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MIL@STL: Braun's solo blast puts the Brewers up by 2

ST. LOUIS -- One week later, every bit of damage done by the Cardinals' stunning Miller Park sweep has been wiped away, and the Brewers are right back where they began in their bid to cement the National League Central.

Randy Wolf won a rematch with Jake Westbrook, Ryan Braun homered again and the Brewers boosted their division lead back to 10 1/2 games by taking the opener of a series at Busch Stadium, 4-1, on a sun-splashed Labor Day afternoon.

Milwaukee's magic number shrunk to 11, meaning any combination of 11 Brewers wins and Cardinals losses would give Milwaukee its first division crown since 1982. The Brewers have 20 games remaining and the Cardinals have 21.

The lead was also 10 1/2 games last week, before the Cardinals stormed into Milwaukee and won all three games by a composite score of 18-8, cutting their division deficit to 7 1/2. Now, with four straight Brewers wins and three Cardinals losses in the same span, the margin between the teams is back to double digits.

"You think we're not trying?" Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols said. "We're trying to do the best we can to hopefully not hand the Central division to these guys. Just fight to the end the same way we did in April and the last 140 games. It is what it is. They're playing well. You have to give a lot of credit to those guys over there. They played pretty well. They had the best record last month."

The Brewers have actually been baseball's best team for two months, going 40-15 in a run that began July 6. Still, after three disappointing games against the Cardinals, they were in need of a bounce back.

"These guys beat us pretty good over at our place, so we needed to come back and play a good game," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "I thought all aspects of our game were good today."

Wolf and Brewers closer John Axford handled the pitching part of that equation, with Wolf delivering eight innings and Axford a 1-2-3 ninth for his 41st save. He's converted 38 saves in a row, and has allowed only two earned runs in his last 22 appearances.

Braun and Nyjer Morgan highlighted the offense on a sunny, windy and altogether difficult day to hit, each smacking a solo home run. Braun's was his second in as many days and 27th this season, leaving him three shy of becoming the Brewers' first 30-homer, 30-stolen base player since Tommy Harper in 1970. Morgan's was his fourth home run this season, matching his total from his first four years in the Majors.

And the defense, save for first baseman Prince Fielder's fifth-inning error that aided the Cardinals' only scoring rally, was solid throughout.

"We know St. Louis is a good team, we know they can score a lot of runs," Wolf said. "When they swept us at home, if we didn't have the mindset we have here, it's easy to panic and think that they're creeping back. For us to go into Houston and play well and even things out, that's big for us."

The conditions Monday were such that the first team to score had a very good chance to win. Westbrook, who hit a grand slam off Wolf at Miller Park in the St. Louis sweep, threw his first pitch at 3:15 p.m. CT, with shadows already creeping toward the infield.

By the middle innings, the mound was in the bright sunshine and home plate in the shade. Later, both the mound and the plate were in the sun with a dark band of shadow between that swallowed up third base and, eventually, first base.

"From about the third inning on, I don't think you saw many good swings at all," Braun said. "It was at least as bad as our place is typically during the day."

The Brewers already had a 2-0 lead in the third inning. Corey Hart extended his hitting streak to 17 games and provided a 1-0 lead with his second-inning single to shortstop, and Braun homered to straightaway center field leading off the third.

Wolf did the rest, limiting the Cardinals to four hits to win for the sixth time in his last seven decisions. The exception was his loss to Westbrook and the Cardinals last Thursday in which Wolf surrendered six runs, four of them on Westbrook's first career homer.

"It was a tough one to swallow last time, but the good thing about a season like this is you're allowed next time," Wolf said. "You don't want to get too down about one start."

Two escapes saved this start for Wolf. In the fifth inning, Fielder's error gave the Cardinals runners at first and third base with nobody out, but Wolf induced an Allen Craig double-play grounder that scored St. Louis' only run. Wolf walked the next batter but struck out Westbrook to preserve a 2-1 lead.

Without the error, the Craig grounder would have ended the inning. But the run against Wolf was earned because, by rule, official scorers can't assume a double play.

The other escape came in the eighth, when the Cardinals put a man on and were positioned to bring the tying run to the plate with two outs. Rafael Furcal worked the count full after falling behind, 0-2, then hit a line drive back to Wolf. He knocked it down, and flipped to first base to finish his day.

Wolf had to talk his way back to the mound for that inning. He was at 91 pitches entering the eighth and, with the 4-1 lead already in place, Roenicke intended to call for setup man Francisco Rodriguez.

"He came to me and said, 'Hey, I feel great,'" Roenicke said. "Randy is one guy that, he tells us. When he's had enough and he's exhausted, he tells us. So when he tells me he's feeling that good, I've got to believe him."

Partly due to the conditions and partly to a particularly devastating changeup, Westbrook had an odd game. He struck out nine of the first 19 batters he faced to tie his career high, then faced nine more batters without notching strikeout No. 10.

Westbrook was charged with three runs, two earned, on nine hits, and saw his pitch count soar to 107 over six innings before St. Louis moved into its bullpen.

"I think putting the pressure on them is important," Axford said. "Right now, I feel the pressure is still on them. We've been playing really good ball. We're relaxed. We're having fun. Everyone is working hard and trying to carry this on into October."

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