“It’s two really tough teams,” Wolf said. “There’s no way I could put into words the intensity that’s there every inning.”
On a perfect, 67-degree night, with a full moon hanging low beside the Gateway Arch, Wolf recast a series that had been dominated to this point by bullpens and a handful of transcendent hitters at the tops of their games. Aided by a generous strike zone and a couple of nice defensive plays behind him, Wolf allowed only six hits and two earned runs — and held Albert Pujols to one harmless single in three tries — closing out the seventh in 1-2-3 fashion, then watching from the dugout as Francisco Rodriguez and closer John Axford split the remaining six outs.
Wolf “pitched an unbelievable game,” Brewers third baseman Jerry Hairston said. “That’s one of the best lineups you’re ever going to see. It reminds me of an American League-type of lineup.”
For all their accomplishments and attributes, the one thing to which the Cardinals were unaccustomed was playing from ahead. After late July, they never led their division or the wild-card race until passing the free-falling Atlanta Braves on the final day of the season. In their NL Division Series, they never led the Philadelphia Phillies in games until winning Game 5. After seven weeks of playing as if even one loss would spell the end, it was anyone’s guess as to how they would respond to holding a cushion, however small.
The verdict: The Cardinals need to return to desperation. And perhaps luckily for them, they are back in a desperate place. The Brewers’ win assured the series will return to Milwaukee, where the Cardinals will have to win at least once in a building, Miller Park, where the Brewers are 61-25 this year, regular season and postseason combined. Thursday night’s win, meantime, was the Brewers’ first in four road games this postseason.
“It’s classic — playing each other so many times, we’re dead even,” said Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa of a season series that, including these four NLCS games, is knotted at 10 wins apiece. “It comes down that day to who makes the pitch. Today, we had a couple of chances to have a run, and Wolf made outstanding pitches. It’s that close a contest.”
Of the eight starting pitchers who have taken the mound in this series, including two former Cy Young Award winners, Wolf became the first to produce a quality start. He gave up a pair of solo homers, opposite-field shots by Matt Holliday and Allen Craig in the second and third innings — both on outside pitches that seemed nearly impossible to hit out of the park — but otherwise kept the Cardinals’ potent offense off the scoreboard.