ST. LOUIS -- An unexpected and spirited run of relevance to the season's final days came crashing to an end for the Brewers on Saturday, when they squandered a six-run lead and fell out of postseason contention with a 7-6 loss to the Cardinals.
The defeat dropped Milwaukee 2 1/2 games behind the Rockies for the second National League Wild Card spot with only one game left on the schedule. It leaves the Brewers to mull over an opportunity missed and settle for a surprise second-place finish in the NL Central.
Before Saturday, the Brewers had not blown a lead this large all season, nor had the Cardinals erased one. But with a three-run eighth against reliable Crew relievers Josh Hader and Anthony Swarzak, and a shutdown ninth from Cards closer Juan Nicasio, St. Louis capitalized on an opportunity to spoil a division rival's postseason hopes.
"We were in a position where we were going to have to have a bunch of guys do well, and we were also counting on guys that -- they're tired," said Brewers manager Craig Counsell, who was trying to cover for a depleted starting rotation by navigating another bullpen game. "They were giving everything that they had, but they're tired. They wanted to be out there, I wanted them out there, but that's what happened."
The loss dashed the Brewers' faint hopes of catching the Rockies and forcing a regular-season Game 163 on Monday.
"If you have a chance to take somebody out of the race, you obviously take advantage of that," said Cardinals outfielder Harrison Bader, who capped the team's eighth-inning rally with his third game-winning RBI. "You don't stop until the game is over. In many ways, our season is over, but we put up seven runs tonight. Guys are going hard. Guys are preparing the exact same way."
For most of the first eight innings, the Brewers looked poised to push this race deeper. In fact, it seemed inevitable when they raced out to a 6-0 lead by ambushing rookie starter Luke Weaver for five earned runs in a span of three third-inning pitches.
Ryan Braun, mired in a 1-for-20 skid, delivered an RBI double. Travis Shaw followed with a two-run single that pushed him over the 100-RBI mark. And Domingo Santana capped the offensive frenzy with his 30th home run of the season.
But the Brewers couldn't add on, and the Cardinals promptly chipped away. St. Louis answered with four runs in the bottom half of the frame to chase starter Junior Guerra, the first of seven pitchers to appear for Milwaukee.
The rest unraveled in the eighth.
Hitting with the bases loaded, Stephen Piscotty snapped an 0-for-19 skid with a game-tying two-run single off reliever Swarzak. Bader then finished the Cardinals' come-from-behind victory by slapping an RBI single to left.
"When you're down six, the odds are fairly high things won't turn out well, especially when you have a motivated team with a lot on the line," said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, whose club was bounced from postseason contention two nights earlier. "We have a responsibility to go out there and put on a good show. And that comes down to doing everything we can to win."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Gone in an instant: It took three Brewers relievers to get three eighth-inning outs, and by the time they did, Milwaukee saw its lead gone. Most of the damage was done against Swarzak, who loaded the bases with a pair of walks before allowing the game-tying and go-ahead hits. The righty reliever entered the day having allowed just one earned run this month.
"They went and got me to help them make a push, and it's kind of ironic that I'm out there when it all kind of falls apart," said Swarzak, a pending free agent who was among general manager David Stearns' midseason acquisitions when it was clear the Brewers were contenders. "I'm disappointed at the moment, but I'm so proud of everyone in here, and I'm proud of myself for what I've accomplished this year. But there's still room to get better, and hopefully everybody in Brewers Nation gets to see a better Anthony Swarzak next year, because I want to stay here. I want to make another push here."
Bloops and a blast: The Brewers were stung by a bit of bad luck while allowing the Cardinals to close the deficit during a four-run third. The Cards filled the bases with an infield single (hit probability: 17 percent), a bloop single (hit probability: 21 percent) and a walk. Paul DeJong then dropped a perfectly placed double over first baseman Eric Thames (hit probability: 26 percent) to drive in two. Jose Martinez's two-run double to follow had a 58 percent hit probability and appeared to be lost in the sun by Santana.
"It nicked my glove," Thames said of DeJong's hit. "You're looking up and it's, 'OK, where's [right fielder Santana]? OK, it's me.' You're running backwards, it was tough, but I should have caught it. It's rough."
"We were like a bunch of pirates and hooligans. It was cool being a part of that, like, 'We don't care who you are, we'll just play the game.' Early on in the year, we knew we had a shot." -- Thames, on the Brewers' surprise run of meaningful baseball to the final day of September
"To go back out there and show everybody that I'm not going to let down and I'm going to give everything I have, I feel like I poured my heart and soul out in that game. Sometimes it doesn't go well, but laying it all out on the field is something I try to do." -- Weaver, on finishing his season with 1 2/3 scoreless innings after his troublesome third
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
Santana's third-inning home run gives the Brewers three 30-homer players for the second time in franchise history. Thames (31) and Travis Shaw (31) beat Santana to the 30-homer mark earlier this month. The other trio of teammates to accomplish the feat -- Cecil Cooper, Ben Oglivie and Gorman Thomas -- did so in 1982.
UPON FURTHER REVIEW
The Cardinals used their challenge in a critical spot to extend the eighth inning. After Martinez was thrown out trying to advance to third on the tying two-run single, the Brewers threw to second, where Piscotty was initially ruled out trying to advance himself. But Piscotty was awarded the base when the call was overturned after a one-minute, 42-second review. That put him in position to score the game-winning run five pitches later. Even before the umpires went to their headsets, Counsell had a feeling the Brewers were in trouble.
"I knew he was safe without the replay, yeah," Counsell said.
WHAT'S NEXT Brewers: Seventeen-game winner Zach Davies would have started Sunday if the Crew remained in must-win territory, but now the Brewers will hand the ball to rookie Aaron Wilkerson instead. It will be Wilkerson's third big league appearance and second start. First pitch is scheduled for 2:15 p.m. CT.
Cardinals: With Sunday's game no longer a factor in the postseason picture, the Cardinals will have rookie Jack Flaherty, not Carlos Martinez, make the team's final start. Martinez has thrown a career-high 205 innings, and the Redbirds did not want to push that workload any higher.