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October 14, 2011

Playoff Prospectus

Sending the Wolf

by Jay Jaffe

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The Brewers entered Game Four of the NL Championship Series in St. Louis needing to buck a couple of ominous trends just to ensure that the festivities would return to Milwaukee. They had yet to win a road game during the postseason, going 0-3 after stumbling to a 39-42 mark in the regular season. Furthermore, their ballyhooed rotation had yet to deliver a quality start from anyone besides Yovani Gallardo, instead getting three disaster starts (more runs than innings) and two that were just Greinke (10 runs in 11 innings) in five turns. Behind seven strong innings from Randy Wolf, they shook both slumps with a come-from-behind 4-2 victory that evened the series at two games apiece.

As I set it up at the end of my Game Three write-up, Wolf presented a less-than-ideal matchup given his fly-ball nature and the Cardinals' NL-best .284/.353/.457 showing against such pitchers. His swollen stats in five starts against the Cards (.274/.323/.496 with five homers and a 5.34 ERA in 32 innings) offered a veneer of support to that notion, but a closer look at those starts reveals two eight-inning, one-run efforts at Busch Stadium III from late in the year, one on August 10 and the other on September 5. Already with the benefit of a bigger park to play with, the 35-year-old southpaw had nonetheless gotten slightly more ground balls than fly balls in those two turns, whereas when the balance had tripped in the other direction back on May 6, he was pummeled.

Wolf rediscovered that comfort zone in enemy territory; true to that late-season form, he netted more ground balls (eight) than fly balls (seven), as well as a generous helping of strikeouts (six). The two runs he allowed both came on solo homers and fairly good pitches at that; the first, by Matt Holliday in the second inning—his first since September 6, a span of 61 plate appearances—looked for all the world like a long popup; aided by a tailwind, it kept carrying down the right-field line, 348 feet for the game's first run. Allen Craig, who started in right field in place of Lance Berkman after hitting .313/.343/.657 in 70 plate appearances against southpaws this year, hammered a third-inning homer into the St. Louis bullpen in right-center that was more definitive, and extended the lead to 2-0.

Less fortuitous sequencing in either of those innings could have doubled or tripled the lead; in both frames, Wolf stranded runners on first and second following the homers. In the second inning, a Yadier Molina double and a Rickie Weeks error off Ryan Theriot's bat put runners on first and third with one out; Wolf got Jon Jay to hit a very short grounder to Fielder partway down the first-base line, freezing the runners, then struck out opposite number Kyle Lohse. In the third, he induced Molina to ground out after a two-out single by David Freese and a walk by Holliday.

In all he put an 0-for-7 collar on the Cardinals with runners in scoring position, capped by an impressive escape act in the sixth after the Brewers expanded their lead to 4-2. Holliday led off with a double and advanced to third on Molina's fly out to center. Wolf buckled down to struck out Theriot on some high cheese, then got Jay to fly out harmlessly. Reverse those last two events and that's a run on the board, but as he did nearly all night, Wolf made his pitches when it was most critical.

As for Lohse, despite having not pitched since the Division Series opener against the Phillies on October 1, he was fairly sharp to start the game. His lone blemish in the first two innings was a Ryan Braun single, the eighth straight game in which the Brewers' slugger had reached safely in the first. The second baserunner he allowed was Wolf, who doubled off him with one out in the second, after which he plunked Nyjer Morgan, who had been restored to center field as well as the leadoff spot after riding the bench on Wednesday. Of course, Ron Roenicke’s mixed-bag experiment, Mark Kotsay, was batting second and playing right field at Corey Hart's expense (Hart is 6-for-33 for the postseason, 1-for-12 in the series, with one non-catch double in Game Three costing on the other side of the ledger). Kotsay flied out to right, not deep enough to move Morgan up, and after getting ahead of Braun 0-2 on a changeup and a sinker, both looking, Lohse got him to pop out to Albert Pujols in foul ground.

