At 36 years old, with a stiff back and no hits for at least the last two weeks, Ryan Braun still has a flair for the dramatic. On Monday night, he sent the Brewers and Pirates toward Major League history.
Braun’s tying, two-run double with the Brewers down to their final out capped a four-run ninth-inning comeback, pushing a game already slowed by a rain delay into historic territory -- the first contest to exceed 10 innings with the new extra-inning rule in place. It was a 6-5 Brewers win in 11 innings at PNC Park.
After Braun opened the door to history, Eric Sogard and David Phelps led the Brewers through. Credit Sogard with the go-ahead RBI on a double in the 11th inning after neither team was able to capitalize on their first-inning at-bat with the automatic runner at second base, and credit Phelps with a hard-fought win after he stranded a runner at third base in each of the final two frames to lift the Brewers to 2-2.
“I think Phelps probably felt a little energy from the bats coming alive,” Sogard said.
That, and walking to the mound with a runner already standing on second base.
“I think it's gonna take a lot of getting used to,” Phelps said.
In the 10th, Phelps got a huge out when he secured a called strike 3 from the first batter of the inning, Jarrod Dyson, who was trying to bunt, then retired the next two hitters on groundouts. In the 11th, Phelps retired the dangerous Josh Bell on a groundout that moved the tying runner to third, then struck out Erik González and Bryan Reynolds to end the game. Phelps, now two years removed from Tommy John surgery and new to the Brewers on a one-year free-agent deal, touched 95.7 mph with his fastball while also throwing a cutter, a sinker and a curve.
It marked the first time since 2004 that the Brewers won a game they trailed by four or more runs in the ninth inning.
“What [Phelps] featured tonight is really, really exciting,” said Brewers manager Craig Counsell, who has both Phelps and Corey Knebel as setup men to closer Josh Hader this season. “He’s got guts, you know? There's another word for that. He just does. There’s a presence out there on the mound, no question about it.”
Said Phelps: “Pre-Tommy John I was pitching in pretty high-leverage situations when I was with Miami and Seattle, and it feels good to be back in those situations again. The stuff plays up a little bit when the adrenaline gets going.”
Before the Brewers rallied for four runs and a tie in the top of the ninth, it was shaping up to be another night of futility for an offense that was all or nothing while Milwaukee dropped two of three games to the Cubs at Wrigley Field in the opening series. After being shut out in the opener in Chicago and held to one run in a blowout loss on Sunday, starter Adrian Houser delivered five inspired innings Monday despite enduring a one hour and 42-minute rain delay between his first and second innings of work. But Brewers hitters were limited to one run in the first eight innings. They entered the ninth in a 5-1 deficit after Colin Moran’s second home run of the night sparked a four-run seventh for the Pirates.
The Brewers fought their way back against Pirates reliever Michael Feliz, one base at a time. Justin Smoak singled through a three-man infield. Sogard walked, Lorenzo Cain singled and Keston Hiura was hit by a pitch, forcing in a run. Christian Yelich drove in a run with a groundout, leaving the Brewers down to their final out and prompting a call to Pirates closer Kyle Crick for Braun.
The veteran Brewers outfielder was 0-for-7 this season as he stepped to the plate. He missed the entirety of his team’s seven-game intrasquad tune-up after his back locked up, leading to left oblique and neck stiffness. Braun returned in time to go 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in an exhibition game at the White Sox, then went 0-for-3 on Opening Day against the Cubs and didn’t play on Saturday or Sunday. His last hit was sometime in mid-July at Miller Park in one of the Brewers’ controlled scrimmages.
On Monday, back in the lineup as the designated hitter, Braun bounced out to the pitcher and struck out twice against the Pirates. Finally, in the ninth inning, he struck back, lacing a double down the left-field line.
“Brauny’s first hit of the year,” said Counsell, who has witnessed all of Braun’s hits as a Brewers teammate, executive and now the team’s manager. “His first couple of at-bats probably didn’t go the way he wanted them, but that’s Ryan Braun, and he came through in a big way like we know he’s going to.”