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Brewers closer Josh Hader works to expand his repertoire
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Brewers closer Josh Hader works to expand his repertoire

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PHOENIX — The evolution of Josh Hader continues.

The Milwaukee Brewers left-hander is still one of the most dominant relief pitchers around as he enters his fifth major season, a feat he’s accomplished by continuing to expand and refine his arsenal.

After officially being added to the Milwaukee Brewers' 40-man roster Tuesday, veteran infielder Travis Shaw said, "it's going to be on me to produce to be in there." The 30-year-old will be competing for playing time at third base in his second stint with the club. 

“This is a real credit to Josh, just kind of seeing the big picture, understanding himself very well, understanding the matchups in the game, and giving himself options,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “That’s what he’s trying to do.”

One of four players acquired in the 2015 trade that sent Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers to the Houston Astros, Hader relied on his fastball to earn a promotion to the majors in 2017 and so flummoxed hitters — 68 strikeouts in 47⅔ innings — that he earned a multi-inning relief role in 2018. The result was a 2.43 ERA, his first All-Star Game appearance and the National League Reliever of the Year Award.

Hitters, though, started catching up to Hader in 2019. He had strong numbers, with a 2.62 ERA and 138 strikeouts in 75⅔ innings, and earned a second All-Star nod and repeated as the NL’s top reliever.

But he also allowed 15 home runs, which accounted for 36% of the hits against him all season.

That told Hader that something needed to change, so he spent spring training in 2020 working to improve his slider. The effort paid off — he didn’t allow a hit over his first 12 appearances and finished the abbreviated season with 13 saves and 31 strikeouts in 19 innings.

“It kept them honest,” Hader said of his slider. “When hitters can sit on one pitch and eliminate other pitches, that makes it a pretty tough out. For me, adding that slider, they couldn’t sit on that one pitch. They had to respect the other ones.”

Hader isn’t content to stand pat. This spring, he’s worked to make his changeup a bigger part of his repertoire.

“That’s a pitch I always had but it’s never been consistent,” Hader said. “Last year I started working on it with Edgertronic and seeing how the spin works out of my hand and how consistent I could get that release point. Once you start doing it more, you get that confidence in your mind.”

If Hader can find the same success with his changeup this season as he did with his slider in 2020, the Brewers figure to again feature one of the most formidable late-inning tandems in baseball. The plan is for 2020 NL Rookie of the Year Devin Williams to work the eighth inning while Hader will cover the ninth in a more traditional closer’s role.

Hader has enjoyed working in different roles during his career, but knowing he can focus on one inning and a more defined role makes his preparation easier.

“It’s a good fit,” Hader said. “(Working multiple innings) is definitely taxing for a full season. There’s a lot of thought, a lot of preparation that goes into a season like that. Having Devin being able to fill the gap in the seventh and eighth, and the other guys as well, there’s a lot of options out there to bridge the gap.”

On the field

Keston Hiura hit two of Milwaukee’s four home runs against Walker Buehler in the 9-6 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Cactus League play at American Family Fields of Phoenix.

Buehler allowed three solo home runs in the opening inning — one each to Hiura, Christian Yelich and Omar Narvaez — and Hiura added a two-run shot in the second. Buehler allowed nine runs on 10 hits and struck out five in five innings.

“He’s obviously one of the best, so it’s a good day to build confidence,” Counsell said.

Brewers starter Corbin Burnes (2-0) allowed a solo home run to Justin Turner in the first but got out of trouble when Max Muncy hit into an inning-ending double-play. The right-hander allowed just two more baserunners before leaving with two outs in the fifth.

“He just felt a little bit out of whack mechanically in the first inning,” Counsell said. “He kind of figured it out between innings and he pitched beautifully. He locked it in and I thought he was outstanding.”

The Dodgers scored four runs in the ninth off right-hander Justin Topa, who allowed three hits and walked two. In his past four outings, Topa has allowed eight earned runs over 2⅔ innings.

“I don’t think the contact’s been great against him, but we have to eliminate the walks,” Counsell said.

On deck

Right-hander Adrian Houser (0-0, 4.15 ERA) is scheduled to start for the host Brewers on Wednesday against the Colorado Rockies. Houser allowed two runs, and just one earned, over 5⅓ innings in his first three appearances but gave up three runs on six hits and two walks against the Arizona Diamondbacks on March 19.

Right-hander Jon Gray (1-0, 4.70) is slated to start for Colorado.

Here’s everything you need to know as Milwaukee Brewers kick off spring training in Arizona


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