ST. LOUIS – Zack Greinke(notes) flipped open his iPad. He wanted to know the name of that movie with Clive Owen and Jessica Alba, the one that was a graphic novel. He needed something to watch for the short flight home to Milwaukee.
Greinke was still in workout gear. Most of his teammates were dressed and on the bus. He took his time. In the most important game of his career, Greinke had not pitched well. His slider lacked its usual sharpness. He didn't strike out a batter for only the second time in 200 career starts. With all those balls in play, his Milwaukee Brewers teammates committed four errors, one shy of the postseason record. Following the first one, Greinke slammed the ball on the dirt in frustration. It ricocheted back and hit him.
It was that kind of night. Bad bounces and self-inflicted pain.
Who the Brewers are and who the playoffs say they are – those are two different things. The Brewers won 96 regular-season games. The playoffs say they are one game from their season ending after an unsightly 7-1 loss in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series gave the St. Louis Cardinals a three-games-to-two advantage. The Brewers were a markedly better team than the Cardinals for six months. The Cardinals have been better this week. The playoffs are cruel that way.
Never, for example, had this year's Brewers committed four errors in a game. When general manager Doug Melvin constructed this team, he accepted that the defense would be its weak point. Turned out Milwaukee wasn't half-bad. Its defensive efficiency – converting balls in play into outs – ranked 13th. Two advanced metrics, Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved, had the Brewers in the positive. They may have committed more errors than all but eight teams. Their range more than made up for it.
[Related: Cardinals one win away from World Series]
So this … this was eerie. A bad-hop ball through the third baseman's wickets. A second baseman bouncing a throw from the shortstop side of the bag. An easy grounder the shortstop kicked. A bad pickoff throw from a relief pitcher. The Brewers literally threw away Game 5. They picked an awful time to stop being themselves.
Jerry Hairston Jr.(notes) is not a third baseman. In his 14 seasons with eight teams, he has played more second base, shortstop, left field and center field than third base. When Casey McGehee's(notes) struggles refused to abate, Hairston became the new third baseman by default. He was grateful. Rare is the everyday opportunity for a career utilityman, especially in the postseason.
Never had he felt better at third, either, than in the second inning Friday. Runners stood on second and third base. White towels waved around the stadium. Nick Punto(notes) hit a rocket, an absolute laser, that Hairston, drawn in, somehow snagged mid-dive. It saved two runs. And considering he hadn't seen the ball – it blended in with a towel or jersey or something – it was all the more amazing.
Up stepped Jaime Garcia(notes), the pitcher opposing Greinke. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy(notes) set up for a high-and-inside fastball. Greinke missed outside. Garcia hit a ground ball. Hairston readied for it. He had fielded tens of thousands of them in his life, maybe more. He knew exactly where and how it was going to bounce until it landed on the lip between the dirt and grass. Instead of jumping, it skidded. Hairston had no chance. Right through his legs. Both runners scored. The Cardinals led 3-0.
"Sometimes at the hot corner, you're at the mercy when a guy hits a bullet," Hairston said. "Once it hit the lip, it stayed down."
He shook his head. It was hours later. The misfortune haunted him.
"There's nothing you can do," he said. "It's baseball."
Players love that cliché. Fact is, sometimes it's the only thing that properly describes how fickle the game can be.
When Rickie Weeks(notes) arrived in the major leagues, he was a bad second baseman. Every four games or so he would boot a ball or throw one away. Scouts wondered when he would switch to the outfield. It was just a matter of time.
Except that Weeks never did. He stayed at second base. He took extra ground balls. He worked on his throws. He made himself viable. Never will Weeks win a Gold Glove. With his bat, he simply needed to acquit himself there, which he has. UZR and DRS both had him in the positive this year.
His error came three innings after Hairston's. He stood well out of position with a shift designed to cover most of Albert Pujols'(notes) spray-chart dots. On command, Pujols hit a ball up the middle, where Weeks was stationed. He picked it on the backhand and rushed a throw to first. There was no need. Pujols runs with the urgency of a sloth. Weeks bounced the throw. First baseman Prince Fielder(notes), so adept at scooping such messes, couldn't. Pujols advanced to second.
"What happened on my ball?" Weeks said. "I made an error. I made an error."
It was the only inning in which Milwaukee committed an error and a run didn't score. Weeks didn't care. This was embarrassing. All season, the Brewers played with enough discipline to run away from the Cardinals, and here they were, behind the pitcher they'd traded for to pitch these very games, kicking the ball like amateurs. Weeks knew this, and he couldn't muster much more than two simple words that explained Game 5 better than any.
"Sin City." That was the name of the movie. Greinke nodded. He swiped his iPad until he got to the proper screen. It suggested other movies. "Memento." "Lucky Number Slevin." Greinke liked "Lucky Number Slevin." He settled on "Sin City" anyway. It felt like the right one.
A few minutes earlier, he had talked about his performance. It was not great. Greinke was here because he asked the Kansas City Royals to trade him to a contender. His favorite time playing baseball had been in 2006, when his Double-A Wichita team made the Texas League finals. He loved the competitiveness, craved a game that meant something beyond the slog of 162 in the regular season. The playoffs finally afforded him this.
Greinke's first two starts in October were below the standard he set during the regular season. The third was simply unlike him. He generates swings and misses by the handful. He had two. He buries his slider for strikeouts. He couldn't get it down. He locates his fastball wisely. He left it up in the strike zone.
"I made some mistakes today," Greinke said. "Nobody's going to be perfect."
[Photos: Cardinals oust Brewers in Game 5]
The sentiment pervaded the Brewers' clubhouse. They weren't down on themselves. There was no sniping or backbiting. Nobody was lamenting shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt's(notes) sixth-inning error that led to a two-out run. Greinke was mad at himself for leaving a slider up for Pujols to drive in Rafael Furcal(notes). There was no animus for reliever Marco Estrada(notes), who chucked a pickoff throw past Fielder and set the stage for two more runs. It's baseball. It happens.
No, they were more interested in finding themselves. Going home helps. The Brewers were better at Miller Park than any other team was in its home park. Shaun Marcum(notes), their starter in Game 6, needs to do what Greinke couldn't: shake off two bad postseason starts and come through in his third. And then Yovani Gallardo(notes), the Brewers' top starter, must do what he couldn't in Game 3: outduel Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter.
It's not going to be easy. The stench of Game 5 is the sort that can linger. Greinke tried to shake it as quickly as possible. He checked his iPad. "Sin City" was downloading too slowly. He wasn't sure it would be ready in time for the trip.
That's the kind of night it was. One the Brewers wanted to forget.
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