ST. LOUIS — As the final strains of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” coursed through Busch Stadium late Thursday night, Milwaukee Brewers veteran Randy Wolf picked himself up off the dugout bench, climbed the mound, took a deep breath, cocked back his left arm and, in short order, became the first pitcher in the National League Championship Series to record an out past the sixth inning.
Game 4 was not the game anyone would have circled as the one most likely to produce a shutdown pitching performance, nor would Wolf, a 35-year-old journeyman, have been the one picked to deliver it. But deliver it, he did — a tidy, seven-inning gem in a 4-2 Brewers victory that halted the St. Louis Cardinals’ swelling momentum and evened the series at two games apiece, with Game 5 here Friday night.
“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.
“Craig did a great job of hitting, and Holliday forearmed the ball out of there,” Wolf said. “I was confident [that] I could keep them at that score.”
Wolf was pitching for the first time since a disastrous start at Arizona in Game 4 of the first round, when he was pounded by the Diamondbacks for seven earned runs in three ugly innings, putting the Brewers on the edge of elimination. He said he didn’t eat or shower the day after that start, and had to sweat through the Brewers’ tense Game 5 victory that let him off the hook and gave him a shot at redemption Thursday night.
“I don’t know if they call that depression, but it was tough to swallow,” Wolf said of his NLDS loss. “. . . It was a big feeling just to be back out there after [that] start.”
Given the stakes, the setting and La Russa’s proclivity for wearing a path from the dugout to the pitcher’s mound, it was hardly a surprise when the Cardinals manager made an early call to the bullpen, just as starter Kyle Lohse was about to face Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder for third time, in the top of the fifth inning of a tie game.
There was one out and Nyjer Morgan was on third base, having doubled to lead off and moved to third on a grounder to second. The call went to right-hander Mitchell Boggs to face Braun, and Braun fouled off a couple of tough pitches until he got a fastball to drive. His single to left put the Brewers ahead, 3-2, and snapped a string of 18 consecutive Milwaukee batters retired by the Cardinals’ bullpen.
“The key to success against a team [that] is playing as well as these guys are,” Braun said, “is taking advantage of the opportunities you get with runners on base.”
La Russa has yet to entrust a starter beyond the fifth inning in this series — which is how you wind up with a split of 17 2/3 innings pitched by St. Louis starters in the series, versus 17 1/3 innings pitched by relievers. On some teams, that would be unsustainable. For the Cardinals, it’s expected.
If only La Russa could coax a starter deep into the game. If only he could ease off the throttle for a night. If only he had a Randy Wolf.