MILWAUKEE — With the NL Central crown in their pocket and time to kill on their hands, the Cardinals cannot do anything to change their postseason position in the coming days, but they had one more last chance to shape who they might face.
The Milwaukee Brewers, eliminated from a second consecutive division title by losing to the Cardinals on Tuesday, remain in the thick of a wild-card race and a chance to create a rematch with the Cardinals in October.
If they could resist a rally from a rookie-infused Cardinals lineup.
The Cardinals got the tying run to third base in the seventh and eighth innings against All-Star Devin Williams. A dynamic double play from Kolten Wong saved Milwaukee in seventh, and Williams took care of the eighth on his own with two strikeouts to cool the Cardinals and carry the Brewers to a 5-1 victory Wednesday at American Family Field.
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The win moved Milwaukee a half-game behind Philadelphia for the third and final wild-card berth into the NL playoffs. The team that claims the third wild card will travel to St. Louis a week from Friday to play a best-of-three playoff series, all at Busch Stadium. The Phillies have lost nine of their past 12 games to keep the Brewers in play, and the Cardinals had a chance Wednesday to complete a series sweep and give the Phillies an assist. Either potential opponent boasts starters who could shift a series regardless of seeding, and the Cardinals got a reminder of that with Brewers right-hander Brandon Woodruff’s 10 strikeouts Wednesday.
Woodruff (13-4) left the game with Milwaukee leading by two runs, but it wasn’t until an uprising in the eighth that Milwaukee got a three-run bounce and a comfortable gap. With Giovanny Gallegos in to escape a trap set by JoJo Romero two walks allowed, Christian Yelich drew a bases-loaded walk to push home a run. Victor Caratini followed with a ground-rule double that scored two more runs.
The Brewers close their regular season with six more home games — three against Miami and three against Arizona. The two fourth-place teams have a combined .417 winning percentage on the road.
Quintana builds momentum for October
If Wednesday’s start was Jose Quintana’s final start before the Cardinals chose whether to pitch him in Game 1 or Game 2 of a playoff series, the lefty finished the regular season exactly as he spent the second half of it with the Cardinals.
Steadily shouldering innings.
Stingily allowing runs.
For the 11th consecutive start — all of them with the Cardinals since the trade deadline — Quintana (6-7) allowed two or fewer earned runs. The Cardinals planned not to push him deep into the game and didn’t, but still he completed five innings on 81 pitches. He held the Brewers to one run on four hits and struck out seven. In the third and fifth innings, Quintana neutralized the Brewers by elevating his fastball to Willy Adames for a key strikeout. Each time, Adames had a runner in scoring position to deliver. In the fifth, as Quintana tried to hold a 1-0 deficit, he hit 90.6 mph with the fastball to get above Adames’ swing.
Familiar Wong gem saves Brewers
With the bases loaded and any hit, ball in play or mistake likely to lead to, at best, a tie game for Milwaukee, Wong made the reach that may have saved Milwaukee’s season.
Free from the spell starter Woodruff held over them for six scoreless innings, the Cardinals got a leadoff homer from Andrew Knizner to cut Milwaukee’s lead in half. Knizner’s second homer in as many days was the prelude to three of the next four teammates reaching base. Pinch-hitting for Paul Goldschmidt, Lars Nootbaar received an intentional walk to load the bases. Milwaukee had already gone to its closer Williams in the dicey situation and had the Cardinals’ cleanup hitter, Juan Yepez, up with one out and the tying run at third base.
The go-ahead run took a lead off second.
Yepez skipped a grounder to shortstop Willy Adames. The pace on the ball meant everything had to go perfectly to pull off a double play. Or Wong had to pull off a trick.
A Gold Glove winner in his final year with the Cardinals and deserving of one more as a Cardinal, Wong got to second well ahead of the runner. Adames used a backhand shovel pass from his glove to save time. The ball soared high, off its mark. The 5-foot-7 Wong used the base for added height, stretched his bare hand to catch Adames’ cascade toss and then in one motion threw to first for the clutch double play. Instead of the tying run scoring — or worse on an error — Williams had the two outs that ended the inning.
Matz invites trouble, run, but gets outs
In his latest appearance as a reliever the Cardinals intend to use as a late-game option against an opponent’s top lefty, Steven Matz showed an ability to escape trouble if he stumbles in that assignment. Matz entered the game in the sixth inning with a runner on base and left-handed slugger Rowdy Tellez at the plate. Matz had one out to get to end the inning. He walked Tellez on four pitches.
That put in motion what gave Milwaukee some cushion against the Cardinals’ run. Keston Hiura, a right-handed batter, tagged Matz with an RBI double that widened Milwaukee’s lead to 2-0. Before the inning spiraled, however, Matz retired Caratini, a switch-hitter, on a hard-hop ground ball back to the mound.
One streak snaps, another stretches
In the middle of the Cardinals day-after lineup were two players looking to shake free from recent or ongoing searches at the plate. It wasn’t too long ago that veteran outfielder Corey Dickerson led the majors in batting average since the All-Star break, but on the road trip, his average has sunk from teasing .290 to nearing .260.
Dickerson took a 0-for-24 downturn into his start Wednesday and extended that to 0 for 26 before connecting for a single in the sixth inning.
What followed was almost as noteworthy.
Shortstop Paul DeJong, trapped within his own 3-for-43 stretch, pulled a hard grounder down the third-base line that glanced off third baseman Mike Brosseau’s glove. The ball ricocheted to shortstop Adames, who attempted to get DeJong with a throw to first. DeJong beat the throw to be safe, but the official scorer did not reward him. Rather than give DeJong his fourth hit of the month, the scorer pegged Brosseau with an error.
Still with two out and two on, the Cardinals had a chance to answer the Brewers’ 1-0 lead to that point in the game. Rookie Alec Burleson struck out.
Woodruff propels Milwaukee, as planned
That strikeout was Woodruff’s 10th of the game, making him the first Brewer to have at least 10 strikeouts in four consecutive starts. The Brewers took command of the NL Central a year ago with their rotation built upon three All-Star starters, including Woodruff and Cy Young Award-winner Corbin Burnes. That trio would funnel games to the game’s wickedest left-right combo out of the bullpen with Josh Hader and St. Louis native Williams.
Until Milwaukee traded Hader to San Diego at the trade deadline, the same names filled the roster but could not conjure that same consistency, that same health or same results as 2021.
The Brewers reached the final week of the regular season with a good but right-around-average pitching staff. Their 3.92 ERA overall ranked 13th in the majors, and the rotation had a 3.90 ERA for 16th in the majors. The Cardinals had the edge at 3.83, for 14th. Woodruff and Burnes have done their part. Burnes carries a 3.11 ERA into his next start, and Woodruff shaved his ERA down to 3.05 with six shutout innings against the Cardinals. Despite the inconsistencies elsewhere in the pitching staff, that’s a tandem that can cause trouble in a best-of-three opening series regardless of the Brewers’ opponent.
Woodruff struck out three batters around a single in the first inning. By the end of the third inning, Woodruff had struck out seven of the Cardinals’ nine starters at least once and he had eight of his 10 strikeouts. In the third, two singles put runners at the corners for the middle of the order, and Woodruff promptly struck out two batters to end the inning.
The biggest threat to Woodruff wasn’t the Cardinals but his pitch count.
After his 98th pitch, he was removed.
Not coincidentally, the Cardinals stirred, however briefly.
Now they wait.