The Milwaukee Brewers, with apologies to Dave Anderson, died with their boots. They were buried at the mercy of the St. Louis Cardinals’ seemingly bottomless bullpen. The officiating minister was a fellow who once seemed so burned out by baseball that he thought a ring on his cell phone while sitting in a Burger King, buried in the San Diego organization, informing him he’d been traded to the Cardinals, was a practical joke, at first.
Nobody’s laughing at the Rev. David Freese now. But everyone except citizens of Milwaukee might be laughing with the National League Championship Series’s most valuable player.
In St. Louis, of course, they may be ready to name a candy bar after him. Freese’s Pieces, anyone? It isn’t everyone who comes up from oblivion to out-slug Albert Pujols when Pujols is having the best postseason set of his career, or drives home a ferocious exclamation point on it Sunday night with a first-inning blast that merely starts the Cardinals en route a secured trip to the World Series.
Those who watched the wild ride of the Texas Rangers Saturday night, when they polished off the game but gimpy Detroit Tigers with an 11-5 blowout that may have had even the eyes of Texas gazing sympathetically upon Tiger fans and their heroes, may have watched Sunday night with a distinct feeling, as Yogi Berra might say, of déjà vu all over again.
Oh, some of the details were a little different. The Cardinals didn’t get anywhere near to hanging a single-inning nine-spot on the Brewers. They had to settle for spreading the first nine over the first three innings, sandwiching a single run in the second between two slices of four in the first and the third. And it only began with Freese’s first-inning launch.
Milwaukee starting pitcher Shaun Marcum, who’d been one of the Brewers leading blights approaching Game Six, had only one goal entering the game—with his Brewers down 3-2 in the NLCS, he wanted to see a seventh game, aces up. “I think I’m on the bandwagon with everybody in here,” he told reporters, “probably everybody in the country that wants to see Yo(vanni Gallardo) versus (Chris) Carp(enter) in Game Seven. I’m going to try to get the ball to Yo.”
The Cardinals, who’d already fractured the Brewers’ well-earned aura of home field invincibility when they won Game Two, probably wanted to see it over and done with as fast as possible back in Miller Park, without having even to think about a seventh game. And when the bottom of the ninth was over Sunday night, after Jon Jay went airborne to the center field wall to haul down pinch-hitter George Katteras’s drive and St. Louis closer Jason Motte swished Mark Kotsay on three straight pitches for game, set, and National League pennant, the Cardinals had buried the Brewers 12-6 and made an absolute shambles out of the Brewers’ vaunted home-field advantage.
As things turned out, Marcum could barely get the ball to Chris Narveson, never mind to Yo, after the Cardinals battered him for a four-run first. Freese had a lot to say about that. With two aboard after Lance Berkman singled home Jon Jay and Marcum himself gunned Pujols down at the plate on a hopper back to the box, Freese hit Marcum’s first service to him over the left field fence.
Narveson, in turn, could barely get the ball to LaTroy Hawkins after the Cardinals battered him for five runs in an inning and two thirds. Pujols merely opened those proceedings with a leadoff solo bomb. Freese merely continued them when, with Matt Holliday aboard with a one-out single, he sent a double to the rear end of right field to set up second and third. After a pass to Yadier Molina to load the pads, Nick Punto lofted a sacrifice fly to score Holliday. And Allen Craig, pinch-hitting for St. Louis starter Edwin Jackson, drove home Freese and Molina with a single up the pipe.
Did Jackson have it anywhere near as tough? Not exactly. But here was one of the hallmarks of the set—Tony La Russa hasn’t been afraid to reach into his bullpen for one of his so-far formidable bulls all postseason long, and he didn’t wait for the Brewers to wreak any more havoc than four runs out of Jackson before he reached for Fernando Salas.
La Russa has learned some of his lessons the hard way. He may have cost himself a World Series in 1990, when he refused to disobey his established book and bring in his Hall of Fame closer in waiting, Dennis Eckersley, earlier than the ninth inning, never mind that he had leads still to protect, and the Cincinnati Reds made him pay for those decisions with their unlikely Series sweep.
That was then, this is now. This time, La Russa didn’t wait for his orders from The Book. This time, he reached into a bullpen that seemed to contain a limitless supply of bulls only too ready, willing, and able to charge, and performed a double-duty dynamic, throttling the Brewers’ vaunted offence and exposing the Brewers’ wounding flaw, their porous defence.
This is why the Cardinals get to dance with the Rangers come Wednesday, why Pujols gets at least one more chance to win a World Series ring in Redbirds silks, and why the Brewers go home for the winter after their most formidable weapons, and this season’s most formidable home cooking, got neutered at the worst possible time. Their quest to become baseball’s first team to win pennants in each league will have to wait a little longer.
What Marcum, Narveson, and Jackson had in common was letting Game Six turn into the next best thing to sending slow-pitch softball pitchers up against both sides’ Paul Bunyans in the early innings. Hawkins turned in the first harmless inning of the Brewer staff’s night, thanks in big part to a sleek inning-ending double play that was probably the best piece of defence the Brewers played all LCS.
Corey Hart answered Freese and company to lead off the Milwaukee first with a 2-2 launch over the center field fence. Rafael Furcal answered Narveson’s top-of-the-second-opening back-to-back swishouts with a 1-0 deposit over the left field fence. Rickie Weeks opened the bottom of the second with an 0-1 take-that! blast off Jackson, and Jonathan Lucroy hollered and-that-too! with a one-out, 3-1 two-run launch pulling the Brewers to within a mere run.
