MILWAUKEE -- Josh Hader and the Brewers closed their homestand with a Major League record.
Hader finished the Brewers’ 8-5 win over the Tigers on Wednesday night at Miller Park with a record-setting 12th consecutive hitless appearance to begin the season, snapping a tie he had shared with three others and capping a winning homestand that kept Milwaukee in the thick of the postseason chase -- losing record and all.
Nobody’s perfect, and Hader certainly hasn’t been. His velocity is a tick down this season and his walks were up even before an outing Saturday against the Pirates when he blew a save by walking five of the six batters he faced, forcing home the tying and go-ahead runs. The Brewers bailed him out that night with Eric Sogard’s walk-off home run, and the next day, Hader threw a rare bullpen session to, in his words, “make sure I was able to throw it over the plate, at least.”
Back on the mound on Monday, Hader struck out the side in a win over Pittsburgh. On Wednesday against Detroit, he hit the first man he faced before retiring the next three.
With that, Hader had 12 straight hitless games spanning 11 2/3 innings to begin 2020. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that’s the longest season-opening streak of appearances without allowing a hit in history, snapping a tie he had shared with 2017 Tiger Justin Wilson, 1999 Phillie Scott Aldred and 1987 Red John Franco.
“I definitely know about it,” Hader said. “Obviously a lot of guys talk about it -- especially you guys. But it’s something that, when I’m up on the mound, my job is to get outs. If they get a hit, they get a hit.”
So far, nobody has a hit, perhaps because the batters are seeing a different Hader. Last year, en route to a second straight National League Reliever of the Year Award, he threw 82.9 percent four-seam fastballs, according to Statcast. This year, it was 68.2 percent fastballs and 31.8 percent sliders going into Wednesday. Hader’s strikeout rate is down about eight percent from last year, but that’s OK, because he hasn’t allowed a hit.
“He's good at baseball,” Christian Yelich said.
Wait, there was more analysis where that came from.
“He's one of the best relievers in the game for a reason,” Yelich continued. “I think he's pitching more this year. In years past, it's kind of been, 'Here's my fastball. Hit it.' Just coming right after guys. This year, he's mixing it up a little bit and keeping guys off balance. That's a big reason why nobody's got a hit yet.”
Saturday’s bout of extreme wildness threatened to derail Hader’s strong start, so he went to the bullpen. It’s relatively rare for a reliever to pitch off the mound between outings, especially Hader, given the close attention to his workload.
“I didn’t throw a crazy 15-, 25-pitch bullpen,” Hader said. “But I wanted to make sure my feet were under me and I was coming down the mound smooth and correct, and make sure that everything felt good. It was more like fine-tuning, maybe a quick oil change. But it was good, and it was much-needed. And then obviously I was able to get in there Monday and see what it would look like against hitters.”
To get the ball to Hader again on Wednesday, the Brewers had to stage a comeback from an early 4-0 deficit. Keston Hiura hit a three-run homer in the third inning, Omar Narváez shattered his bat on a game-tying single in the fifth, Sogard delivered a tie-breaking sacrifice fly in the seventh and Jace Peterson gave Hader a bit of breathing room by smacking Milwaukee’s first pinch-hit homer this season, a two-run shot in the eighth.
Yelich walked four times, scored three runs and stole two bases, making him the third Brewer with at least four walks and multiple stolen bases in a game -- Mike Cameron on April 7, 2009, and Jeromy Burnitz on Sept. 23, 1999, were the others -- and the first in the Majors since Mike Trout on July 23, 2018.
Hader wasn’t the only reliever to deliver hitless work. Eric Yardley pitched the sixth and seventh innings without allowing a hit, and Devin Williams pitched a hitless eighth while getting all three outs on changeups. Hitters are 0-for-34 with 23 strikeouts this season against Williams’ changeup. Then came Hader’s hitless ninth, and the Brewers improved to 17-19 with their 12th come-from-behind win.
“I am not expecting them to be perfect every time,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said of those relievers.
So far, one bad night notwithstanding, Hader has been close.