SAN DIEGO -- It came down to Freddie Freeman vs. Josh Hader. Of course it did.
The Padres had some demons to exorcise against the rival Dodgers in the National League Division Series last weekend. Hader also had a few of his own. It was Freeman, then with Atlanta, whose game-winning homer off Hader in Game 4 of the 2021 National League Division Series ended Milwaukee's season.
This time, Hader threw Freeman three pitches. All were strikes. Freeman whiffed at a slider in the dirt to end it, and the party was on -- with Hader at the center of it.
"It just makes it all come full circle for me," Hader said. "Facing Freeman, he beat me last year, took [the Braves] to the NLCS with a homer. To be able to flip that around and to face the Dodgers -- every time I faced the Dodgers in the playoffs with Milwaukee, I lost. To see it come full circle, and to beat a team like that, they're not an easy team to beat."
When the Padres traded for Hader at the Deadline, they envisioned him getting outs like that one. They envisioned him finishing a postseason series -- as he’s now done in consecutive weeks.
But Hader's path wasn't a straightforward one. He struggled upon his arrival from Milwaukee -- and, really, in the month before that trade. In fact, without those struggles, it's worth wondering whether Hader would have even been available at the Deadline.
The Padres' pursuit of Hader wasn't exactly new. He'd been coveted by general manager A.J. Preller for years. But the price tag on a struggling Hader -- with only a year and a half before he hit free agency -- suddenly wasn't so high. San Diego pounced.
And then Hader struggled. In his first nine outings with the Padres, he allowed 13 runs -- a 17.55 ERA. That came after Hader had posted a 12.54 mark in July with Milwaukee.
"It was just mechanics," Hader said. "It wasn't a confidence thing. I have confidence in everything, every time I go out there. It just sometimes isn't going the way you want it to."
After Hader allowed the winning run to score on consecutive nights in mid-August, San Diego temporarily removed him from the closer role. His mechanics needed to be honed, and that needed to take place outside of the ninth-inning spotlight.
Hader and pitching coach Ruben Niebla won't go too deeply into those mechanical fixes, other than to note that Hader needed to be a bit more square in his delivery. His stuff was still there, but his command had grown erratic.
"The one thing that separates Hader from a lot of people is the mental aspect of his game," Niebla said. "He's so mentally strong. And as we removed him from the closer role for that short period, he was aching to get back in that role. We knew that there was some stuff he was working on and trying to figure out. But at the same time, his mindset was going to take him back there."
Two weeks later, at the tail end of a series in San Francisco, the Padres didn't have another choice. They'd burned through their bullpen for a pair of one-run victories in the first two games. As Niebla and manager Bob Melvin mapped out their bullpen for the finale, they saw only one option: If the game was close, Hader would get the ninth.
He'd just allowed six runs in Kansas City, the nadir of his season. Those mechanics hadn't been fully honed. But sure enough, the Padres needed him to nail down a one-run lead.
"Ruben and I had a long conversation about that," Melvin said. "And Ruben was on point with it. We knew that at some point in time, if we were going to be this team, Hader had to be a big part of it.
"You get a little lump in your throat when a guy's struggling. It's a close game and you feel like, even at that point in the season, you have to win every game. But it was the right thing to do. You look at the numbers since then ... he's pitching as well as he has all year."
Hader worked through that ninth inning in San Francisco unscathed, and his stuff got better with each outing that followed. He didn't allow a run over the regular season's final month. Along the way, he began to incorporate a changeup into his arsenal. He debuted it to put away Ty France after a wild 10-pitch at-bat to finish a win in Seattle. (He says that was the first time he’d ever thrown it to complete a save.) Hader also used it in Game 2 against the Dodgers for a key strikeout of Chris Taylor.
That changeup feels a bit unfair -- what with Hader’s already elite fastball and his wipeout slider. Suddenly, after a roller coaster of a summer, this looks like the version of Hader who spent the past half-decade as one of the sport’s most dominant pitchers.
“That,” said catcher Austin Nola, “is the guy I … faced when he was in Milwaukee. One of the hardest closers to hit in the game.”