Brewers' playoff fate is tied to pitching
PHOENIX -- During the second half of the 2011 season, the starting pitching of the Milwaukee Brewers carried this team to a higher level, taking it from contender to division winner.But the last two nights in Arizona, the starting pitchers, given two opportunities to win a National League Division Series clincher, took the Brewers in the opposite direction. "These two games are certainly not typical of what we've done all year," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said Wednesday night. Up 2-0 in the series over the Arizona Diamondbacks, what the Brewers got from Shaun Marcum Tuesday night was bad. But what they got from Randy Wolf Wednesday night was worse. The result was a pair of dispiriting defeats, 8-1 and 10-6, and two wasted opportunities to win the series. With that, the series will return to Milwaukee Friday for a fifth and deciding game. Wolf has won some pivotal games for the Brewers this season, but in his most important start of 2011, he was a virtual no-show. He surrendered seven earned runs in three innings, giving up five runs on two home runs in the first inning alone. His usual command did not accompany him to Chase Field. Wolf threw 81 pitches as he labored to find his way through three innings. Only 41 were strikes. Roenicke has had a superb first season at the helm of the Milwaukee club. But this wasn't his best work, either. He stayed one inning too long with Wolf and the whole nature of the game was changed as a result. Wolf gave up the five runs in the first inning, including a grand slam to Arizona third baseman Ryan Roberts. In the second inning Wolf gave up two hits and a walk to Arizona's starting pitcher, Joe Saunders. But Wolf got out of the inning with the help of a double play. Wolf's teammates, meanwhile, were making the best of a bad situation, They chipped away with one run in each of the first three innings, and trailed only 5-3 entering the bottom of the third. This is where, if the Brewers were to have a chance to come back in this game, the D-backs had to be halted. Wolf obviously wasn't up to that task on this night, but yet, he was allowed to pitch the third and he gave up two very damaging runs. The Brewers' small dose of momentum was erased. The Brewers kept trying to mount a comeback, but there was no way the damage done by their starter could be undone. What hope was there for Wolf?
"There's been a lot of outings the first inning [Wolf] scuffled and turned around and really got us into the sixth, seventh inning," Roenicke said.That is true. But Wolf didn't have it early and he didn't get any better.
"Wolfie, when he gets in trouble, his location isn't there," Roenicke said. "He came out and his location was all over, getting behind in the count. But like I said, sometimes he gets a little off in the first inning and then will straighten it out and end up throwing a real nice ballgame."Not on this night. Ideally, Roenicke wanted to wait until Wolf's spot in the batting order came up so he could pinch-hit for him. This did not happen again until the fourth. Roenicke preferred not to simply use a reliever and then remove him almost immediately. That usually makes sense. But this is the NLDS. Sometimes you have to move beyond the usual mode of operation, particularly when you are one victory away from the NL Championship Series, in a 5-3 game that is still winnable. You saw a different managerial approach on the other side of the argument. Even with a lead, D-backs manager Kirk Gibson, after watching Saunders give up three runs in the first three innings, did not hesitate in the third to lift him for a pinch-hitter, Collin Cowgill. Cowgill delivered a two-run single off Wolf for a 7-3 lead. Asked about this decision, Gibson responded: "It was easier because we had a chance to score runs. Didn't like the way Joe was throwing the ball; he was elevating, overthrowing. Didn't see any ground balls. And I had a feeling Milwaukee was not going to give in, which they didn't. We had an opportunity to score some runs, so I took it." Gibson had managed aggressively and was rewarded with a four-run lead. Roenicke had managed passively, or at the very best, conventionally, waiting for Wolf to turn his evening around. He was rewarded with a game that could only be won if the Arizona bullpen collapsed. There will still be one good chance for Milwaukee's starting pitching to salvage the series and continue the Brewers' postseason. Game 5 will be in the hands of the Brewers' best hope, Yovani Gallardo. He'll be in against a very tough customer, Ian Kennedy, but with Gallardo, in the biggest game of the year, at least the Brewers will be taking their very best shot.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.