Ul­ti­mate weapon Hader ‘coolest guy out there’

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Bob Night­en­gale Colum­nist USA TO­DAY

PHOENIX – Josh Hader has the look of a South­ern Cal­i­for­nia surfer with the dirty-blond, shoul­der-length hair and ink-stained arms, but he’s from a small vil­lage in Mary­land.

He’s a big-time hunter and avid fish­er­man who just hap­pens to love hockey.

He’s a skinny, 6-0, 180-pound left­handed, 24-year chill dude, but in­stead of lis­ten­ing to rap, hip-hop or coun­try, he rolls with clas­sic rock, with his walkup song hit­ting the charts back when

eight-track cas­settes dom­i­nated.

He’s a pitcher for the Brew­ers who’s not a starter, not a closer or even a setup man but is help­ing de­fine the new­est, bad­dest bullpen role in base­ball.

“That’s the beau­ti­ful thing about Josh,” man­ager Craig Coun­sell says. “You can’t put him in a box. You can’t stereo­type him, or even try to fig­ure him out. He’s just his own self. You just sit back and ap­pre­ci­ate him. And be­lieve me, we’re do­ing that, ev­ery sin­gle day.”

In a sea­son that’s start­ing to be­come mag­i­cal for the Brew­ers, tied for first place (26-18) in the Na­tional League Cen­tral go­ing into Thurs­day de­spite hav­ing four of their start­ing pitch­ers on the dis­abled list, Hader has emerged as per­haps their most dy­namic, vi­brant and in­te­gral player.

Just 11 months ago at Chase Field in Phoenix he was mak­ing his ma­jor league de­but, and he re­turned for the first time this week as the nas­ti­est re­liever in the land, whose ex­ploits should be on na­tional stage in July when he’s se­lected to the Al­lS­tar team.

Wear­ing No. 71 and gal­lop­ing in from the bullpen with his hair flop­ping down his back, some­times singing to him­self, step­ping to the mound and then hu­mil­i­at­ing hit­ters who dare step to the plate, Hader has struck out more bat­ters than any other re­liever in Ma­jor League Base­ball — 50 in 25 in­nings. The op­po­si­tion is hit­ting

.086, and he is strik­ing out 18 bat­ters per nine in­nings, which would break Aroldis Chap­man’s 2014 record.

“Right now, what he’s do­ing,” gen­eral man­ager David Stearns says, “is as good as any re­liever in base­ball. There are other guys who have done it longer, and have done it more con­sis­tently, but what he’s do­ing right now is as good as any­one.”

A year ago he was a strug­gling mi­nor league starter who had been twice traded, and now he’s an overnight sen­sa­tion, thanks in part to his feat in Cincin­nati on April 30 when he be­came the first pitcher in the mod­ern era with eight strike­outs in 22⁄ in­nings. He’s the

3 only NL re­liever since 1893 — the year the mound was moved

60 feet, 6 inches from home plate — to strike out at least three bat­ters in seven con­sec­u­tive ap­pear­ances.

“He’s the coolest guy out there,” Brew­ers first base­man Eric Thames said. “Guys like that do so well be­cause there’s so much fail­ure in this game. He’s like, ‘ You know, I’m go­ing to go out, work hard, do my best and what­ever hap­pens, hap­pens. And when I’m done, I’m go­ing to go hunt or fish or lis­ten to mu­sic.”

Well, some­times, Hader cre­ates his own mu­sic and can even be spot­ted singing the words to his walk-up song, Rene­gade, by Styx, which came out in 1979 and has never been more pop­u­lar in Mil­wau­kee.

“I’m get­ting a lot of good com­pli­ments from my song, it just pumps peo­ple up,” Hader says. “I mean, it pumps me up, too. I just start singing it my­self on the way to the mound.”

Hader, who used to cut his own hair, a buzz cut be­fore stop­ping al­to­gether four years ago, skips to the mound al­most like Shaggy Rogers in ScoobyDoo, with hit­ters try­ing to fig­ure out whether he’s go­ing to be pump­ing his 93-97 mph fast­ball, fir­ing a nasty slider or com­pletely con­fus­ing them with his change-up.

“Some­times he doesn’t know what’s happening,” vet- eran re­liever and team­mate Jeremy Jef­fress says, “and that’s a good thing.”

The most danger­ous facet of Hader is the el­e­ment of sur­prise. The op­po­si­tion keeps gaz­ing into the Brew­ers bullpen, never know­ing when he’s go­ing to emerge. He could pop out in the fourth in­ning or in the eighth and face two bat­ters or nine, with 11 of his 15 ap­pear­ances go­ing longer than one in­ning.

“There’s no name for it,” Hader says of his role. “I guess just an out-get­ter.”

It’s the role Andrew Miller glo­ri­fied in the In­di­ans’ 2016 World Se­ries run, the one Archie Bradley per­fected for the Di­a­mond­backs, and now it’s Hader who has taken the hy­brid position to an­other level.

Hader was the fi­nal ac­qui­si­tion of for­mer Brew­ers GM Doug Melvin, who was stunned the Astros (and ear­lier, Ori­oles) wanted to give him up. Stearns, iron­i­cally, was the Astros as­sis­tant GM at the time, and his front of­fice de­sired out­fielder Car­los Gomez and starter Mike Fiers to bol­ster a fran­chise chas­ing its first play­off berth in a decade.

“Look, the Astros hap­pened to make the play­offs that year, and Gomez and Fiers had a mean­ing­ful part of it down the stretch,” said Stearns, who be­came the Brew­ers GM six weeks later. “But look­ing back a few years later, I’m glad to be on this side of it.”

There might be a time af­ter the sea­son when the Brew­ers try mov­ing Hader back to the start­ing ro­ta­tion. The de­bate will be whether he’s more valuable in the bullpen or pitch­ing

180 in­nings as a starter. It’s no dif­fer­ent for the Di­a­mond­backs, with Bradley hop­ing one day he returns to the starter’s role.

Yet for now the Brew­ers know they have some­thing spe­cial go­ing, fea­tur­ing the best bullpen in base­ball and the man who makes it all come to­gether.

Per­haps in two months the Brew­ers will share him with ev­ery­one when he’s on cen­ter stage, a 40-minute drive from his home­town, pitch­ing at Na­tion­als Park in the All-Star Game.

“One of my goals was to be per­form well enough to be in that game,” said Hader, who has pitched only 972⁄ career in

3 nings. “To be back home. On the East Coast. And for all of my friends and fam­ily to be there. Just how awe­some would that be.”

JEFF HANISCH/USA TO­DAY

Brew­ers pitcher Josh Hader says he’s an “out-get­ter.”

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