Commentary

Brewers strike quickly in Game 1

Three consecutive pitches in a six-run fifth inning turn NLCS opener upside down

Updated: October 10, 2011, 10:22 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

MILWAUKEE -- Those Milwaukee Brewers were kinda busy last week, trying to navigate through their own NLDS minefield. So they didn't have a whole lot of time to watch their NLCS opponents, the St. Louis Cardinals, turn the Phillies' offense into the 1899 Cleveland Spiders.

But it didn't matter much, because here's what we learned Sunday from Game 1 of the National League Championship Series:

That was then. This is now.

Talk about your tale of two series. How about this turn of events:

Here's what Cardinals pitchers gave up in the last 34 innings combined of that Phillies series: Six runs and five extra-base hits.

Now here's what Cardinals pitchers allowed just in the first ONE-THIRD of the fifth inning Sunday, on the way to a 9-6 whomping by the Brew Crew: six runs and, yep, five extra-base hits.

Those five extra-base hits tied an all-time record for any postseason inning. (More on that later.) But it wasn't so much what happened as how it happened -- and, especially, how quickly it happened.

One minute, Cardinals starter Jaime Garcia was cruising along with a three-run lead and just one hit allowed since the first inning. Next thing he knew, as Brewers utility-infield quotesmith Craig Counsell would put it later, "that game changed really fast."

Fast? Sheez, watching the Brewers' offense erupt Sunday was like watching the Lakers get out on the break, like watching Manny Pacquiao fire up a three-punch knockout, like (caution: mandatory Packers analogy coming here) watching Aaron Rodgers roar his quick-strike offense down the field.

It isn't often you see a team turn around an entire baseball game -- and, potentially, an entire postseason series -- in three pitches. But that's what the Brewers did in this game.

After Corey Hart led off the fifth with a single and Jerry Hairston Jr. ran the count to 2-2, here's what happened on the next three pitches:

Pitch No. 1: Hairston smoked a double to left.

Pitch No. 2: Ryan Braun sliced a ground-rule double, barely fair, into the right-field corner.

Pitch No. 3: Prince Fielder then hit a ball so hard that "home run" isn't really an adequate term to describe it. It not only left the park, it looked for a moment like it might bore a hole through the wall behind the bullpen in right-center field.

[+] EnlargePrince Fielder
AP Photo/Matt SlocumHope you didn't blink. You might have missed Prince Fielder's homer.

So just in those three pitches, the Brewers went from three runs behind to a run ahead. And this game was never the same.

It was a breathtaking sight to behold, even for those who have seen it before.

"It's hard to imagine [doing] something like that before it happens," Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy said after his team's 61st win at home this year. "But afterward, it's pretty amazing when you think about it. A homer. A double. A ground-rule double. Guys getting on. … You don't know when those innings are going to happen. But when they do, they're a lot of fun to be a part of."

It all transpired with such mega-speed that even a noted pitching-change addict like Tony La Russa couldn't get to the mound fast enough to get Garcia out of there. It all went down so fast, in fact, that some guys in the Brewers' dugout actually missed Fielder's homer -- because they were busy trying to digest what happened right before it.

"I got back to the dugout after scoring, and I went to go get a drink," Hairston reported. "All of a sudden, I heard the crowd go crazy, and I went running out to see it. But it was already out of the park. I missed it."

Well, if it makes him feel better, even Usain Bolt might not have been fast enough to turn around and see Fielder's bomb leave the premises. According to ESPN's trusty Stats & Information Dept., Prince's homer whooshed off his bat at a speed of 119.2 mph. That's the highest rate of speed attained by any homer, by any hitter, all year.

"That was one of the hardest-hit balls I've ever seen," said Braun, who was still gulping for air at second base when Fielder let it fly. "I'm always worried, when I'm on first base and Prince is up, that he's going to top-spin one at me. But I had a good view of it. It got out in a hurry."

