MILWAUKEE -- The good news is that Josh Hader still hasn’t allowed a hit in 2020. The bad news is that he barely threw anything to hit Saturday night.
And even when Hader completely lost the strike zone, the Brewers still found a way to win.
The typically dominant Brewers closer walked five of the six batters he faced while blowing a one-run lead in the top of the ninth inning, then was bailed out by the Milwaukee hitter who might have been in the deepest slump of all. Eric Sogard, with no home runs entering the night and mired in a 5-for-45 slide as he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the ninth, hit a two-run homer for the Brewers’ first walk-off win of 2020, a 7-6 stunner against the Pirates at Miller Park.
“Baseball's a weird game, man. It happens to everybody,” said Brewers star Christian Yelich. “It feels good to be able to pick him up one time because he's saved us so many times.”
Yelich smashed a 460-foot home run in the first inning and sparked a go-ahead, two-run rally in the eighth that paid off with Avisaíl García’s go-ahead double for a 5-4 lead. But in the ninth, Hader, 7-for-7 in save chances entering the night with no hits allowed and 13 strikeouts in his first 9 1/3 innings, threw strikes for only nine of his 32 pitches and saw that hard-fought lead slip away.
Along the way, the Brewers’ other lights-out, late-inning reliever -- Devin Williams -- began to warm. But manager Craig Counsell stuck with Hader, who opened the inning with a walk but then appeared to regain control with a strikeout of Cole Tucker. But Hader promptly fell behind Kevin Newman, 3-0, before walking him on five pitches. When Hader and catcher Jacob Nottingham got crossed up on a slider, it produced a passed ball that advanced the runners with Josh Bell at the plate. Bell walked on the eighth pitch of the plate appearance to load the bases.
“He's usually always able to fix himself, so I trust him to fix it,” Counsell said, “But tonight, for some reason, he just couldn't.”
That is when Hader began to misfire badly. Jacob Stallings looked at four straight fastballs way up and out of the strike zone to force home the tying run. Then Adam Frazier got four more pitches way out of the zone to force home the go-ahead run -- slider away, fastball up, slider away, fastball up. The Pirates led, 5-4, and Hader’s night was over.
Counsell was asked why he stuck with Hader after the first of the four-pitch walks.
“There was a decision point there, but I'm never going to regret leaving Josh in a game,” Counsell said. That's not going to change.”
Players in the Pirates dugout sounded just as surprised.
“Definitely not something that we’ve really seen from Josh over the last couple of years,” Bell said.
Said Stallings: “I don’t think he’s going to have too many outings like that.”
Hader couldn’t explain it.
“I wish I could because then I would have been able to figure it out a little bit earlier,” he said. “A lot of arm-side ride, missing a lot away and up. It was one of those days where you just don’t have it. It was one of those days where nothing was able to click.”
Can he remember ever having an experience comparable to that?
“Probably last year in the Wild Card [Game] is my best bet,” Hader said. “You start scattering a little bit.”
Hader’s night was done, but the Brewers’ continued. Williams got the final two outs to strand the bases loaded, with a big assist from right fielder Jace Peterson on a sliding catch to end the inning.
“I just had a good feeling going in the bottom of the ninth that somehow we were going to be able to pull one out,” Yelich said.
Turns out, he was right. Sogard made sure of it after Peterson opened the bottom of the ninth inning with a walk.
Entering the night, Sogard wasn’t sure he would start at third base, considering he carried a .494 OPS into play and his platoon mate at third base, Jedd Gyorko, had homered twice against the Pirates on Saturday. But Counsell played the percentages and went with the left-handed hitter, Sogard, against Pirates righty starter JT Brubaker.
Sogard went hitless in his first three at-bats before he finally connected against a different right-hander: Pirates reliever Richard Rodríguez.
“Huge win for us. Crazy back and forth,” said Sogard. “That’s probably something you won’t see again from Hader. I’m happy to pick him up since he picks us up so many times.”