The Milwaukee Brewers could not have asked for a better set up leading into Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. After extending the series with a Game 6 win against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday, the Brewers entered the decisive game with a fully rested Josh Hader ready to be deployed however manager Craig Counsell saw fit.
It wasn’t a question of if Counsell would use his ace reliever, who last pitched an inning in Game 4 four days prior, It was a matter of when, and for how long.
We got our answer relatively quickly. After the Dodgers took the lead in the second inning on NLCS MVP Cody Bellinger’s two-run home run, Counsell made the move to Hader to begin the third inning and ultimately left him in for three scoreless innings.
As we’d learn a few hours later, despite Hader’s dominance (3 IP, 1 H, 1 BB, 3 K), it was already too late. Once the Dodgers took the lead, they never looked back on their way to a 5-1 pennant-clinching victory.
Now the question we ask is this: Did Counsell deploy his top pitching option in the best way possible, or was there a way he could have used Hader to prevent Los Angeles from ever gaining control? Let’s dive in.
Should Josh Hader have started Game 7?
This idea was being thrown around partway through Game 6 when it looked like Hader wouldn’t be needed. Preparing to start is not unfamiliar to the 24-year-old left-hander. He was primarily a starter in the minor leagues, though he’s yet to start a game in two big league seasons though bursting onto the scene in his dynamic bullpen role.
Given that the Brewers refer to pitchers who start the game as initial “out getters,” it shows they’re not attached to attaching labels on pitchers. That would seemingly put any pitcher in play to start a game, especially a game as important as Game 7. That includes starting Hader. Counsell might wish he did now after seeing how dominant Hader was, and after watching starter Jhoulys Chacin cough up the Bellinger homer.
If Milwaukee controls the game early, it may have gone entirely different. So yeah, the argument for Hader starting may have had more merit than anyone originally thought.
Should Josh Hander have pitched longer in Game 7?
Game 7 marked Hader’s second three-inning outing of the NLCS, but only his third of the 2018 season. In other words, it’s not a place the Brewers want to go if they can help it.
This situation would seem as good a time as any though to push that envelope. After all, the Brewers season was on the line, and his 31 pitches Saturday night were actually 15 less than his three-inning outing in NLCS Game 1. Perhaps he didn’t have anything left. Or maybe the Brewers didn’t want his warm up pitches adding up.
Whatever the case, Hader’s presence was immediately missed once he was pulled. The Dodgers scored three runs in the sixth inning off the combination of Xavier Cedeño and Jeremy Jeffress, with all three scoring on Yasiel Puig’s home run. Chances are that would not have happened against Hader, but the Dodgers took advantage to break the game wide open.
Should Josh Hader have pitched later in Game 7?
With all hands on deck, some were actually surprised that Counsell turned to Hader so early. Brandon Woodruff, for example, was available and has arguably been Milwaukee’s second best pitcher in October.
Though he didn’t speak about it after the game, it appeared Counsell was determined to use Hader early to flip the Dodgers lineup. By that we mean, with two left-handed hitters (Joc Pederson and Max Muncy) hitting atop the Dodgers order, he used Hader as bait to get them out of the game. Roberts bit once, pinch-hitting Enrique Hernandez for Pederson, but otherwise kept his lineup the same with Hader in the game.
In the end, this actually backfired on Counsell. When Hernandez entered at second base, Chris Taylor moved to left field and made the incredible catch that saved the Dodgers season.
It’s admittedly much easier for us to sit back and second guess from afar. If all of Counsell’s pitchers had come through in Game 7, he’d be the toast of Milwaukee for his gutsy calls. Starting Hader honestly seems like the best option looking back, but it’s difficult to fault Counsell too much given how far he’s helped guide the Brewers franchise.
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