"This is a term we use in the clubhouse," said Milwaukee Brewer veteran Craig Counsell as midnight neared on Friday, "but Prince and Ryan always drive the bus. You feel like they have a good night every night. But when other people contribute, that's when we're really good."
In the first three games of the NLCS, Fielder and Braun's metaphorical bus was rather low on passengers. Before Thursday night's Game 4, Braun and Fielder, Milwaukee's stalwart third and fourth hitters, had driven in a combined seven runs. The rest of their non-pitchers had driven in seven. Braun and Fielder had combined for a batting average of .400, while the rest of the Brewers, again excluding their pitchers, were hitting .233. Even in Milwaukee's Game 1 win, the club's heart-of-the-order stars shouldered most of the load, homering once and driving in six of the Brewers' nine runs.
What differed in Thursday's night's 4-2 Brewers' win -- which leveled the NLCS at two games and ensured the series will be finished in Milwaukee -- was a complete effort. Braun and Fielder each contributed, if, for them, relatively quietly. Braun went 2-for-5 (he became the first player in postseason history to reach base in his first plate appearance in eight straight games) with an RBI, and Fielder went 1-for-3 with a double and a run scored.
But the Brewers also received seven hits from their other batters, and three of their four runs were driven in by the sixth, seventh and eighth spots in their lineup, in third baseman Jerry Hairston, shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and catcher George Kottaras. "I don't care who you are, I don't care if you're the Texas Rangers or the Pittsburgh Pirates: you need everybody to go out there and pull your weight," said second baseman Rickie Weeks, who hit fifth and went 1-for-4 with a run scored. "You can't just live and die on a couple players in the middle of the lineup. You have to go out there and try to do your thing, and scratch out runs here and there."
John Axford, the Brewers' closer, has watched the Brewers win many games this season based largely on the offensive efforts of their MVP candidates, but he likes nights like Thursday -- a game in which he earned his third postseason save -- best. "We do have the individuals that can carry you for the night -- Ryan's done that plenty of times, so has Prince, put the entire team on their backs," Axford said. "But we've also got a collective group of guys that will fight and claw, get as many runs as they can get. I think if the collective group is all working together, and Ryan and Prince have special nights like they normally do, I think it's almost an unstoppable offense."
The Brewers know if they are to beat the Cardinals, a team that appears to possess at least a slight offensive advantage over them at every position on the diamond save left field and second base, they will need more offensive nights like this. And after their first three starters this series -- Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum and Yovani Gallardo -- allowed a combined 15 earned runs, they needed to have more starts like the one they received from Randy Wolf, who allowed just two runs over seven innings to get the win.
"He really came through," said Hairston. "He was itching to get back on the mound after Arizona. What happened there, we know it wasn't him."
Wolf, the veteran left-hander, had been awful in his last start, allowing seven runs on eight hits over just three innings pitched in an NLDS loss to the Diamondbacks -- an outing so bad, he said, he didn't eat or bathe the following day.
In fact, Wolf might have pitched even better than his bottom line. The two runs the Cardinals scored came on solo homers by Matt Holliday in the second and Allen Craig in the third. While Craig's was a blast to right center, Holliday's, at first, seemed unthreatening. Holliday had just barely gotten the head of his bat on a well-placed Wolf changeup, and started the head-down shuffle to first of a batter who is certain he had just meekly flown out. But the ball carried down the right-field line, and landed just inside the foul pole, an estimated 342 away from home plate in a park with a right-field line that measures 335 feet. "I think all three of us, me, George [Kottarras] and Matt, we were all kind of surprised that went out," Wolf said.
Craig's home run gave the Cardinals a 2-0 lead, but the Brewers tied the game in the top of the fourth and took the lead for good in the fifth. It was a win that seemed to be constructed from manager Ron Roenicke's ideal blueprint, in that the offense centered upon Fielder and Braun but was buttressed by nearly all those who surround them, and that Roenicke received a solid seven innings from his starter before turning to Francisco Rodriguez in the eighth and then Axford in the ninth, a pair of relievers who have now combined to allow one run in twelve playoff innings. "Overall, we played a really good game," Roenicke said. His team has as many as three more chances to produce two similarly total efforts.