MILWAUKEE -- The Brewers are in the middle of a pennant push, so you will have to forgive manager Craig Counsell if he has not been pondering the big picture. But it was there on Saturday despite the sting of a 3-2 loss to the Nationals at Miller Park, when the organization's reigning Minor League Pitcher of the Year and its top preseason pitching prospect were entrusted with the first eight innings of a meaningful game against Max Scherzer and likely National League East champion Washington.
Twenty-four-year-old Brandon Woodruff got the job done. For the first time in a while, 23-year-old Josh Hader did not. For both, the experience could help in a future that looks promising for the Brewers.
"We've got time to think about that [later]," Counsell said. "We'll have plenty of time later."
Woodruff was in line for his first Miller Park victory before Hader faltered in the eighth inning. That meant going toe-to-toe with Scherzer, who was his usual dominant self despite being struck on the left calf by a first-inning comebacker and having to fight through the end of the fifth before calling it a night.
Woodruff matched Scherzer for three hitless innings before the teams traded runs in the fourth. Scherzer pitched one more inning before exiting, but Woodruff kept going through the end of the seventh for the longest of his four Major League starts. He set a career high with eight strikeouts while allowing a run on two hits, both of them singles in the fourth.
"Brandon was up for every bit of it," Counsell said. "He matched [Scherzer], for sure. Brandon's performance certainly bodes well for us. In his first four starts, it is very exciting what we are getting from him."
Like his manager, Woodruff was more focused on the present than the future.
"It's pretty much pitch to pitch, batter to batter," Woodruff said. "That's my only focus. Who's coming up and how do I get him out?"
That philosophy has carried Woodruff to a 1.52 ERA after four Major League starts. He is the first starter in Brewers history to surrender two earned runs or fewer in each of his first four outings.
His win slipped away from Hader, who was pitching a second straight night and for the third time in four days because Brewers closer Corey Knebel was down for the day. Hader's velocity was down 4 mph from its peak the night before, when he threw fastballs for all but one of his 12 pitches. Hader started with another fastball, only this one was 93.1 mph right down the middle, and Michael A. Taylor hit it for a tying home run. Later in the inning, Trea Turner's double gave the Nationals the lead.
Taylor's homer was the second off Hader in 32 2/3 Major League innings. Turner's double saddled Hader with only his second three-hit night in 25 games.
"I felt good," he said. "My arm was ready."
Hader has been so effective in relief -- entering the day in the top 10 in ERA and average against of relievers with at least 30 innings -- that Brewers officials will revisit the debate during the offseason about whether his best long-term fit is relief. So far, general manager David Stearns has said Hader will return to the rotation.
That debate is for a later date. Counsell remained focused on the present.
"He's going to be a really important guy for us," Counsell said. "Tonight just wasn't his night. He's been really close to perfect so far."