Commentary

Randy Wolf finally gets his playoff win

Lefty also erased bad memory of awful NLDS start with a Game 4 NLCS gem

Updated: October 14, 2011, 7:26 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- He was a human trivia question, and not real proud of it.

The question: Which active pitcher had made more career regular-season starts than anyone else in baseball without ever winning a postseason game?

The answer: Mr. Randall C. Wolf, ladies and gentlemen -- with 342 of them.

But you can now yank that card out of your Trivial Pursuit deck, because Randy Wolf is off the hook.

Cliff Lee couldn't beat the Cardinals in October. Roy Oswalt couldn't beat the Cardinals in October. Yovani Gallardo couldn't beat the Cardinals in October.

But on Thursday night, on a pivotal evening in the National League Championship Series, Randy Wolf finally won a baseball game he'd been waiting his whole career to win.

"I'm glad I'm not the answer to that trivia question anymore," Wolf said Thursday, after navigating his way through seven artful innings, carrying the Brewers to a 4-2 win over the Cardinals and evening up this NLCS at two games apiece.

And he's not the only one who's happy about it. His baseball team needed to win a game away from its Miller Park comfort zone. His baseball team also needed somebody, anybody, in that starting rotation to rise up and meet a critical October moment.

Until this game, Brewers starters not named Yovani Gallardo had pitched 22 2/3 innings in this little postseason tournament -- and given up 29 earned runs. That's an 11.51 ERA. Not one of them had thrown a quality start. And only Zack Greinke had gotten more than 14 outs.

That's no way to win a World Series. But then along came a 35-year-old left-hander with a 9.00 career postseason ERA, whose previous postseason start (three innings, eight hits, seven runs in Game 4 in Arizona last week) had achieved the dubious honor of registering the lowest game score (a 14) of any of the 54 starts made by any pitcher in this postseason heading into this game.

So naturally, all Wolf did when he reached the mound Thursday night at Busch Stadium was spin the most important gem of his career. Hey, of course he did.

To most of America, he may be just a No. 4 starter on a team with big names and big dreams. But to his teammates, Wolf is something much more than that.

They watch the way he works. They watch the way he prepares. They watch the way he messes with hitters, by mixing pitches that register in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s on the radar gun. So nothing he does on nights like this shock them one bit.

"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."

Maybe "great" isn't the word most people on the outside would use to describe him. But we bet you didn't know that only two left-handers in the National League have pitched 200 innings and won 13 games or more in each of the last two seasons. One is Clayton Kershaw. The other? Right you are -- Randy Wolf.

[+] EnlargeRandy Wolf
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesRandy Wolf wanted to erase memories of his NLDS start against the Diamondbacks. Consider it done.

He has spent the last six seasons bouncing from Philadelphia to L.A. to San Diego to Houston, then back to L.A. and finally to Milwaukee these past two years. Almost never, it seems, has he found himself on the right team at the right moment in time to enjoy an evening like this one.

But after all those years of waiting to get this chance, it was his teammates he needed to thank. Because if they hadn't come back to win Game 5 against the Diamondbacks last weekend, he'd have headed home for the winter haunted by his Game 4 clunker in Phoenix instead of having a night like this to think back upon.

Watching his team win in extra innings in Game 5, he said Thursday, was "the most stressful game I've ever watched in my life. And I felt that my offseason sanity was riding on that game."

That game he pitched in Arizona was "the most miserable game I've ever pitched," he said. And when he woke up back in Milwaukee the next day, "I didn't eat or shower that day," he confessed. "I don't know if they call that depression, but it was tough to swallow."

What very few people knew about that start in Arizona, though, was that, six pitches into his bullpen warm-up routine before the game, his, uh, jockstrap had a slight, um, wardrobe malfunction.

So he had to stop warming up, send word to the clubhouse that he needed a replacement, resume warming up, then stop again to change into a new jockstrap, then try to rush to get ready just before game time.

At one point, he reminisced, not so fondly, he had to try to remove the protective cup from the old jockstrap and insert it into the new jockstrap. And "let me tell you," he said. "That's not the easiest thing to do."

So that cost him yet more warm-up time. And ultimately, "it probably cut my warm-ups by 15 pitches," he said. He went out of his way to say he "would never say that as an excuse." But it also wasn't good for his "chi," he laughed.

