October 10, 2011
Wezen-Ball: NLCS Game One: Tension
When the Brewers faced the Diamondbacks on Friday night for the series-deciding Game Five, I was at a bar in downtown Milwaukee watching along. It seemed like the most appropriate place to be for a night that could see the Brewers' first postseason series win in nearly 30 years. It was an incredibly tense game, especially when closer John Axford blew his first save in six months to tie the game up in the ninth, but the tenth-inning victory was sweet. Crowds cheered, beer flowed, songs were sung. The words of victory were "We're going to the LCS!" or "Only four wins to the World Series!" The question of who the Brewers might be playing was briefly set aside.
Later that night, Chris Carpenter and the St. Louis Cardinals had their own celebration in Philadelphia's Citizen's Bank Park. Carpenter's 1-0 complete game shutout was a thing of beauty, the kind of game kids dream of pitching. The fact that he was able to pitch that game against Roy Halladay on his own field makes it even more impressive. Suddenly, a team that was 9.5 games behind the Wild Card at the start of September was now playing for the World Series—and they were doing it in Milwaukee.
The first, and strongest, reaction among Brewers fans to St. Louis' NLDS victory was excitement that the team would have home-field advantage in the series. With a 57-win regular season and a first-round playoff series that saw all three victories on the home grass, Milwaukee's home field advantage is profound. To be given that again for the NLCS was a blessing. The second reaction was best described as irritation. The Cards and Brewers had several incidents throughout the 2011 season, including a Pujols hit-by-pitch and a stare-down between Nyjer Morgan and Chris Carpenter (with a little cross-diamond help from Pujols) that people couldn't stop talking about. Having to hear a national media craved for angles tell those stories over-and-over again would not be an appealing aspect of the matchup.
And regurgitate the stories is exactly what the media did, with quotes from Lance Berkman and Zack Greinke on Saturday fanning the flames even more. By the time the game started on Sunday, no one around the nation would have been surprised if Greinke's first pitch was thrown directly at the head of Rafael Furcal.
Instead, we saw an offensive explosion under the open-roof. Ryan Braun hit a two-run home run into the Harley-Davidson Deck on the first pitch he saw in the game. David Freese put St. Louis on top when he took advantage of a Zack Greinke curveball and smoked an opposite-field line drive over the wall, but a Brewers' six-run fifth inning—which included a ground-rule double from Braun and home runs from Prince Fielder and Yuniesky Betancourt—seemed to finish things off. The mood at Miller Park was a bit finicky. Freese's go-ahead home run sapped so much energy from the stadium it could have powered the nearby Falk plant for an hour, but it came back with a vengeance during the team's high-scoring fifth. As shutdown men Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford finished things off in the eighth and ninth innings, the Miller Park crowd stood and cheered every two-strike pitch.
The two teams square off again Monday night with Shaun Marcum facing Edwin Jackson. Jackson's first start in Milwaukee this year was a disaster. Fresh off a trade from the White Sox, that August start saw Jackson give up ten runs in seven innings, including a trio of home runs to Casey McGehee. Marcum will also have some issues to deal with. Since the start of September, Marcum's starts have been almost universally poor-to-terrible, with many speculating that his workload is catching up to him.
As Sunday showed, however, it's not the pitching that carries these teams. These are two of the best offenses in the National League, and that hasn't stopped in the postseason. If Braun and Fielder continue their hot hitting, or if Pujols and Berkman get some hits to fall, Marcum and Jackson and the rest of the pitching staffs have a lot to fear. It will be fun.