MILWAUKEE -- Josh Hader keeps challenging hitters with fastballs, and the hitters keep proving that at this level, even the special fastballs can get hit.
It was deja vu at Miller Park on Tuesday night, when Hader missed the spot with his very first pitch and Twins right fielder Marwin Gonzalez turned it around for a go-ahead three-run home run in the eighth inning that sent Milwaukee to a 7-5 loss.
It marked the fourth time in his last six outings that Hader allowed a home run, and it ran his total to 13 home runs allowed this season in 44 appearances spanning 55 2/3 innings. That’s the same number of homers Hader allowed in 90 appearances spanning 129 innings during his first two seasons in the big leagues.
“In a sense, yeah, it’s been the same thing. It’s been the long ball,” Hader said. “It’s just one of those stretches. I feel like as a baseball player, we all go through slumps. Right now, it’s not locating pitches.”
Three questions to ponder after it happened again:
1. Why was that the spot to put Hader in the game?
Yasmani Grandal gave the Brewers the lead in a four-run seventh inning when he hit his first home run since July 6, a three-run shot off Twins reliever Ryne Harper that snapped Grandal’s career-long power drought which spanned 114 plate appearances. The Twins mustered two baserunners in the eighth against left-hander Drew Pomeranz, who exited with one out for right-hander Matt Albers, who struck out C.J. Cron. Up next was Gonzalez, a switch-hitter with these splits this season:
Gonzalez vs. RHPs: .239/.318/.384
Gonzalez vs. LHPs: .289/.317/.464
Counsell had Hader ready. Here’s what the numbers said about the decision between Albers or Hader to face Gonzalez:
Albers vs. LHBs: .255/.373/.527
Hader vs. RHBs: .155/.241/.359
“I’m just going with our best guy right there,” Counsell said. “I think it’s Matty facing a left-handed hitter [or] going with our best guy. It’s as simple as that.”
2. Is Hader too predictable?
The Brewers say the problem is not predictability, but execution. But Gonzalez was ready for a first-pitch fastball.
"I was ready to swing at the first pitch,” Gonzalez said. “He’s one of the best in the game, and you cannot give him an easy strike. It was great to swing at the first pitch, and luckily, it was where I wanted it.”
Despite the recent home run barrage, Hader’s fastball remains one of baseball’s toughest pitches to hit. Opponents are 25-for-159 (.157) with 85 strikeouts against Hader’s pitches that Statcast has categorized as four-seam fastballs. Of those 25 hits, 12 are home runs, including five on the first pitch of an at-bat. Hader has also allowed one homer this season on a slider. Overall, Hader has the best strikeout rate (48.4 percent) and third-lowest average against (.154) in MLB. Simply put, he is one of the best relievers in the game.
But Tuesday’s matchup fit a recent pattern. Hader was well-rested -- four days removed from a 44-pitch outing on Friday against the Rangers -- and called upon for a save opportunity spanning multiple innings. Hader threw six pitches including five fastballs, a pitch he has thrown at about an 84-percent clip this season. Catcher Manny Pina wanted the first fastball to Gonzalez up in the strike zone, where Hader is close to unhittable. But the All-Star closer missed down, over the middle of home plate.
“I was trying to go up. I obviously missed down the middle, pretty much,” Hader said. “I’m not letting them fly up. I’m getting on top of them and [throwing] them down in the zone.”
Pina said he would talk to Hader about where he wanted that first fastball and would broach the idea of throwing more sliders. But Hader, who has heard this question a lot lately, is not going to suddenly start throwing a majority of sliders and changeups.
“Like I’ve said before, [the fastball] is my strength,” Hader said. “It’s a pitch I’ve always used. Honestly, it really comes down to executing. Maybe I throw that pitch where I need it to be, up and in, and he pops it up and it’s a different story. It comes down to executing, being consistent and making my pitches.”
Counsell: “It’s like anybody else. He has to have some success and get back on it and get back out there. That’s how he’s going to right this thing. We need Josh if we’re going to accomplish what we want to do. We’re going to try to get him on track as fast as we can.”
3. Was it all Hader’s fault?
Hardly. Before Grandal connected for the lead, the Brewers were hitless in 20 consecutive at-bats with runners in scoring position dating back to Saturday’s win over the Rangers. They were 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position through the first six innings Monday against Twins lefty Martin Perez.
Hader’s homer troubles have been magnified in part because every game is a nailbiter; nine of Milwaukee’s 15 wins since the All-Star break have been by one or two runs.
“Before Yaz’s home run, we did leave some scoring opportunities out there,” Counsell said. “We needed a hit and we didn’t get it.”