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2011 NLCS Game 1: Brewers overpower Cardinals thanks to Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder

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MILWAUKEE — Until Sunday, there had not been a league championship series game in Milwaukee since 1982, which was so long ago, there was no such thing as “Beast Mode” — or “Ryan Braun” or “Prince Fielder,” for that matter. The Milwaukee Brewers were in the American League then, and played at County Stadium. Nyjer Morgan had no alter-egos, at least none that could be discerned through the bars of his crib.

In Game 1 of the National League Championship Series on Sunday afternoon, Miller Park, 11 years old now, practically bulged and creaked beneath the weight of pent-up excitement and expectation, and the Brewers responded by slugging and pounding — metaphorically speaking, it needs to be said — their bitter rival St. Louis Cardinals in a 9-6 victory before 43,613 fans.

The Brewers won a major league-best 57 games at home this season, and are now 4-0 at Miller Park this postseason, after erasing a pair of St. Louis leads — on two-run homers by Braun and Fielder, respectively — and ultimately breaking the game open with a six-run outburst in the fifth inning. Right-hander Zack Greinke earned a shaky win, giving up six runs in six innings, backed by three one-hit, scoreless innings from his bullpen.

From the outside, it appears there are holes all over the Brewers’ lineup. Batting sixth, seventh and eighth Sunday, they had hitters with on-base percentages this season of .271 (Yuniesky Betancourt), .276 (Carlos Gomez) and .313 (Jonathan Lucroy), and their No. 2 hitter, Jerry Hairston, is a 35-year-old journeyman and career .258 hitter wearing his eighth different uniform in the past eight years.

But in the middle of their lineup sit two of the most dangerous, productive hitters in the game. When Braun and Fielder are at the plate to face you, you hold your breath and pray. When they’re in the dugout, you keep tabs on how soon they will be up again, and plot your strategy accordingly.

On Sunday, Braun and Fielder came to the plate a total of six times with runners on base, and they went 3 for 5 with two homers, a double and an intentional walk. And that, basically, was your ballgame. Braun’s two-run homer in the first inning — a 463-foot shot off Cardinals lefty Jaime Garcia that sailed over the Brewers’ bullpen, a standing-room-only pavilion and a Harley-Davidson sign in left-center — gave the Brewers a 2-1 lead, and Fielder’s two-run blast in the fifth gave them a 6-5 lead.

“When both of us are going good,” said Braun, who hit .500 and slugged .889 in the NL Division Series, “it becomes far more difficult to pitch to us.”

By the time the beating was over, some of the aforementioned “holes” had even made significant contributions, with Hairston reaching base three times and scoring two runs, Betancourt going 2 for 4 with a homer and a double, and Lucroy singling home a key insurance run in the seventh.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals’ best player, first baseman Albert Pujols, is hobbling around with a foot injury. In perhaps the biggest at-bat of the game for the Cardinals, representing the tying run with two on and nobody out in the seventh, he grounded into a 5-4-3 double play — after first fouling back a 2-0 meatball that had Pujols shaking his head in frustration.

“Seven out of 10 times,” Pujols said, “I put that one in the seats.”

Despite the acknowledged bad blood between the NL Central rivals, which served as the primary plot line in the pre-series buildup, there was little sign of it Sunday night. (Perhaps it was only coincidental, but Morgan, the Brewers’ chief instigator, was on the bench, as he usually is against left-handed starters.)

There would be only one eyebrow-raising incident, when Garcia, with his first pitch after Braun’s first-inning homer, drilled Fielder in the shoulder with a fastball. Fielder merely dropped his bat and jogged to first base, but home-plate umpire Gary Darling immediately yanked off his mask and issued a warning to both dugouts.

“First of all, I don’t think Garcia was trying to hit Prince,” Braun said. “I think everybody is anticipating more drama than what there will probably be.”

When the Brewers seized the game, it happened quickly and without warning. One minute, they were trailing 5-2 with a runner on first base in the bottom of the fifth inning, and the next they were leading 6-5. A leadoff single by Corey Hart followed by three extra-base hits in a span of three pitches from Garcia — doubles by Hairston and Braun, then Fielder’s homer — will do that for you.

“Whatever it was, it was fast,” Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa said of Garcia’s fifth-inning lapse. “He was really good, and then just three straight pitches — bam, bam, bam — and it was gone.”

The Brewers have a way of doing that. Every couple of innings or so, the lineup turns over, and the team in the other dugout faces the Braun-Fielder problem. Some days, you survive it. Other days, one of them beats you. And still other days, such as this one, they both do.

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