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Brewers reliever Josh Hader continues to dominate

April 9, 2019

MILWAUKEE —

Anthony Rizzo knew what was coming.

The Chicago Cubs first baseman had stepped into the batter’s box with two on and two out and the Cubs trailing 4-2 in the seventh inning Sunday at Miller Park, matched up with Brewers left-hander Josh Hader.

Hader, Milwaukee’s lights-out relief ace, threw seven pitches — four fastballs and three sliders — before Rizzo swung and missed at a 96.2 mph fastball to end the inning.

“The Rizzo at-bat, that’s just good baseball, man,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said after Milwaukee’s 4-2 win. “Rizzo gives him tough at-bats. That’s great baseball.”

Although he came out on the losing end, Rizzo agreed.

“For me, those at-bats are a lot of fun,” Rizzo said. “You want to face those guys in big situations.

“(Hader) is the best in the business. He brings it and he’s not scared. We know what he’s going to do, you know he’s coming right at you.”

Rizzo is hardly unique in that regard.

Hader has gotten off to a dominant start this season, allowing just one hit and a walk while striking out 13 of 25 batters over 7⅔ scoreless innings across five outings — all of them save opportunities.

More impressive is the simplicity of those outings. He has thrown 62 total pitches and 96.8 of those have been fastballs, clocking in at an average velocity of 95.2 miles per hour.

“He’s great,” Chicago’s Javy Baez said after striking out against Hader on Sunday. “He’s a great pitcher. We’ve been facing him for over a year now, so we just have to make the adjustment.”

Even when batters know what’s coming, they haven’t been able to hit Hader. In fact, they’ve had a hard time making contact: Only six of his pitches have been put into play while 40.3 percent have generated swings and misses.

“There are going to be days when you execute your pitch and they still hit it,” Hader said. “I just enjoy being out there and being able to pitch.”

Jeffress getting closer

Hader recorded the final eight outs of Sunday’s victory for his fifth save in as many chances this season.

Counsell has long eschewed the use of labels for his pitchers, especially when it comes to the term “closer,” but Hader has been his go-to choice to close out games while Jeremy Jeffress works his way back from shoulder weakness that shut him down after one spring training appearance.

Hader could soon return to his “traditional” multi-inning setup role soon, though, as Jeffress is expected to return to the Brewers during their next homestand. He will make a few more appearances this week for Class AAA San Antonio and if all goes well should be back in Milwaukee next week.

“We’re making good progress,” Counsell said.

Injuries to Jeffress and Corey Knebel, who will undergo Tommy John surgery this week and miss the entire season, left the bullpen with big questions heading into the season. The relievers have performed well so far, posting a 4.89 ERA — a number inflated by a six-run meltdown Saturday by Alex Wilson.

Take that out of the equation, and Milwaukee’s relievers have a 3.52 mark.

“We’ve given ourselves some structure,” Counsell said. “It’s really the way you thought of it kind of going in, so that’s a positive and that means they’ve performed.”

Pitching in on offense

Brewers pitchers have been coming up big at the plate, too, combining to go 7-for-21 for an NL-leading .333 batting average.

Milwaukee also leads NL pitching staffs with a .391 on-base percentage, .867 OPS; and is second with 10 total bases, two walks and a .476 slugging percentage while only striking out twice.

Brandon Woodruff leads that group. He’s 3-for-3 with a walk in his two starts.

“It’s pretty important to just go up there, battle and make the pitcher work,” Woodruff said.

That’s especially true with Milwaukee’s lineup, which features Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich and Ryan Braun filling the top three spots. Putting a pitcher on just provides more opportunities for those three to do more damage, making tough innings even longer for opposing pitchers.

“I don’t want to lie to you and say we worked extra-hard on it,” Counsell said. “But that’s always going to help your cause when you’re doing that.”