I suppose I don’t literally believe in tempting fate or flying too close to the sun or whatever metaphor you want to use for showing off one’s superiority so thoroughly that chance or the universe have no choice but to shove it back in your face at an especially inopportune moment. Particularly in baseball, each game, each start, each appearance, and even each at-bat have a kind of agnostic separation from the next. What a pitcher does against one hitter should have little-to-no bearing on what he does to another, and any connection between these individual events lives solely in our heads. Or at least the heads of the players involved.
That said, I’m not sure how you can look at everything that’s happened this summer for the Milwaukee Brewers and not think, at least a tiny bit, that Josh Hader was due.
The long-haired reliever, even more so than in previous seasons, had been the Brewers’ ace in the hole all through their NL Central–winning campaign. With an ERA of just 1.23 in 58.2 of the team’s highest-leverage innings, Hader practically ended games just by walking out of the bullpen. Though the spin rate and velocity on his fastball are not particularly astounding, his off-kilter release point has proven to confound hitters again and again. Outside of a rocky July that included a blown save and a couple of losses, Hader allowed just two earned runs in the entirety of 2021, and zero in his 20 appearances in August and September.
“If you are facing Hader this postseason and your team is behind, the game is already over,” wrote Will Leitch on MLB.com earlier this month. Well. The thing about absolutes, and about season-long dominance, is that in the playoffs it only takes one pitch to render all that came before irrelevant.
Hader had picked up the save in Game 1 of the NLDS for the Brewers against the Braves, preserving a 2-1 win after Rowdy Tellez hit his big two-run blast. But in his second and final postseason appearance—last night’s Game 4 with the score tied at four in the eighth—he was outmaneuvered by the reigning MVP and heart of this Atlanta team, Freddie Freeman.
Against the Brewers’ most impassable roadblock, Freeman was ready for what was coming. Hader had struck out two of his teammates already in the inning, and he had thrown four straight sliders for strikes. But when he went for the fifth, Freeman took it for a ride way back into center for the 5-4 lead that would send the Braves to the NLCS.
“I didn’t know if he was going slider-happy, but I just kind of looked up and away to keep me from swinging at the slider down and away, and luckily he threw one up there,” Freeman said afterwards.
Added Braves manager Brian Snitker, “He hit it and I watched the ball. It was like, ‘My God, he got it.’ I was distracted almost, just thinking about other things. I find myself, when I sit there and I focus on, ‘Boy, it would be nice if he hits one,’ it never happens. I try never to even go there.”
At the risk of sounding a little mean-spirited, is there anything better than seeing an invincible closer falter in an especially dramatic playoff moment? I’m thinking of Luis Gonzalez’s season-ending hit off of Mariano Rivera in the 2001 World Series, or Bill Mueller’s single off same in the 2004 ALCS, or Jose Altuve’s walk-off to win the pennant against Aroldis Chapman, or … well, if you want an example that doesn’t involve sending the Yankees home, how about Juan Soto’s clutch hit in the 2019 NL Wild Card game against a dude named Hader? These meant more because of who they came against: the kind of guys who made opposing hearts sink when they entered the game, because they’d seen what they’d done all year, and they knew the low probability of anything being different this time, of all times.
The Nats still win the wild card and the D-Backs still win the World Series if, like, Alex Claudio or Randy Choate is the reliever throwing the ball. But it’s not at all the same, because those dudes are mortal. With guys like Hader, all year long they strike batters out and snuff out hope and deliver win after win with minimal stress. But it takes just one swing of the bat to completely undo all that mystique. And once it’s gone, it has to be earned back. Hader doesn’t get the chance to really try for at least 12 months. In the meantime, the Braves get to borrow it for a little while longer.
Correction (2:51 p.m. ET): The article originally misstated Freeman’s career stats against Hader.