MILWAUKEE -- Brewers' Devil Magic?
It felt like it on Wednesday night.
The Cardinals have owned the recipe to the stuff for years, but this time it was the opponent taking advantage of every break in the Brewers’ 4-1 win over St. Louis at American Family Field. A highlight-reel play for the Cardinals turned into a run-scoring error. A wild pitch that would have been an inning-ending strike three turned into the Brewers’ go-ahead rally. The result was a series even at a game apiece with Thursday’s Jack Flaherty-Corbin Burnes finale on tap.
“Every time we play them,” said Brewers third baseman Travis Shaw, “it seems like they’re close games like this.”
“It happens, you know? It’s the game,” said St. Louis manager Mike Shildt. "When the game’s tight, little things happen.”
This tight game turned on two little things.
1_._ The slip
It was a scoreless duel between starters John Gant and Brandon Woodruff into the sixth, when Lorenzo Cain was hit by a Gant pitch leading off the inning and Daniel Vogelbach walked to give Shaw his third at-bat of the night with runners at first and second base. The Brewers have been struggling in this department. As Shaw dug into the batter’s box against lefty reliever Génesis Cabrera, Milwaukee was already 0-for-3 in the game and 1-for-18 in the series with runners in scoring position.
Shaw lifted a fly ball to the warning track in center field.
“I was a little surprised that didn’t go over the fence,” Shaw said.
That’s when things got interesting.
The track at American Family Field is particularly wide and notoriously soft, and Cardinals center fielder Harrison Bader -- who acknowledges the quirks and studies them pregame -- stumbled and fell while the baseball was still in the air. Somehow, he recovered to make the catch from his knees, and was alert to the fact that the veteran Cain might be savvy enough to try to take third. But as Bader transferred the ball, it got away from him and rolled away, giving Cain an opening to sprint all the way home.
“I figured Cain was going to tag there, so I turned my body to make a strong throw towards second, and as soon as I planted, the damn field gave out,” Bader said. “Pretty frustrating there, but got to stick with it.”
The same mindset -- stick with it -- worked for Cain.
“If you watch Lorenzo, he was tagging, and when the guy slipped, he came off the bag like he might score and would have to push it. Then he went back to tag because he saw the guy catch it,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “I think he was thinking right there, ‘I got a chance to score.’ He’s not sure what’s going to happen because he’s got his back to the ball but Jason [Lane, the third-base coach] did a nice job of keeping him going.
“On the bases, Lorenzo really sees everything. When he saw Bader fall, that was his thought heading to third, I’m sure.”
2_._ The strike three that wasn’t
A dropped third strike already scuttled a perfect game earlier this month, and it reared its head again Wednesday.
Woodruff carried a no-hit bid into the sixth inning, delivered a seventh consecutive quality start, and became the first Brewers starter to throw a pitch in the eighth inning this season. But he saw the game fall into a tie when Tyler O’Neill hit a slider for an opposite-field home run with one out in the eighth.
It was still 1-1 in the bottom of the inning when Cardinals right-hander Ryan Helsley had two outs and two strikes against Vogelbach. The young reliever threw his hardest fastball of the season, a 101.3 mph pitch that sailed high enough to elude both Vogelbach -- who swung and missed -- and Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina. As the ball caromed off the backstop, Vogelbach hustled to first base and was safe.
The inning continued.
“When you take a swing up on a pitch like Vogey did, you don’t expect to get on first,” Shaw said. “It ended up being a huge point in the game.”
“Those things don’t happen [often], so you’ve got to take advantage,” said Brewers outfielder Avisaíl García.
That’s what Milwaukee did, getting a go-ahead double from Shaw and a booming, two-run home run from García, who’d been limited to bench duty over the previous two games by back stiffness. Despite that, he managed to send his homer a Statcast-projected 442 feet to left field. Counsell called those moments, “the good stuff.”
But even after the wild pitch, the Cardinals had a chance to preserve the tie. With pinch-runner Pablo Reyes in for Vogelbach, Shaw lined his double to the right-center field gap. The throw came quickly back to the infield, but the Cardinals had two players in close proximity and they fumbled the relay as the Brewers took the lead.
“That’s a definite send,” Counsell said. “With two outs, that’s a definite send. It’s a tie game, so you have to take a shot there with a relay throw.”
“I don't know if we'd have had a play or not,” Shildt said. “It would have been a heck of a play if we had pulled it off, that's for sure.”
This time, the Cardinals didn’t pull them off. The loss snapped their streak of four wins in a row and 14 of 18 that had propelled St. Louis past Milwaukee and into first place in the National League Central.
Now, the teams are a game closer.
“That’s how these games are going to go,” Shaw said. “St. Louis is in first place right now. … There’s going to be some back and forth. We’re going to have some nights that get away from us, like last night. We’re going to have our night like we did tonight. Just come ready to play each day.”