the hitters.”
“I think he should continue to work on [offspeed]. That’s exactly what someone like Josh should do in the spring,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “He spent a lot of time on his slider last spring and it paid dividends during the season. That’s exactly what he should continue to do.”
Hader’s previous inning this spring came in an intrasquad game last week. The Brewers typically start Hader later in Spring Training because he requires limited work to build up for the regular season.
“He’s going to be fine,” Brewers starter Brett Anderson -- who was out in the bullpen completing his workday after an efficient, two-inning outing -- said. “It’s Spring Training. There are guys who’ve won Cy Youngs who have 9.00 ERAs in Spring Training. It was the first time getting on the mound in a game for him. There’s no worries for him; he’ll be just fine.”
Injury updates: Mathias, Urías, Cain
Utility candidate Mark Mathias injured his right shoulder making a diving play during Tuesday’s win over the Giants, and it is serious enough to require an MRI exam, Counsell said. Mathias initially remained in the game but drew concern from the dugout after making an uncharacteristically wild throw.
“He’s going to miss some time,” Counsell said.
There was better news about infielder Luis Urías, who has been sidelined since suffering a minor left hamstring strain on Friday at the Rockies. Urías had “a really good day” of hitting and running on Tuesday, per Counsell, and is trending toward returning to game action by the weekend if he avoids setbacks.
And there was continued progress for outfielder Lorenzo Cain, slowed since last week by a quadriceps issue. Cain has been on the field the past two days, Counsell said, playing catch and running with the team’s athletic trainers. The plan calls for Cain to resume hitting by week’s end.
Key to Bickford’s comeback: Simplify
One of the best comeback stories in the Brewers organization belongs to right-hander Phil Bickford, who came to the Brewers from the Giants in the 2016 Will Smith trade as a top pitching prospect, only to be suspended for a drug of abuse and then suffer a broken hand on a comebacker just as he was returning to action.
Bickford persevered, and climbed back to prospect status with a strong '19 season at advanced Class A Carolina, followed by a series of excellent outings during '20 Spring Training while on loan from Minor League camp. That led to an assignment to the Brewers’ alternate training site and a callup to the Majors in September. His lone appearance did not go well -- Bickford was charged with four runs on four hits and two hit batsmen in an inning of work against the Tigers on Sept. 1 -- but he remains on the club’s radar for '21.
Looking back, was there a moment that marked his turnaround?
“It was kind of more of a process,” Bickford said. “If I had to give a legitimate answer to that question, it's that I took a year of really just focusing on myself and eliminating outside distractions. I was just really focusing on myself, and you can kind of fill in the blank of what that is. But it felt like a time in my life where I needed to.
“I have been told that I tend to be an unselfish person, and I kind of warped my thought process in a sense, and really started to better myself. I started to realize that bettering myself can better everybody else around me, too. I kind of got a new understanding of what being selfish and unselfish means. I think it helped a lot, just focusing on myself and who I am as a person.”
Bickford spent much of the winter working out at the Brewers’ complex in Phoenix with the philosophy of keeping things simple.
“Kind of riding the simple train,” he said. “I’m happy with where I’m at.”
• The Brewers have yet to make any camp cuts, in part, because there is no Minor League Spring Training to which players can be assigned to. Innings are beginning to get tight, however. To make sure everyone gets their work, Corbin Burnes and Brent Suter will pitch in a four-inning intrasquad game on Friday at the same time that Jackie Bradley Jr. knocks off some offseason rust in his first game action in a Brewers uniform.
• Former Brewers reliever Tim Dillard, twice a Milwaukee Draft pick, who pitched parts of four seasons in the Majors and gained fame for his humorous videos showing life in the Minors, announced his retirement as a player on Wednesday. Dillard, who has occasionally filled in on Brewers television broadcasts in recent years, teased that news of his next endeavor is coming soon.
• The Brewers could play their final two exhibition games in front of a full house in Arlington, Texas. The Rangers announced Wednesday that they would operate at full capacity beginning with the March 29-30 exhibition games against Milwaukee.
“It’s going to seem like the Beatles are playing,” Anderson said.