The Brewers and Cardinals resumed hostilities Wednesday night, a phrase that is no mere figure of speech for these divisional rivals.
Entering game three of the NLCS, the teams had played 20 games against each other this regular-and-postseason, each side winning 10. That kind of familiarity can breed some anger, like the type that bubbled up between Nyjer Morgan and Chris Carpenter in September: Morgan heard Carpenter curse at him, he cursed back, then flung his chewing tobacco in the general direction of the Cardinals’ ace. Albert Pujols came charging over from first, but no blows were struck.
With Carpenter facing Milwaukee again in the third game, going up against Brewer ace Yovani Gallardo, Ron Roenicke decided to keep Morgan on the bench at the start, putting Mark Kotsay in centerfield instead. Hotheadedness was not the issue; hothandedness had more to do with it, as Kotsay has a.364 lifetime average off Carpenter while Morgan was at .174.
The hunch paid off with Kotsay drawing two walks and hitting a solo homer off Carpenter; unfortunately for the Brewers, Gallardo allowed the first four batters of the game to score, and Milwaukee could never quite catch up, losing 4-3.
It’s a series with overtones of hockey or basketball playoffs, thanks to Milwaukee’s large home-field edge. The Brewers were 57-24 at home, 39-42 on the road, the biggest differential in the majors by far. In the Division Series against Arizona, they won their first two games handily at home, then lost big on the road before returning to Miller Park, where they took the deciding game in ten innings.
Milwaukee’s home advantage comes on both sides of the ball, which makes it especially inexplicable. The team had a .805 OPS and scored 4.8 runs per game at home, with a .698 OPS and 4.1 runs per game on the road. Their pitchers, meanwhile, allowed a .676 OPS and 3.75 runs at Miller Park, .702 and 4.1 on the road.
Whatever the reason – comfort, familiarity, or the effect on visiting players of the many temptations of Milwaukee nightlife – the record gave extra importance to the Cardinals’ second-game win, evening the series but shifting the tone considerably.
The Brewers’ bats have been quiet so far, except for one fast explosion in the fifth inning of game one, when they scored six runs in a span of 21 pitches against Jaime Garcia and Octavio Dotel.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, are riding a hot streak that began in late August and put them in position to capitalize on Atlanta’s historic collapse. The Cards went 23-9 over their last 32 games; does a team finishing on a .719 clip like that generally carry its momentum into the playoffs?
Of the 33 teams since the beginning of divisional play that did at least as well over their last thirty-two games, eighteen lost in the first round. Of the fifteen that got past that hurdle, ten went on to the World Series, the most recent example being the 2007 Colorado Rockies. Only four won the World Series: the Mets in 1969, Baltimore in 1970, the Yankees in 1978, and Toronto in 1992.
As it happens, St. Louis is one of three playoff teams this year that went 23-9 or better down the stretch of the regular season. One, Arizona, is already out; the other, Detroit, fell behind 3-1 in the ALCS against Texas last night, thanks to Nelson Cruz’s second 11th-inning home run in the series.
Last night Tony La Russa’s matchup bullpen shut the Brewers down cold, twelve up and twelve down, to preserve Carpenter’s seventh postseason win. Two and a half weeks ago, the Cardinals were on the outside looking in at the playoff picture; now they’re two home wins away from the World Series. Ownership might as well hand free agent-to-be Albert Pujols a blank check now and save themselves some time.