by Troy Sparks
If a small fire in the right field lower deck section, June 10, at Miller Park, was an omen for the visiting St. Louis Cardinals, then they were in trouble.
The weekend series against the Milwaukee Brewers, June 10-12, was a battle for first place in the National League Central. The Brewers entered the key series 2 ½ games behind the Cards.
Smoke was visible in the park, producing a thin fog in the air with no place to escape because the roof was closed. It didn’t matter because the bats of the Brewers were already smoking before the real fire in the lower deck – due to equipment failure from a kettle corn machine – started.
It was obvious that the Cardinals woke up on the wrong side of the bed. They didn’t come with their “A” game this series. One thing was certain for both teams: They had to treat it like a playoff series.
The Brewers lit up the Cardinals with two runs each in the third, fifth, sixth and eighth innings. Getting eight runs off 11 hits from St. Louis and shutting them out in an 8-0 win got the fireworks started for the Crew. One run was scored on one of the riskiest plays in the game – the suicide squeeze bunt.
Craig Counsell was on third base for the Brewers when starting pitcher Chris Narveson was up to bat in the third inning. He laid a bunt down the first base line to the left of St. Louis pitcher Kyle Lohse as Counsell ran towards home. Counsell slid head first, stretching his hand to tag home plate and beating the throw from Lohse to catcher Yadier Molina.
“It was more of a safety (squeeze) to get (Counsell) over, but if he could read it, then score,” Narveson said. “We had worked on it and talked about it. For me, I was just worried about getting it down and getting an opportunity. I think that if he reads it, if it’s right back to the pitcher, he probably stops and go right back (to third base). It was a good bunt. I got a good pitch. I was able to knock him in.”
Added Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke, “The situation called for a safety squeeze, and I was confident that “Narvy” could get the ball down the first base line. Well, I got a guy (Counsell) that can read real well at third base running with good instincts.”
A scoring situation like that in a baseball game doesn’t surprise a veteran like Counsell, who’s been on two World Series championship teams. “It was a safety squeeze,” he said. “You’re looking for a good bunt. I knew that it was going to be close. I’m just trying to go to the farthest place (of the plate) that (Molina) has to go and tag me.”
The June 11 game against the Cardinals moved the Brewers closer to first with a 5-3 win, just half a game behind in the standings. According to Roenicke, there’s nothing to be excited about just yet because it’s only June and not September.
“I’m not just saying this – it’s too early in the season,” he said after the game. “My biggest focus is on how we played these last two games, and hopefully we play another good game (last Sunday). You can play a good game and (St. Louis) still beat you, so the standings this early (don’t matter). We’ve got too long a time to go. We’re not even halfway yet.”
So let’s say that the Brewers are flirting with first place or even the wild card spot in July. Does general manager Doug Melvin entertain trade offers and give away some of his good minor league players? Does he trade veteran players with expiring contracts to get other players that he basically “rent” for a couple of months to make that push to the playoffs?
In the June 12 game, either the Brewers or the Cardinals would walk out of Miller Park in first place. The last time the Crew was in first was back on April 26.
When the Cardinals struck first with two runs in the fourth inning and one in the sixth, it was time for the Brewers to turn on the power switch. After Rickie Weeks and Mark Kotsay scored, Prince Fielder knocked a 1-0 pitch into the outfield seats with Ryan Braun on base for a two-run homer and the game-winner to give the Crew a 4-3 lead. Milwaukee scored all their runs in their half of the sixth inning.
That lead held up when closer John Axford came in and slammed the door on the visitors to get his 18th save. The Brewers led the division by half a game.
St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa was very irritated when a TV reporter wanted to know what happened to his team. “What it means is that we’re no longer in first place,” he said. “You’re asking me. We’re no longer in first place. This is June, and we have to be ready.
“I don’t want to get melodramatic. We came in here to win a series, got beat in the series. They outmanaged us. They outplayed us.”
Fielder is making his case of being an All-Star a reality. He’s hitting the ball pretty well and being more patient at the plate, taking what the pitchers give him.
“He’s a proven producer, but I’m sure (Brewers) will enjoy talking about him more than we will,” LaRussa said.
Said Fielder, “I’m just seeing the ball good right now and putting good swings on it. Fortunately, right now, I’m hitting all their mistakes.”
“I threw to Fielder down and in to not a good spot,” losing pitcher Jake Westbrook said. It kind of snowballed on me. It can’t happen.”
Maybe the Brewers can stay in first place if they beat Chicago and Boston on the road.