ST. LOUIS — It was the sort of game a good team wins in October. You step into a tough road venue and dismantle your opponent’s ace. You pitch your way out of runners-in-scoring-position jams in the second, third, fourth and sixth innings. You trail by a run for much of the game, but a run should be nothing for an offense as potent yours.
But if you’re the Milwaukee Brewers, and you’re on the road, you lose that game. And unless something changes, you’re going to lose the National League Championship Series, because to win you must beat the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, something which appears next to impossible in the wake of the Cardinals’ 4-3 win in Game 3 on Wednesday night.
The Cardinals lead the best-of-seven series, two games to one, with Games 4 and 5 scheduled here for Thursday and Friday.
On a night the Brewers jumped Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter for three runs in the first three innings, a night they survived an ugly first inning full of unmade defensive plays, a night when they twice intentionally walked Albert Pujols in key situations and struck out Matt Holliday to end both threats, a night when they held the Cardinals scoreless after the first inning — they still couldn’t find a way to win. If only that were an anomaly.
The Brewers won 96 games this year, led the NL Central for all but six days in the season’s second half, pushed their division lead to 10½ games at one point and ultimately finished six games better than the Cardinals in the standings. But it is increasingly clear the Brewers, for whatever reason, are a very ordinary team once you get them out of Miller Park.
Wednesday night’s loss dropped their season record away from home to 39-45, including 0-3 in the postseason. It starts with Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, the twin slugging MVP candidates in the middle of their lineup. At home this postseason, they have combined for a beastly .500 batting average (18 for 36) and 1.056 slugging percentage, but on the road they are 4 for 20 (.200) with a .300 slugging percentage.
“Give their guys credit,” Braun said. “We competed. We had plenty of chances. Tough game.”
In a matchup of each team’s ace, Milwaukee’s Yovani Gallardo and St. Louis’s Carpenter, the anticipated pitchers’ duel never materialized. By the end of the third inning, there had been 11 hits, five of them for extra bases, and seven runs scored between the teams. The Brewers’ bullpen had been up in the first inning. Pujols was halfway to the cycle. Cardinals third baseman David Freese already had two doubles. Carpenter and Gallardo had combined to throw 117 pitches.
Carpenter was coming off one of the great pitching performances in recent postseason history — a complete-game, three-hit, no-walk shutout to beat the Philadelphia Phillies in the decisive Game 5 of the Division Series. That night, Carpenter allowed only four base runners all game. On Wednesday night, he allowed that many in the first six batters he faced.
But forced to grind and toil for outs, Carpenter became emotionally invested in securing each one. Normally a stoic, almost robotic presence on the mound, he was uncharacteristically animated. After escaping a two-on, two-out jam in the fourth by striking out Rickie Weeks, Carpenter punctuated it with a primal yell and a fist pump, as 43,584 red-clad faithful roared.
“It was a battle all night long,” Carpenter said. “Their guys worked me hard.”
But by the end of the fifth inning, and 89 pitches into his night, Carpenter was gone, as Tony La Russa made an aggressive move to turn to his bullpen for 12 outs, protecting what at the time was a one-run lead.
He used Fernando Salas for three of those outs, then Lance Lynn for four. He brought in lefty Marc Rzepczynski to pitch to the left-handed Fielder in the eighth, and Fielder struck out. That left four outs for closer Jason Motte, well-rested and throwing gas.
“When you see 96 to 99 [mph] coming out of [the Cardinals’ bullpen], with nice sliders,” Brewers Manager Ron Roenicke said, “I think it’s pretty good.”
The Brewers didn’t have a chance. Four up, four down against Motte. Twelve up, twelve down for the bullpen, including four strikeouts. This was your pitchers’ duel – three scoreless innings for the Brewers’ bullpen, four for the Cardinals’.
That one-run Cardinals lead from way back in the third inning remained a one-run lead at the end. Had this been back home in Milwaukee, you would have sworn the Brewers would find a way to come back and win. But since this was St. Louis, you pretty much knew they wouldn’t.