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With Josh Hader heading a killer bullpen, the Brewers staked their claim as NL's best team

·MLB columnist
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CHICAGO – The visitors’ clubhouse at Wrigley Field is a dingy little room, low-ceilinged and shaped like a single-wide trailer, better suited for storage than a tangle of large men soaked in bubbly and tipsy on Miller Lite and high from the foregoing three hours of baseball. The Milwaukee Brewers, professional afterthoughts, had earned the right to defile the place with ribaldry. So defile they did.

Anyone who was dry took a sticky, boozy bath, from the soon-to-be MVP of the National League to the team owner wheeling around on a scooter with his recently repaired Achilles tendon swathed by a waterproof cover to the manager and general manager who conspired to get them here to the pitcher who spent the summer as a pariah and enters the fall ready to face his recent past.

That it was Josh Hader on the mound for the final six outs of a tense, titillating Game 163 on Monday afternoon was only fitting for the Brewers. They stood by him when his vile old tweets were exposed at the All-Star Game. He never wavered, never faltered and never looked better than he did in shutting down the Chicago Cubs for the eighth and ninth innings and sealing a 3-1 victory that gave Milwaukee the National League Central division title, the top seed this October and home-field advantage through the NL playoffs.

It capped a day that was positively Brewers. Good-enough starting pitching. Good-enough hitting. And a relief corps whose depth is matched, if not exceeded, by the quality of its stuff. As the Cubs mixed and matched their bullpen pieces, trying to find something that could keep the Brewers’ eighth-inning onslaught at bay, Milwaukee sat pretty, knowing that Hader was at the ready, just waiting to show that the Brewers’ frenzied comeback to win the division was no fluke.

“We don’t panic,” Brewers catcher Erik Kratz said. “We’re at 1-1 in the eighth inning, and we’re wearing ’em down to get to a point where we can do what we do.”

Which is to unleash the Kraken. Hader arrived with the Brewers having taken a 3-1 lead on four Cubs relievers with a leadoff single from Orlando Arcia – his career-high fourth hit of the day – a pinch-hit double by Domingo Santana, a liner up the middle from Lorenzo Cain and another run-scoring shot to center field by Ryan Braun. The 5 2/3 innings of one-hit ball that Jhoulys Chacín gave them were a gift, and the jam that Joakim Soria worked out of in the sixth was key, and the dominance from Corey Knebel in the seventh was imperative.

Because here was Hader, all arms and legs. Mostly left arm, actually. In the eighth, he threw his four fastest pitches of the season. In the ninth, he yielded a two-out single to Javier Báez on the ninth pitch of the at-bat, bringing to the plate Anthony Rizzo, whose solo home run off Chacin had accounted for the Cubs’ lone run and just one of three hits. Hader induced an easy fly out, and not only did it allow the Brewers to celebrate with the loud, proud throng of fans whose “Let’s go, Brewers!” chant after they’d taken the lead couldn’t be drowned out by worn-down Cubs supporters, it reinforced Milwaukee’s stake that for all the talk of Cubs and Dodgers, Dodgers and Cubs, it was the Brewers who were best of all over a 163-game stretch.

“He’s a special kid,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “He’s got a special gift. We got him some rest, and because we got him some rest, he was up for what was ahead of him.”

The Brewers weren’t trying to write Hader’s story as some sort of redemption. They understand the reality: The tweets will chase him for years, maybe his whole career, and in the minds of many sully even his greatest moments on the field. That there’s difficulty in separating performance from action. That real redemption comes away from the mound, in mind and deed.

What he did Monday – what the Brewers have done for the last month – was undeniable. The Cubs’ bullpen – which looked so shaky that they’ll need superlative starting pitching to remain alive, even if they win Tuesday night’s wild-card game against Colorado at Wrigley – actually finished the season with a better ERA than Milwaukee’s. September was an entirely different matter. With Knebel back to his unhittable 2017 self, Jeremy Jeffress finishing out a dream season and Hader booking the final 27 of his 140 strikeouts this year, the Brewers boasted far and away the best bullpen in baseball in September.

Brewers reliever Josh Hader soaks in Milwaukee’s 3-1 win over the Chicago Cubs. (Getty Images)
Brewers reliever Josh Hader soaks in Milwaukee’s 3-1 win over the Chicago Cubs. (Getty Images)

Their ERA was 2.03. The next-best team was 2.75. They struck out 152 hitters. The only team with more was Tampa Bay with 156 – and the Rays had 168 bullpen innings, compared to the Brewers’ 115. Batters hit .193 against Milwaukee’s relievers, got on base barely 25 percent of the time, slugged .306. In the year where relief pitching grew more important than ever, going into a postseason where it will remain of utmost importance, no bullpen came close to matching Milwaukee’s.

In Hader, the Brewers have their Andrew Miller, their Wade Davis – a reliever capable of going multiple innings, multiple times a series at any time in the game. When the phone rings and bullpen coach Lee Tunnell picks it up, the Brewers’ crew perks up, each hoping his name is called, all knowing that a Knebel-Hader-Jeffress finishing trio is as good as it gets.

“I really feel like we’ve got three guys,” Counsell said. “That’s a good feeling. That’s one of the ways we’re built to be good – with those three guys. Josh has done some things that make you leave your mouth wide open as far as how he’s performed. The strikeouts. Things he’s done on this field, in early September.”

On Sept. 10, Hader faced six Cubs hitters and struck out all of them. Two days later, he worked one inning, punching out three batters. It’s not like they’re unique. Hader, 24, has done this to hitters all season. It’s what puts the Brewers in such a unique position. Counsell has studied how Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona used his bullpen in the 2016 postseason, hoping to replicate the deftness with which he managed the relievers’ workloads and when to properly deploy them. He knows the Kansas City Royals rode their great bullpen to a championship in 2015.

“In Kansas City, what those guys did was special,” said Brewers third baseman Mike Moustakas, who was on that 2015 Royals team. “I haven’t been here all season, but what I’ve seen from those guys is unbelievable. When you get these guys in the game, it feels the exact same.”

It’s enough to wonder if the Brewers really are the best team in the NL. Their 96 wins topped the league. Christian Yelich, who had another three hits Monday, has been the best position player in the league. Advanced metrics and scouts agree they’re among the best fielding teams in the league. Owner Mark Attanasio and GM David Stearns took a contending team from 2017, added Yelich and Cain in the offseason, withstood the loss of ace Jimmy Nelson, added a couple pieces at the deadline and watched something special blossom. As Moustakas said: “We think we are. That’s all that matters.”

The question was posed to Hader. He stood up, considered it, tilted back his can of Miller Lite, took a long glug and walked away with a smirk. Asked and answered.

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