After Pujols and company had their top-of-the-fourth fun, the Brewers answered with back-to-back one-out doubles by Jerry Hairston, Jr. and Yuniesky Betancourt off St. Louis reliever Fernando Salas in the bottom. But then came the top of the fifth, and the Cardinals went off to the races, in large part thanks to those gimpy Milwaukee gloves. Poor Hairston’s in particular.
Scion of a well-liked baseball family, Hairston’s Game Five boot–in which he saw Cardinal pitcher Jaime Garcia’s grounder take a hop and skip through his legs, allowing two Redbirds to score, right after his magnificent dive and run-saving grab of Punto’s slasher, back to back in the second inning–may yet go down in Beersville infamy. (Those wails of sympathy you heard wafting in from the outside were Red Sox fans remembering Bill Buckner and Cub fans remembering Leon Durham.) Now, desperately trying a fast shove to second baseman Weeks on Molina’s first-and-third, nobody-out hopper up the pipe, Hairston could only watch in horror as the ball sailed past Weeks, allowing Holliday home and Freese and Molina to third and second, respectively. One out later, pinch-hitting for Salas, Adron Chambers—is it safe to call the Cardinals’ the no-name offence?—sent Freese home with a sacrifice fly.
11-5, Cardinals. And the Brewers could only watch, wonder, and pray as La Russa yet again went to his pen so often you could hear Abbott & Costello calling the play-by-play, sort of:
ABBOTT: You really have to know something about big-league baseball, Lou.
COSTELLO: I know all about baseball.
ABBOTT: All right. Suppose there’s a left-handed pitcher pitcher pitching. Whaddya do?
COSTELLO: I put in a right-handed batter.
ABBOTT: Now, suppose there’s a right-handed pitcher pitching?
COSTELLO: I put in a left-handed batter.
ABBOTT: But now I trick you—I take out the right-handed pitcher and put in the left-handed pitcher.
COSTELLO: And I double-cross you. I take out my left-handed batter and put in a right-handed batter.
ABBOTT: Now, wait a minute. Where are you getting all those right-handed batters?
COSTELLO: The same place where you’re gettin’ all those left-handed pitchers!
Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke only wished he could have had Costello next to him on the bench. Not to mention the kind of bench depth that might have neutralized La Russa’s running of the bulls. Of the 162 outs the Cardinals had to record to nail down the NLCS, 86 were rung up by the bullpen. That’s more than half the Brewer outs in the set.
The Brewers, on the other hand, aided and abetted the bull run with seven errors in the final two games of the set.
And it may have been their final set with Prince Fielder leading the big boppers. He tried to be circumspect after it was all over, but he left hints enough that his next home silks would be emblazoned with something other than “Brewers” on the breast. They said it all season long and they said it again while the Cardinals celebrated their pennant, that the Brewers’ signing of Ryan Braun to a long-term deal may have made it difficult to impossible to keep Fielder on board.
“Playing here was awesome, I’m just glad I was able to have the amount of fun I had,” Fielder said, laconically enough for a man who knew the Brewers had been built to win it all this year while he was still part of it. “We gave it what we got and that’s all you can do. As long as I can play as hard as I can, I can sleep at night . . . I love these guys. I’ve been playing with most of ‘em since I was eighteen and this organization has been good to me.”
Pujols, too, can hit free agency after the Cardinals’ season ends, perhaps with a second World Series ring for their larger-than-life first baseman. He doesn’t have to think about it just yet. And it’s very likely that, should the Cardinals leave the Rangers behind this year, as the unlikely San Francisco Giants did last year, the Cardinals may have an easier time keeping their chief bombardier than the Brewers will theirs.
First, though, they’ve got a job to do, and it may not be as hard a job as anyone thinks. The Cardinals have been through worse times this season. Trading talented but troubled and troublesome outfielder Colby Rasmus to Toronto on 27 July got them roasted and basted. Especially when the Cardinals looked as lame as they did for the month following the deal. But then they noticed the Atlanta Braves beginning to lose a grip on what was once a ten and a half game lead in the wild card race and figured they had something to play for, after all.
Make note of those whom the Redbirds obtained in the Rasmus deal. Jackson, relievers Octavio Dotel and Mark Rzepczynski, and outfield reserve Mark Patterson. Make note, too, of whom they obtained shortly thereafter. Arthur Rhodes, a two-decade relief specialist, signed as a free agent after the Rangers released him. Rafael Furcal, veteran shortstop, in a trade. And make note that every last one of them had more than a little something to do with the Cardinals being where they are now.
“That’s a crazy trade to make. But it paid off huge,” Punto says of the Rasmus deal. “There’s no way we’re here today without Dotel. Dotel was amazing. Rzepcynski. Getting Furcal. Jackson. Arthur. We went after it. For the first month it didn’t look too good, because we just weren’t playing good baseball. I remember Tony saying, ‘Hey, this team is better.’ It was very true.”
The Brewers, like the Phillies in the division series before them, just learned that the hard way. It’s not unreasonable to think the Rangers, whose manager can be just as cunning as La Russa when he needs to be, may yet stand to learn a similar lesson later this week.