Just when it seemed like they were headed for another disappointing offensive performance, the Brewers launched a ninth-inning comeback against the Pirates, tying the game at five before taking the lead for good in the 11th. Here are a few notes and musings from Monday night’s exciting contest.
Williams shows encouraging signs
Devin Williams displayed his potential to emerge as a high-leverage weapon for Craig Counsell. Relieving Adrian Houser after five strong innings, Williams was electric in the sixth, retiring the side in order with a popup sandwiched between two strikeouts. His electric fastball was on display— it averaged 96.3 miles per hour, per Statcast — but it was his changeup that stole the show. Williams threw eight changeups, starting them at the knees before they danced out of the strike zone. He recorded both of his strikeouts with the changeup.
Williams came back out for the seventh inning and picked up right where he left off, disposing of Josh Bell with a high fastball just off the plate.
Things went south from there, however, as Williams would allow a home run to Colin Moran, followed by a walk and the young righty’s own throwing error on a grounder in front of the mound. Alex Claudio would quickly allow both of these runners to score (why exactly Claudio was the move in a situation that called for a strikeout specialist remains a question), giving Williams a final line of three runs (one earned) on one hit with three strikeouts and a walk. All in all, however, it was an encouraging outing for Williams, one that served a reminder of just how much pure talent this Brewers pitching staff possesses. It’s just a matter of how many of those pitchers can figure out how to use their stuff effectively against big-league opposition.
Hader features his slider heavily in season debut
Josh Hader made his 2020 debut, pitching a scoreless ninth after the Brewers tied the game at five. Hader putting up a goose egg with a strikeout is not unusual, but his pitch usage was. For his career, Hader has thrown his signature fastball 80.3% of the time, his slider 16.3%, and a changeup 2%. On Monday night, he used a nearly even distribution of fastballs and sliders, throwing 10 heaters and eight breaking balls. That included a sequence of three straight sliders to Gregory Polanco for his lone strikeout of the inning.
Hader located many of his sliders well, but he did miss his spot a few times, including the second one to Polanco that hung over the plate. And while Hader hinted that he’ll be throwing more breaking balls this year, it’s unlikely that he will always use it as frequently as he did last night. Nonetheless, it was interesting to see Hader come out of the gates with a much more balanced approach than the one he has deployed in past seasons. Perhaps he’ll work in a changeup or two in his next outing.
Phelps looks sharp while locking down the win
David Phelps was given arguably the toughest pitching assignment of the night, having to work around the runner placed on second base in the 10th and 11th innings. The moment was not too big for Phelps, who did not allow a baserunner of his own over two scoreless frames, striking out three. The veteran averaged 94.2 miles per hour on his four-seam fastball, hitting 95 multiple times and topping out at 96. That was the cruising speed for his heater in 2016, when he posted a 2.28 ERA, 2.80 FIP, and 2.67 DRA and punched out 114 in 86 2/3 innings for the Marlins. Phelps had Tommy John surgery just before the 2018 season began and lost about two miles per hour on his heater when he returned last summer. The result was a declining strikeout rate and a rising home run rate. Now two years removed from surgery, seeing him reach back for some mid-90’s heat in a big spot was a great sign.
During his postgame interview, Counsell remarked that Phelps has guts, appearing to catch himself just as he was about to use a… different term.