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Brewers follow winning blueprint

MILWAUKEE -- There is a case to be made for the Milwaukee Brewers to win the World Series. You might not believe it, most pundits might not predict it, but the argument exists.

The beauty of Milwaukee's 4-1 win against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Game 1 of their NLDS was its predictability. Milwaukee got a standout performance from starter Yovani Gallardo, had timely hitting from left fielder Ryan Braun, got a knockout punch from a Prince Fielder home run, and wrapped up the game with a John Axford save.

Ho hum. Nothing much to see here. The formula might not be sexy, but it works, and it has for the entire season.

In winning Saturday, and the way in which they did so, the Brewers made their championship case to a national audience.

"Being in the '414' we don't get as much publicity," Brewers center fielder Nyjer Morgan said, referring to Milwaukee's area code. "It's nice to let everyone see what the Crew is about."

What's the Crew about? Certainly about Gallardo, the young ace who had faltered with his command and his nerves in his only previous postseason start. In a four-inning, three-run effort against the eventual World Series champion Phillies in a 2008 division series, he walked five and was generally erratic with his pitches.

This year, Gallardo came into the playoffs riding his best stretch of the season. Barring a Sept. 1 loss (which we'll dismiss as an anomaly) in which he allowed eight earned runs against St. Louis, Gallardo has a 1.86 ERA since Aug. 16. The top three strikeout games of Gallardo's season all came in September.

"If you really look at the last month, it's like he's really taken a step forward," Braun said. "He's been dominant. He's throwing the ball better probably the last month than I've ever seen, and I've seen him since we were in A ball together.

"I've had a chance to see him throw a lot. And I think he's really taken a step forward and I'd put him up there with any other ace in baseball. It all starts with the fastball command and he's tough. You know it's going to be a challenge to the opposing offense. He's able to locate all four pitches. Consistently gets ahead. Works down in the zone; has command of both sides of the place."

The first moments of Saturday's game startled Gallardo and immediately tested him. Almost as soon as the pregame bluster had finished, Diamondbacks leadoff hitter Willie Bloomquist stepped into the box and punched the first pitch of the game -- a 92 mph fastball that tailed to the outside corner, but not down enough -- into center field for a base hit.

"I kind of was [surprised that he swung at the first pitch]," Gallardo said. "I thought it was a pretty good pitch. You have to be ready for anything."

But if anything, the pitch was an early indication of where Gallardo would pitch, once his nerves had settled. The outside corner, down and away, was his location of choice for most of the day.

"It was just being able to command both sides of the plate," Gallardo said. "It was being able to command my curve or slider."

Gallardo had a 78 percent strike percentage (39-for-50) with his fastball, and he threw his curveball and slider for a strike 49 percent of the time (25-for-51). Not even during his season-high 13-strikeout performance on Sept. 17 against the Cincinnati Reds did Gallardo have as successful a fastball strike percentage (63) as he did on Saturday.

Gallardo induced only six swings and misses Saturday (compared to 21 on Sept. 17), meaning it was more about pitch placement rather than overpowering hitters.

"We were setting it up and he was spotting it," said Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy. "That's typical Yovani."

Milwaukee's offense was paced by Braun, a league MVP candidate who pestered Arizona starting pitcher Ian Kennedy through four at-bats, but perhaps none more important than his first-inning popup to second base. How can a popout signal a game-changing moment? Leadoff hitter Corey Hart and Morgan began the game by making outs on a total of just four pitches. Kennedy appeared ready to cruise through the first inning.

Instead, Braun fought Kennedy through an eight-pitch at-bat in which the Arizona starter tried just about everything to get Braun out. He threw high, low, fast and slow until finally getting the out. The at-bat set the tone for the rest of Braun's at-bats against Kennedy.

"We were at first really aggressive and it slowed things down with Braun," Morgan said.

Braun singled in an eight-pitch at-bat against Kennedy in the fourth. He singled again in the eighth. In the seventh, Braun had his most impressive at-bat. Kennedy began the sequence with a breaking pitch well out of the strike zone, which Braun feebly chased. At least temporarily it appeared Kennedy had figured out Braun. Instead, with two strikes, Kennedy tried to paint the outside corner, hoping Braun had been thrown off by his first flailing swing, but Braun hit it into the right field corner for a double, which set up Fielder's two-run blast.

"Whenever Brauny is fouling pitches off, taking tough pitches, you know, that's mentally tough on a pitcher," Fielder said. "He's making good pitches. And Brauny gets up there and sticks his bat out and hits a line drive, right? It will mess with the pitcher. I like it because hopefully they're exhausted by the time they get to me."

Axford pitched a perfect ninth inning for the save, a formula that's becoming more routine every game. Axford has allowed just two earned runs since July 17.

Braun, Fielder and Axford form a striking threesome; each one is arguably the best at his respective position in the league. And they are three formidable reasons the Brewers must be considered a possible World Series champion.

At least for now, the case has been made.

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.