And if that isn't the only quote you read all year that includes the word "chi," you're getting your baseball literature from a different source than the rest of us.

But that disaster in Arizona just made him appreciate this game that much more. He allowed a couple of early wind-aided, opposite-field home runs to Matt Holliday (a guy who hadn't homered since Sept. 6) and Allen Craig (a guy who went 0-for-12 off Wolf during the regular season). But that was that.

Only two of the last 15 hitters Wolf faced reached base. He ran just one 2-0 count and one 3-0 count all night (both to Holliday, on the way to a third-inning walk). And most important of all, he threw a first-pitch strike to 17 of the 29 hitters he faced -- a total 180 from that start in the desert, when he threw 41 strikes out of 80 pitches.

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

-- Brewers starter Randy Wolf

So in one short week he found himself transported from depression to elation. And even Wolf himself wasn't sure what to make of that.

"Does that," he quipped, "officially declare me bipolar?"

Not really, of course. What it actually makes him is simply human.

Among pitchers who debuted in the division-play era, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, just seven men made more regular-season starts than Wolf before winning their first postseason game. It's a fascinating list of names, from Bert Blyleven (350) to Jamie Moyer (353), from Kenny Rogers (433) to the leader, Dennis Martinez (528).

That first win in October took a giant weight off the shoulders of every one of them. But for the man who won this game, there was a different sort of feeling, just because of what happened to him last week in Phoenix.

For Wolf, this was "redemption," he said.

He couldn't win this game alone, of course. He needed two shutout innings of late-inning relief from Francisco Rodriguez and Axford. And he needed two more huge hits -- and a fabulous slide into home plate -- from the ever-valuable Jerry Hairston Jr.

And he needed yet another two-hit night in the life of the great Ryan Braun, who (A) became the first player in history to reach base in the first inning of eight straight postseason games, (B) later singled in the game-winning run in the fifth, and (C) finished his evening hitting .471 (16-for-34) in this postseason. Incredible.

Oh, and one more thing. Wolf also needed his trusty 68 mph curveball, a pitch he would throw 32 times out of 107 pitches in this game -- his highest percentage (29.9 percent) of any start he has made in the last three years. The Cardinals went 1-for-8 in at-bats ending in that curveball.

"I love watching that pitch," Axford said. "Whenever I see it, I always wonder how it's done. I'd like to try and throw one myself sometime. I just don't know if I want to try it in a real game. It's awesome."

Bet you didn't know Wolf's curveball averaged 67.7 mph this season -- the slowest average velocity, according to FanGraphs, of any off-speed pitch (besides a knuckleball) except for Livan Hernandez's own 66.4 mph curve. But Wolf isn't even the only member of his own rotation who messes with that pitch.

In fact, he, Greinke and Shaun Marcum staged an entertaining season-long duel to see who could throw the slowest pitch of the year. And in a major upset, it was Greinke -- at 54 mph -- who won.

Wolf bottomed out at 56, he reported, on an eephus pitch to Michael Bourn -- which Bourn swung and missed, of course, for strike three. Asked if he saw Bourn muttering anything on the way back to the dugout, Wolf deadpanned: "I don't know. Maybe."

[+] EnlargeRyan Braun
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesRandy Wolf did need a little help from his offense, and he got it from -- guess who? -- Ryan Braun.

But on this night, it was the Cardinals who did the muttering. And if the Brewers go on to win this series and play in the second World Series in the life of the franchise, they will look back on this game as a gigantic turning point. How could they not?

For one thing, they hadn't won a postseason road game in 29 years (since Game 1 of the 1982 World Series). And that's never good.

For another, they understood the grim consequences of falling three games to one behind a hot team like the Cardinals. In the history of best-of-seven postseason series, only 11 of 75 teams that tumbled into that hole came back to win the series -- just six of 32 in the LCS since it went to best-of-seven in 1985.

And then there's that funky home/road disparity that has haunted this particular Brewers team -- which went 39-42 on the road this season but an incredible 57-24 at home. So they knew the deal: They HAD to win one of these games in St. Louis, just to prove they could win on the road in October, and to guarantee themselves a Game 6 back at Miller Park on Sunday.

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

And whaddaya know, they'll get to do that now -- thanks to a guy who hits 68 on the radar gun, a guy coming off the most miserable start of his life and a guy who will look back on this night with nothing but fondness.

And not just because he's no longer the answer to a dubious October trivia question, either.

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