ST. LOUIS — One more Busch Stadium win, and the Brewers are in.
Milwaukee is that close to claiming at least a National League Wild Card berth after Christian Yelich pushed past 100 RBIs and then some on a career-best six-RBI night, and Ryan Braun homered twice in a 12-4 victory over the Cardinals on Tuesday.
But manager Craig Counsell & Co. are aiming for better than a Wild Card.
“The division is what’s on our minds right now,” Counsell said.
First things first. If the Brewers can complete a three-game sweep of the Cardinals behind Jhoulys Chacin on Wednesday, it will ensure Milwaukee a spot in the postseason for the first time since 2011. A clubhouse celebration would ensue, even as the chase continues for the NL Central crown.
That is very much in play after the first-place Cubs absorbed a second straight loss at home to the Pirates on Tuesday. With four games to go for Milwaukee and five for Chicago, the 91-67 Brewers are within a half-game of their Interstate 94 rival.
“Just embrace it,” said Yelich. “You don’t shy away from it. You embrace the challenge and understand that it’s still the same game you’ve been playing all season. You have to execute. You have to play well in order for that game to go your way. It’s going to be another tough game [Wednesday] in a tough place to play.”
In the NL Wild Card standings, the Brewers are 3 1/2 games ahead of the Rockies, who leapfrogged the Cardinals into the second spot Tuesday after beating the fading Phillies. The Cardinals are a half-game behind the Rockies and no longer control their own destiny.
“[The Brewers] are swinging the bats well and getting the big hits and we’re not,” said Cards infielder Jedd Gyorko. “I think it’s safe to say that we need to win the rest of the games. That’s how we’re going to take it.”
The Brewers led wire to wire after Jesus Aguilar and Braun delivered consecutive two-out home runs off Cardinals starter Austin Gomber for a 2-0 lead in the first inning, Braun’s part of a two-homer, three-RBI night that gave him three home runs and five RBIs in the first two games of the series.
That advantage grew to 6-0 with a four-run fourth inning capped by a three-run triple for Yelich, and to 12-4 in the ninth when Yelich smashed a two-out, three-run home run to straightaway center field after St. Louis intentionally walked Lorenzo Cain to get to him with two outs.
Does that sound like an MVP?
“I mean I can’t foresee a scenario in which he doesn’t win it,” said Braun.
And what about Braun, who missed some time last week with back tightness, only to rediscover his power when the Brewers needed it? Before hitting three home runs in the first two games of this series in St. Louis, including his 31st career multi-homer night, Braun had one home run in his previous 28 games.
“I came to the ballpark [Monday] and I told everybody I felt really good, I had a feeling I hadn’t felt all year,” said Braun, the only player remaining from Milwaukee’s last postseason entry. “Just the adrenaline, the excitement of playing a series that felt like a postseason series is one of those feelings that you search for but you can’t force. It kind of has to come out organically, and it comes when you play a series of this magnitude that feels like a postseason series. It’s fun for me. It’s fun for all of us.”
The Cardinals got as close as 6-3 on Yadier Molina‘s three-run homer in the bottom of the fourth off Gio Gonzalez, and 7-4 in the fifth. But Milwaukee improved to 4-0 in Gonzalez’s starts after six relievers held St. Louis to one run after the fourth inning.
On Wednesday, the champagne will be iced. The Brewers hope to not have to transport it back to Milwaukee.
“It’s a good place to be,” Braun said. “We’re not taking anything for granted. It’s going to be a tough one to get. [The Cardinals] understand what’s on the line tomorrow night so I’m sure it will be a battle as the last two nights have been.”
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Fifth-inning escape: The Cardinals were positioned to do damage in the fifth inning, when they quickly chased Xavier Cedeno and then went single, sacrifice fly, infield single against Taylor Williams to cut the deficit to 7-4 with the bases loaded and one out. In a 2-1 count, Williams jammed Gyorko with a fastball for a chopper to Mike Moustakas, who stepped on third base and fired across to first, where Aguilar did the splits to complete an inning-ending double play.
“I thought Taylor threw the ball beautifully,” Counsell said. “They had some momentum on their side. He kept his composure and made some huge pitches. I thought he executed a whole bunch of pitches tonight. That’s what you’ve got to do. There’s craziness going on around you and it’s getting loud, and they’re feeling it, and he just kept executing pitches. That’s a big step forward for him. That’s the biggest moment he’s been in and he came through with flying colors. I’m proud of him for that.”
Seventh-inning escape: It was still 7-4 in the seventh, when Corey Knebel, pitching for the third straight day and the fourth time in five days, and coming off a save in place of Jeremy Jeffress in Monday’s series opener, found big trouble in a charged inning. Knebel appeared to get a break when a curveball was called strike three against Matt Carpenter — Carpenter and Cards manager Mike Shildt were ejected for arguing — but St. Louis eventually loaded the bases with two outs. Again the hitter was Gyorko, who fell behind 0-2 before flying out to right field, stranding the tying runner on base.
“He’s been a big, big reason for this September,” said Counsell. “You can talk obviously a lot about Christian but the next guy has been Corey. He has been absolutely huge in the month of September.”
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Orlando Arcia didn’t start Tuesday’s game, but he turned in the night’s signature defensive play. Second baseman Hernan Perez cut in front of the shortstop Arcia when speedy Harrison Bader hit a one-out bouncer up the middle. Despite the distraction, Arcia barehanded the baseball and made an on-target throw to first for the out.
HE SAID IT
“If it happens, the time comes, you should celebrate. Some of these guys have never experienced that kind of excitement and I don’t see anything wrong with it. These guys deserve it. These guys have been busting their tail all year. Why not? Hopefully we do it sooner than later. It’s one of those things that once these guys have it, it’s going to be a nice sigh of relief. — Gonzalez, on the prospect of popping champagne bottles Wednesday night
Chacin, who is lined up to start a potential NL Wild Card Game for Milwaukee, will make his final regular-season start Wednesday when the Brewers and Cardinals conclude their series at 6:10 p.m. CT. Chacin was 0-7 in his first nine career games (eight starts) against the Cardinals before getting a win at Busch Stadium with six scoreless innings on Aug. 19. He’ll make his career-high 34th start opposite St. Louis right-hander John Gant.