But that wasn't the end of the extra-base hit barrage. Two hitters later, with reliever Octavio Dotel now in charge, Yuniesky Betancourt cranked a two-run homer of his own into the Brewers' bullpen in left-center, sprinted at warp speed around the bases and inspired quite an outburst of break-dancing among the local relief corps.

"Hey, we have to have a little fun, too," Brewers closer John Axford said. "We don't get to sit in the dugout and do all those high-fives those guys do. So we just have to high-five each other when we're out there."

But the Brewers still weren't finished. Two hitters after Betancourt's heroics, Lucroy whacked a double for his team's fifth extra-base hit just in this inning. And just so you know, you don't see that sort of thing every day this time of year. We'll sum up the magnitude of that feat this way:

This was the 1,314th postseason game ever played. And only once in the previous 1,313 had any team gotten five extra-base hits in one inning. The 2000 Mets also did it, in Game 4 of their NLCS against (whaddayaknow) the Cardinals.

But with apologies to Benny Agbayani and his buddies, as formidable as those 2000 Mets could be in their heyday, they weren't as scary as this lineup can be when the fireworks show is rocking the house the way it did in this game.

This was just another eight-extra-base-hit day at the office for a Brewers team that had two games like that during the regular season, too, on the way to leading the league in slugging. But no team had gotten eight extra-base hits in a postseason game since the Boston Red Sox did it in Game 1 of the 2007 World Series. And no team had done it in an LCS game since the New York Yankees' 19-8 wipeout of the Red Sox during a 2004 ALCS that is now remembered for, well, other reasons.

[+] EnlargeRyan Braun
AP Photo/David J. PhillipRyan Braun, on fire this postseason, drilled a 463-foot homer in Game 1 of the NLCS. Yes, 463 feet.

And it's no shocker that Braun and Fielder were right in the middle of all this extra-base madness. This was the first time they'd ever hit home runs in the same postseason game. But it's the 37th time they've done it altogether. And you know what the last 16 of those games have in common? The Brewers have won every one of them.

Teams keep talking about how they can't let Braun and Fielder beat them. But then a funny thing happens: They can't stop Braun and Fielder from beating them.

"That's why it's great to have two guys like that," Counsell said. "It's hard to do. It's hard to put two runners on base like that and then try to pitch around them. That's what makes it work. Just get one of those two guys on ahead of them, and it makes for a really tough, stressful inning for the other team."

Yeah, the Cardinals noticed that. But they -- and everybody else -- have also noticed that Braun has an extra-special Mr. October look about him these days.

He's kicked off his second career Octoberfest by going 11 for his first 22, with seven extra-base hits. And just to put that in perspective, the Elias Sports Bureau reports he's the first hitter to open any postseason by going at least 11 for his first 22 since Manny Ramirez did it in 2008. And he's the first hitter to fire seven extra-base hits out there in his first 22 at-bats of any postseason since Billy Hatcher did that in 1990.

"I'll tell you what," Hairston said. "Ryan Braun is a great player. Probably the best compliment I can pay him is to say he reminds me of a young Edgar Martinez. And that's quite a compliment, because Edgar is probably the best right-handed hitter I've ever seen. Doesn't matter if you pitch [Braun] on the inner half or the outer half. He can pull that ball on the inner half. And he can take that ball on the outer half the other way pretty much at will."

And Braun demonstrated both of those talents in this game. Besides his opposite-field double in the fifth, he splattered a first-inning homer to left-center that cleared the bullpen and two picnic decks and came down on the concourse beyond the seats.

"You know, we know he's a great player," Counsell said. "We see him play every day. But he's doing stuff now [in this postseason] that's making us go 'Wow' in the dugout."

"We know the Cardinals have good pitching," Counsell said. "Their starting staff -- those guys are all good. Really good. That's why they were able to make a run like they made in September.

What makes this Brewers team so dangerous, though, is that it's more than just the Prince and Ryan Show. This is an offense that can leave its imprint in all sorts of ways, via all sorts of people.

And in the fifth inning of Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, that offense reminded the Cardinals of something they'd better not forget over the next week or so:

They're not in Philadelphia anymore.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com