The Dodgers were denting Josh Hader’s usually unblemished armor in the eighth inning of their 5-3 win Friday night, steadily pecking at baseball’s best left-handed reliever, but time was running out. Hader had faced four batters in the inning before Enrique Hernandez stepped into the batter’s box to try to solve the shaggy-haired slinger. Two walked, offering hints of Hader’s mortality. Two struck out, offering reminders of Hader’s dominance.
Then Hader pounced on Hernandez, firing two 94-mph fastballs by him to go up 0-2 and clench Hernandez in a vise-grip. Before the clash, Hader had gone up 0-2 on a hitter 82 times in his career. The Milwaukee Brewers’ relief ace had never issued a walk. He had allowed four hits for an .049 batting average against. The only extra-base hit was a double. Hernandez’s long odds of success grew longer in a blink.
But Friday’s sequence took a detour. Hader didn’t finish Hernandez off. He didn’t wiggle out of the rare trouble. Instead, to the palpable shock of the thousands at Miller Park, Hernandez turned on a 96-mph fastball up over the plate and whacked it over the left-field wall for the go-ahead three-run home run.
“In that situation, I was just trying to put the ball in play, stay as short as possible,” said Hernandez, who entered the game as part of a double-switch in the sixth inning. “And the ball happened to catch the barrel.”
The homer — Hernandez’s fifth this season — was the fifth Hader has surrendered with two strikes since breaking into the majors and establishing himself as a force in 2017. It was Hernandez’s first career home run on an 0-2 count, his first hit against Hader in six career encounters, and it was the difference in the Dodgers (14-8) extending their winning streak to six games.
“To get Hader in the game and to put those at-bats on him, I thought we did a great job,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Even those at-bats leading up, we did a great job.”
The Dodgers’ win streak has been built on their starting pitching’s prowess. Entering Friday, their starters had allowed five runs (four earned) across 26 innings over the previous five games. That was good for a 1.38 earned-run average. None of the five starters logged fewer than six innings. The five-game run followed a stretch in which the Dodgers went 11 days without a starter completing six innings. The combination powered a six-game losing streak.
Ross Stripling ignited the streak with eight innings against the Brewers on Sunday at Dodger Stadium. Five days later, the Brewers (12-8) presented a tougher challenge. It took two batters for Stripling to stumble Friday. After Lorenzo Cain slashed a single for his 1,000th career hit, Christian Yelich smashed the first pitch he saw — an 89-mph slider in off the plate — over the wall. The two-run home run was Yelich’s 11th this season, most in the majors.
Those were the only runs the Brewers scored against Stripling. His leash, however, wasn’t long. The right-hander exited with two outs in the fifth inning after walking Yelich with his 84th pitch. He was beginning a third turn through the Brewers’ lineup. Roberts decided against letting him continue it and Stripling left with eight strikeouts in 42/3 innings. Left-hander Scott Alexander replaced him to face the left-handed-hitting Mike Moustakas, who grounded out.
“I thought Ross was good, not great,” Roberts said.
For the second straight night, a Brewers right-hander was effective for five innings but had his pitch count balloon too much to continue. On Thursday, the Dodgers bounced Zach Davies early. On Friday, it was Jhoulys Chacin who exited after throwing 94 pitches in five innings.
The Dodgers knotted the score with runs in the second and third innings. Alex Verdugo, making his ninth start, made his mark on a game again by supplying the first run with a two-out double to the left-center field gap. The line drive scored Cody Bellinger from first base for his 13th run batted in. It was Verdugo’s 10th hit and fourth double in 27 plate appearances with a runner on base this season. The next inning began with Chacin issuing a four-pitch walk to Stripling. Bellinger later lifted a sacrifice fly with the bases loaded to score Stripling and tie the score.
Frustration with home-plate umpire Brian O’Nora mounted for the Dodgers in the seventh inning. Protests began when Austin Barnes led off the inning against left-hander Alex Claudio and had two pitches off the plate called for strikes. The second resulted in his strikeout. The next three batters reached base to bring up Justin Turner with the bases loaded and one out. He swung through the first pitch from right-hander Junior Guerra before taking a pitch he thought was down and out of the strike zone for strike two. He then took a ball and another pitch he thought wasn’t in the strike zone. O’Nora instead called strike three, perhaps influenced by former Dodger Yasmani Grandal’s elite framing skills behind the plate, for the second out.
Bellinger was up next, prompting Brewers manager Craig Counsell to insert Hader on three days’ rest to escape the jam. A battle between the two talents ensued. Hader attacked with four straight fastballs to go up 1-2 before he attempted to provoke a swing at a nasty slider in the dirt. Bellinger didn’t oblige. Bellinger fouled off the next pitch, a fastball, but swung through the seventh pitch of the encounter for strike three.
A week after holding the Dodgers scoreless over 11/3 innings, Hader, who had allowed one run in 10 innings before Friday, appeared too difficult to crack again. Another scoreless outing seemed imminent once he pumped a fastball by Hernandez for strike two. Hernandez thought the pitch was too far inside. O’Nora told him it wasn’t. So Hernandez, who was mired in a 4-for-27 slump, backed off the plate to give himself a chance to extend his arms should Hader go there again.
“It gets there quick,” Hernandez said of Hader’s fastball. “He does a really good job of hiding it.”
Hader didn’t go there again. His 34th pitch went upstairs and Hernandez, ready, unloaded a mighty swing. Hader knew his fate the instant Hernandez connected. His night ended there.