Lohse's pitch count was at 48 by the time the fourth inning rolled around, and his lack of stamina started to show as he lost a click or two on his 90-ish fastball. A nine-pitch at-bat against Prince Fielder to open the inning didn't help, either; Fielder bashed a double into the right-center field gap, the first time all night the Brewers got their leadoff man aboard. One out later, Jerry Hairston Jr. drove a ball down the third-base line, past a diving Freese for an RBI double. Yuniesky Betancourt, now hitting an unlikely .353/.371/.559 this postseason and 7-for-12 for the series, poked a first-pitch curveball for a single up the middle, with Hairston executing a suitable-for-framing slide as he dodged Molina and hit the tip of the plate with his left arm for the game's tying run. Betancourt took second on the throw and advanced to third on a ground out, but Wolf flied out the end the threat.

Now 72 pitches deep, Lohse surrendered a leadoff double to Morgan to start the fifth. Kotsay advanced him on a grounder to the left side, a bit of situational hitting that had the TBS crew still fawning over several innings later. In an even better bit of situational hitting, Braun greeted hard-throwing reliever Mitchell Boggs by shortening up his swing and punching an RBI single to left field for the go-ahead run—and one more hit than the Brewers had managed in four innings against the Cardinals’ bullpen the night before.

Having escaped via a Fielder GIDP, Boggs returned for the sixth, where Weeks singled, and Hairston followed with a shot over shortstop that he hustled into a double. One Yuni out later, Tony La Russa summoned ancient Arthur Rhodes to face lefty George Kottaras. Rhodes had the misfortune of inducing a tough-hop smash that Theriot couldn't handle; the error brought home Weeks to make it 4-2. The Brewers should have gotten more, but Wolf—who arguably could have been pinch-hit for there—made a hash of a safety squeeze, bunting directly back to Rhodes to advance Kottaras but keep Hairston frozen at third. Morgan, a total pushover against same-siders (.201/.288/.270 career), was caught looking at strike three.

After his escape act in the sixth, Wolf ended his night with a 1-2-3 seventh, most notably getting Craig to ground out on a comebacker with Pujols looming on deck as the potential tying run. Instead, Pujos faced a fresh Francisco Rodriguez to start the eighth, with the benefit of the Brewers' hands team behind him on defense; Craig Counsell had taken over for Weeks at second, Morgan had shifted to right field for Kotsay, with Carlos Gomez taking over in center, and Jonathan Lucroy behind the plate—all fairly routine substitutions in Roenicke’s book, part of a strategy that helped the Brewers improve their Defensive Efficiency from 14 points below league average last year to right on the (Don) money this year.

All three quickly had a chance to show their skills. Shifted directly behind second base, Counsell took an up-the-middle single away from Pujols. Freese was held to a single to center field that Gomez did a nice job of cutting off before it went into the right-center gap. Holliday hit a bouncer that Hairston fielded halfway to the mound; his on-the-run throw bounced, requiring Fielder to make a pick of some difficulty, which he did by momentarily pinning to his ample chest to control. Rodriguez ended the threat with a seven-pitch strikeout of Molina, the last pitch a filthy 78 mph curveball that Lucroy smothered on the bounce. Yosemite John Axford, the top exemplar of facial hair in a series harkening back to some historically great mustaches and beards, had a less adventurous ninth inning, yielding only a two-out pinch-hit single to Berkman while getting three ground outs. The last came on a one-pitch Furcal topper to shortstop with Craig looming on deck, sealing the deal for the Brewers to tie the series.

Game Five rematches Game One starters Zack Greinke and Jaime Garcia, neither of whom distinguished himself in the opener. With the benefit of a strong start from Wolf, the Brewers at least have a relatively untaxed bullpen behind their nominal ace, who has had a hard time keeping the ball in the park against righties after doing so quite well during the season. They also have finally shown themselves they can win on the road in the postseason.

 The Cardinals are now the ones who find themselves in particular need of a strong start, as they haven’t gotten more than five innings out of any starter in this series; they got four innings of six-run ball from Garcia the last time out. The Cards have used their bullpen for 8 2/3 innings over the past two nights, though they have the depth to get by; other than Fernando Salas, who dominated the final two innings while throwing 34 pitches, everybody should be available, which is seven relievers at La Genius’ disposal should he choose to go all clown car on us again. At the very least, a 2-2 series means we get to enjoy this matchup, rich both in history and immediacy, and full of some of the game’s great sluggers, for a few more days. Pass the bratwurst.  

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Single,  Albert Pujos,  Randy Wolf

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