SAN FRANCISCO -- The Padres clung tightly to a one-run, ninth-inning lead on Wednesday afternoon at Oracle Park. They were on the verge of a statement sweep in San Francisco that would grow their lead in the National League Wild Card race to 2 1/2 games on the last day of August. The stage was set.
On the first day of August, they had acquired Josh Hader, one of the sport’s most dominant closers. When they did so, they undoubtedly envisioned him pitching in situations like this one.
Except, lately, Josh Hader hasn’t been Josh Hader.
His time in San Diego was off to a brutal start. In his first 4 2/3 innings, he’d allowed a whopping 12 runs. Hader was demoted from the closer role two weeks ago, yet his struggles persisted.
But on Wednesday, the Padres bullpen was thin. They’d won two one-run games against the Giants already and were trying to protect a third. So when the bullpen door swung open for the bottom of the ninth, it was Hader who emerged.
Right where the Padres envisioned him all along.
“We’ve got to get him going,” said Padres manager Bob Melvin. “... This is a guy that we brought in for a reason.”
Sure enough, Hader locked down the Padres’ 5-4 victory on Wednesday. Thairo Estrada opened the frame with a duck-snort single to center field, but Hader responded by retiring the next three Giants hitters to earn his first save as a Padre.
“It’s just bad timing, as soon as I come to a new team,” Hader said. “But whether it was with Milwaukee or it was here, at the end of the day, it was something mechanically that I was going through. It was a little bump in the road that, ultimately, is making me into a better player.”
The plan wasn’t always for Hader to be thrust back into such a high-leverage spot so quickly. The Padres had avoided him in each of the first two games this series, with Nick Martinez filling in as closer.
But Martinez was unavailable Wednesday. The rest of the Padres’ late-inning options had been heavily taxed as well. In a way, Hader said, it was better to do it this way -- to pitch the ninth inning, and to exorcize those demons against a team that has had his number lately.
“It just puts you in the mentality where it’s do-or-die,” Hader said. “You’ve got to bring your best [stuff] and that’s it. It’s important that in your mind you have that confidence that you’re going to execute every pitch.”
Hader wasn’t his absolute dominant best. He allowed Estrada’s single, and a wild pitch that moved him to second. But he summed up his outing as, “a step in the right direction.”
A huge step for the Padres. They played one of their best series of the year in San Francisco. They finally got some of the clutch hitting they’ve been looking for. Their rotation was brilliant -- including 6 2/3 excellent innings from Joe Musgrove on Wednesday. But all month, Hader hovered as a question mark.
Had they not finished the sweep, it would’ve left a sour taste ahead of a pivotal series in Los Angeles. Instead, it’s quite the opposite. The Padres can again begin to dream on what’s possible with Hader at the back end of their bullpen.
“We all go through funks,” said third baseman Manny Machado. “It’s part of this game. He’s going to come out on top of it. Today was just the beginning of it. He’s going to save big games for us down the road.”
Machado went 2-for-4 with three RBIs on Wednesday, continuing to bolster his MVP case. The Padres built a 5-0 lead in the sixth and were cruising. Then Musgrove ran into trouble, allowing a run in the sixth and two in the seventh, setting off a chain of events that would lead to Hader in the ninth.
“There were a couple options, regarding who was available and who was used,” Melvin said. “But we really wanted to get him in that role. We wanted to get him through it. It hasn’t been great for him. It hasn’t been: ‘Boom, here’s a save situation, go get ‘em.’ Today was finally one.”
And Hader did what the Padres acquired Hader to do -- what they hope he’ll do often over the next month or two.
So what does all of this mean for the team’s current closer situation?
“It means we won today,” Melvin said with a smile. “We have an off-day tomorrow, and we’ll see moving forward. But I can’t imagine that doesn’t do a world of good for his confidence.”