Friday, October 14, 2011

Brewers Back in Business, After Randy Wolf Throws Gem


We thought the Brewers were an ouster, badly menaced by the Cardinals' feel-good story. It turns out Milwaukee survived and now has a chance to beat the Cardinals in St. Louis Friday night in Game 5, hermetically sealed from danger, traveling home soon to the friendly confines of Miller Park for Game 6 and will be heavily cheered by the noisy Brewers fans.

We once chided and nearly blamed the Brewers for toying with our senses as most of America picked Milwaukee, quickly becoming favorites in the NLCS on the verge to the World Series. But the sputtering pitching almost undermined the Beer Makers when ace Yovani Gallardo gave up four-runs in the first inning the other night and tied an NLCS record with three wild pitches.

It wouldn't be wise to rule against the Brewers after ending a three-game road losing streak this postseason, now that Milwaukee can return home and regain momentum by taking a commanding lead in the best-of-seven series. The short drought is about to end thanks to Brewers lefty Randy Wolf, who redeemed himself with a pitching gem.

Now he is the superhero Wisconsinites patiently waited for, and indeed was handed the ball and had his best performance of the NL Championship Series Thursday night. The squirrels plagued the low-cut, fresh grass at Busch Stadium, but so did Wolf, the boy who no longer cried wolf and elevated his stardom on a night the Brewers counted on him to save the season. This series is far from over as the pressure now switches squarely on the Cardinals with the NLCS suddenly tied at two games.

By his very nature, Wolf may have decided the fate of a playoff series that brings urgency and blinded optimism. So he was sent to the mound, a team that looked beyond his struggles in the past division series and never had major concerns about his idiosyncrasies, but looked at his abilities as the Brewers insulated him from the negativity after the 35-year-old blamed himself.

In the finest irony, on Thursday night in a hostile territory under much pressure with another crack at redemption, Wolf lasted seven frames in his Game 4 performance to erase the dreadful memories of his terrible division series start. The folks in Milwaukee realized it, probably because Wolf rebounded and found his groove to master the art of pitching, a handicraft that requires science and finesse. He knows his Brewers would've been on life-support had they lost to the Cardinals, and his responsibility was to capture his first playoff win for Milwaukee.

He has been a resident to well-known addresses, from his days spent in Philadelphia to Hollywood to San Diego to Houston, and then back to L.A. and eventually Milwaukee, a place he has called home for the last two seasons. He has found solace and purged all the bad memories of his last visit to the mound that ended the most horrifying episode for the Brewers from afar this season. He is charismatic, he is a leader, and although he might be a No. 4 pitcher in the Brewers rotation, he is winner in pursuit of World Series triumph.

It's become perceptible as of last night to admittedly acknowledge that Wolf beat the Cardinals in October when his teammate Gallardo couldn't defeat the Cards, when Roy Oswalt couldn't pummel the Cards and when Cliff Lee couldn't shut down the Cards. Surely, in front of their televisions, the Brewers faithful believed, and eventually, it happened so inexplicably and quickly, on a pivotal night in the biggest game of his life.

It's hard to believe now, but he actually won the most substantial game of his life. There are no longer any questions about Wolf's strength as a postseason ace. The more germane question, after one game, is whether he can lead the Brewers to the pennant, not whether he's the No. 1 ace in the rotation. What's justified in this case is that no one can sell the Brewers short, but it is certain Milwaukee is used to the disrespect and absolutely love it.

At least five times, maybe more, the Brewers needed Wolf to bail them out. Each time, he responded with his gifted arm and was poised on the hill, even if he was shaky or slightly inconsistent in having his best game and throwing his usual stuff. Even though he flubbed in his first postseason outing, as someone who couldn't string together a grand performance, he steered the Brewers to a 4-2 win over the Cardinals.

For once, away from home sweet home, Milwaukee won a signature game on the road and could close it out at home if they win Friday night, leaving the Brewers with one game left. It's all you ever wanted if you are a Brewers fan, a gratifying ending to horrifying pitching woes as the convoluted disaster turned into an unpromising scene. With a handful of pitching weak spots, mainly the team that had consistent and dominant pitching all season, Wolf healed the suffering.

Before this game, long before this game -- mind you -- the Brewers starters, other than Gallardo, struggled mightily and had pitched 22 2/3 innings in the postseason and given up 29 earned runs. It's not pleasant to mention, and again, it's not a convivial statistic to talk boastingly about that the Brewers had an 11.51 ERA. The names in the pitching staff, from Zack Greinke to Shaun Marcum to Gallardo, had not thrown a quality start.

And maybe Wolf, out of all people, had the best pitching performance with a 9.00 career postseason ERA, bouncing back strikingly from a three innings, eight hits, and seven runs in Game 4 in Arizona last week. Contrary to the fact, he works hard in preparations to avoid mental lapses and tosses in warm up sessions the next day on the field, while he gives the grounds crew a hard time.

"Randy's been around the game a long time now," said his closer, John Axford. "He knows how to approach hitters. He knows what makes them tick. I think he's a great pitcher."

In a meticulous, laborious fashion, Wolf is the only left-handed pitcher in the National League with 13 wins or more in 200 innings in each of the last two seasons, other than Dodgers' ace Clayton Kershaw.

After it was over, he felt relieved and can finally sleep at nights. Haunted by the Game 5 NLDS loss he wasn't sleeping much, but when he had another crack to scrape together the greatest win of his big-league career, he removed the bleakness of his pitching bungles.

"It was the most stressful game I've ever watched in my life," Wolf said. "And I felt that my offseason sanity was riding on that game. It was the most miserable game I've ever pitched. I didn't eat or shower that day. I don't know if they call that depression, but it was tough to swallow."

When he needed to, Wolf succeeded to release the painful thoughts of his past disillusionment, and only gave up a couple of early opposite-field home runs that Matt Holliday drove over the fence, a player who has not hit a homer since Sept. 6. It was a matter of time before Allen Craig stepped to the plate and deposited a homer into the stands, a player who entered the game 0-for-12 off Wolf during the regular season.

Although he allowed two home runs, Wolf retired the last 15 hitters he faced and had only one 2-0 count and a lone 3-0 count all night. For those who believed profoundly in Wolf, leery a bit about his response after he took a momentum crash but in reality was more confident coming off a poor pitching game, he threw a first-pitch strike to 17 of the 29 hitters he faced. The best pitcher from the Brewers, as it stands following a striking comeback, is Wolf and power hitter Ryan Braun, who became the first player in history to reach base in the first inning of eight straight postseason games.

“We just needed to win regardless of how it happened," Wolf said. "We needed to tie this thing up and assure ourselves a chance to decide this thing back home."

Other than his terrific heaters, which highlighted the summary of this game, he had support from two staunch relievers that went to work in the late innings. There were no better late-inning, shutdown relievers than setup man Francisco Rodriguez and Axford. The pitching staff would be aided, believe it or not, when Braun had two hits on the night.

The hard-driven offense kicked into full gear when Jerry Hairston Jr. was aggressive on the bases and was useful in doing the little things. Such was sliding into home plate to score. But in the meantime, Wolf threw 107 pitches in the game for his highest percentage of any start he has appeared in the last three years. His curveball fanned the Cardinals at nearly every at-bat, and they finished 1-for-8 in at-bats ending with the irresistible curveball. It's evident that Wolf is the Brewers' ace, the pure pitcher in the rotation that could be a Game 7 hero. Ever thought?

Someday when he retires from our America's Pastime, he can walk and reminisce about the greatest game of his life that he can talk about for many years to come.