MILWAUKEE — The Brewers won a game, then clinched their place in the postseason, too. Sound familiar?
It was 2008 all over again on an exhilarating Friday night at Miller Park, down to the eighth-inning, hysteria-inducing Ryan Braun home run and the tense moments that followed while the Brewers’ postseason fate was sealed hundreds of miles away.
A 4-1 win over the Marlins pushed the Brewers to the verge of the National League Central crown and turned Miller Park into a northern outpost of Wrigleyville. With Milwaukee’s magic number down to one, a sold-out crowd of 44,584 turned its attention to the scoreboard and watched the Cubs rally for a 5-1 win over the Cardinals.
With that, Milwaukee’s postseason ticket was punched.
With that, pandemonium.
“In 2008, when we went to the postseason for the first time in 26 years, you really realized how special it was to everybody in this city and this state,” Braun said. “Winning the division this time makes it that much more meaningful. This is what we set out to do from the beginning of the year.”
Back in ’08, they won the NL Wild Card on the final day of the season at Miller Park. Midseason acquisition CC Sabathia supplied the pitching gem. Braun snapped a 1-1 tie with a two-run homer in the eighth inning. Everybody — players, fans alike — watched on the scoreboard as the Marlins beat the Mets to seal Milwaukee’s spot in October.
Three years later, the similarities were striking down to the involvement of the Cubs and Marlins. Yovani Gallardo was the starting pitcher this time, working into the eighth inning. A July acquisition (Francisco Rodriguez) earned the win. Braun again snapped a 1-1 tie, this time with a two-out, three-run homer off Marlins reliever Clay Hensley that clanked off the scoreboard in center field.
Then, the wait through the final outs of Cubs-Cardinals. Then, a celebration that began in the clubhouse and worked back onto the field, where the stands remained full of fans.
“I told Corey [Hart] in the first inning, ‘This feels like ’08,'” Braun said. “The anxiety, the excitement from the fans. You could just tell they were waiting for an opportunity to go crazy.”
They went crazy after the Brewers won their division for only the second time in franchise history and the first time since 1982. For only the fourth time in 43 years of existence, the Brewers are bound for the postseason.
Gallardo scattered seven Marlins hits — four of them doubles — but allowed only one run in 7 1/3 innings thanks to 11 strikeouts on a record-setting night. He became the first Brewers pitcher to strike out 10 or more batters in three consecutive starts, with 12 whiffs against the Phillies on Sept. 11 and 13 more against the Reds on Saturday. He topped the 200-strikeout plateau for the third straight season, another club record. Of the seven 200-strikeout seasons in Brewers history, Gallardo owns three of them.
He conjured Sabathia on Friday night.
“You know, one of the things I learned from him, no matter what the situation is, he’d just stay relaxed and go out there and pitch his game,” Gallardo said. “That’s what I tried to do here tonight.”
Prince Fielder’s towering home run in the second inning and Marlins center fielder Bryan Petersen’s bloop single in the fourth accounted for the game’s only runs into the eighth inning, when an error charged to Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks gave the Marlins runners at first and second base with one out.
Enter Rodriguez, who struck out Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison with 10 tension-filled pitches, pumping his fist into his glove and pointing to the crowd as he worked his way back to the dugout.
“I have no words to describe it, the intensity, the adrenaline that I had when I was walking from the bullpen,” Rodriguez said. “Once I crossed that door, I knew I had to go for two strikeouts. I cannot let them get the opportunity to put the ball in play. That was my mentality.”
The Brewers rallied moments later. After Corey Hart doubled and Nyjer Morgan walked, Braun, 0-for-3 in the game and with only one hit in his last 16 at-bats, connected with a slider from right-hander Hensley and sent it to straightaway center field.
“That’s the difference,” Marlins manager Jack McKeon said. “That’s the pros. That’s what you like to find, the guys who put the good numbers up, but they knock the runs in. Look at Fielder and Braun, more than 100 RBIs. That’s tough back to back, pick your poison.”
With the crowd roaring and a new Cubs-Cardinals score posted on the out-of-town scoreboard — a 1-1 tie had turned into a 4-1 Cubs lead — Brewers closer John Axford pitched the ninth inning. His 44th save tied Francisco Cordero’s franchise record.
Braun also made the game’s defining defensive play, a diving catch in the fifth inning to rob Omar Infante of a hit. Braun jumped up and fired to first base to complete an inning-ending double play.
“At first, I didn’t [think he would get to the ball],” Gallardo said. “But he made an awesome play. He did a great job. And then coming back and hitting that home run, that’s the kind of night he had.”
How did it feel to be the hero?
“It’s not my night; it’s our night,” Braun said. “It feels amazing. It’s something we’ve all done together. You just recognize it, embrace it and realize how hard it is to get to this position.”