Newfound confidence turns to momentum for Brewers
Milwaukee rode a superb sixth inning to take a 2-0 NLDS lead over Arizona
The careful but confident Brewers haven't won a playoff series in 29 seasons
Brewer players will return home for either Game 5 of this series or the NLCS
MILWAUKEE -- Baseball's sixth inning lies at the intersection of good hitting and poor pitching, often the collision of a lineup facing a tiring starter for the third time or a long reliever in over his head.
All season the Diamondbacks had made the sixth their playpen, scoring at will but also defying the odds with sharp pitching. They scored a majors-best 122 runs in that frame -- 25 more than they scored in any other inning -- while allowing only 65 (third-fewest in the league) thanks to a 3.44 ERA that far outpaced the major-league standard of 4.34.
In Sunday's National League Division Series Game 2, however, Arizona stranded Chris Young after his one-out double in the top half of the sixth, and the game fell apart as the Brewers -- showing a newfound killer instinct -- exploded for a five-run bottom half of the inning.
Milwaukee's Jerry Hairston Jr. doubled on the 93rd and final pitch from Arizona starter Daniel Hudson, and the bullpen spelled anything but relief. The Diamondacks' Brad Ziegler balked Hairston over after he took a large lead off second base. Ziegler gave up a four-pitch walk to light-hitting Yuniesky Betancourt and then threw exactly one pitch in the strike zone to each of the next four hitters, resulting in Jonathan Lucroy's successful squeeze bunt (during which Zeigler made a throwing error) and in three run-scoring singles that broke open a 4-4 game into a 9-4 Milwaukee victory and a 2-0 series lead.
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"You have to be aggressive," said Brewers' leftfielder Ryan Braun, who had one of the inning's RBI singles. "You force the action, and it puts a lot of pressure on the opponent."
Milwaukee has forced the action all week, starting on Wednesday when it started Zack Greinke on three days' rest to beat out Arizona for the NL's second seed and homefield advantage and then started Greinke again on three days' rest in Sunday's Game 2. Greinke only lasted five innings and gave up four runs this time, but the offense more than picked him up.
While the 2008 Brewers may have just been happy to make their first postseason berth in 26 years -- they lost 3-1 to the Phillies in the first round -- the 2011 Brewers are out for blood and peaking at the right time: counting these first two playoff games, they've won 13 of their last 17 and, when the Diamondbacks yielded an inch in the sixth, they took five full circuits around the bases.
"I think in '08 we kind of limped into the playoffs, and we were kind of struggling late," rightfielder Corey Hart said. "And I think that was kind of the nervousness was always there. We were always kind of worried about winning games and what might happen. And like Brauny said today, this year we have confidence, we're a better team as a whole."
This team has swagger, evident in their celebratory "Beast Mode" hand gestures (think two upright and outstretched claws) and in their play. Never was that on better display than the sixth inning, a definitive answer to the two-run, game-tying and crowd-quieting homer Arizona's Justin Upton hit in the fifth.
Never was that on better display than the sixth inning, a definitive answer to the two-run, game-tying and crowd-quieting homer Arizona's Justin Upton hit in the fifth.
At the same time the Diamondbacks, who have played smartly under manager Kirk Gibson all year, badly struggled, especially Ziegler. Had he fielded Lucroy's squeeze bunt and thrown to first for the sure out, rather than throw wildly home, allowing all runners to advance, the inning could have been different.
"In that situation you want to keep the damage under control," Arizona catcher Miguel Montero said.
Notably, the big Brewer rally started with the bottom half of the order, loading the bases with one run in before the lineup cycled to the top, when Hart and Nyjer Morgan hit their RBI singles on the first pitch and Braun delivered his on the second.
That showed that the Brewers weren't just a two-man dynamo. Braun and Prince Fielder, both veritable MVP candidates, created 34.3 percent of the Brewers' runs this season, according to the Bill James metric of runs created. In the first 12 innings of this series, the pair was a combined 8-for-12 with two home runs and three doubles.
The Brewers' bullpen delivered four scoreless innings, coming one apiece from Takashi Saito, Latroy Hawkins, Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford. With those four and Kameron Loe, they have five dependable righty arms to protect late leads.
"Our guys have been incredibly good back there," Hart said, "and that's why we've had such a good turn of events."
It seems to change the complexion of the offense because they can jump out to early leads and hold on. Milwaukee has been an early-game scoring machine -- they were the NL's best run-producing offense in the game's first three innings (276) during the regular season but tailed off in later innings -- but showed late kick on Sunday. Only once all year had Arizona allowed as many as five runs in the sixth inning and never did the Brewers score five or more in the sixth.
The Brewers and Diamondbacks travel to Phoenix next and will resume the series on Tuesday night at Chase Field, where the Diamondbacks have enjoyed their own hefty homefield advantage. Still, Milwaukee clearly holds the upper hand and all the momentum, thanks to a commanding 2-0 series lead, though it's enthusiasm remains muted for now.
"We're excited that we won the first two games, but we could just as easily come back home tied 2-2," Braun said. "The goal was to advance in the postseason, and we haven't accomplished that, so I don't think we're overly excited, but we feel good about the way we've played these first two games."
With a 2-0 lead in a best-of-five series, the Brewers have guaranteed a return trip, either for Game 5 of this series or in the NLCS -- not that the Brewers want to hear anything about that.
When a reporter prefaced a question to Morgan with the mention of the Phillies, Morgan abruptly excused himself before the question came to completion, purportedly to visit the restroom, though really he made a small circuit of the clubhouse and returned to his seat.
A team that hasn't won a playoff series in 29 years isn't getting ahead of itself, but it's moving in the right direction and that starts with another guaranteed trip home.
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