The Brewers didn't have a lead to protect in the top of the eighth inning Wednesday night at Miller Park, so manager Ned Yost asked his bullpen to preserve a one-run deficit and defend his team's honor.
The result was hideous.
Sucked into the macho machinations of St. Louis skipper Tony La Russa's old-school "eye for an eye" approach to game management, Yost and the Brewers ended up getting burned on what likely will go down as a pivotal night in the season.
Final score: St. Louis 7, Milwaukee 3.
Though their offense had been stuck in neutral since the fourth inning, the Brewers entered the eighth trailing, 3-2, and buoyed by the news that Florida had just beaten Chicago. The Cubs' lead in the National League Central had shrunk to 1 ½ games and the Brewers had a golden chance to erase the fraction and put more pressure on the leader.
It didn't happen, in large part because Derrick Turnbow once again wilted under pressure.
The inning started innocently enough. Ray King retired Cardinals outfielder Rick Ankiel. With Albert Pujols due up, it was obvious that Yost would summon a right-hander from the bullpen. When he chose Seth McClung instead of Turnbow, the motivation was obvious.
Turnbow has been Yost's eighth-inning pitcher of choice this season. McClung got the call and promptly drilled Pujols in the back with a pitch that the Brewers later said "got away."
Because the Cardinals had hit Prince Fielder earlier in the game, a move that advanced the extra-circular plot line of the previous two games and drew a warning from plate umpire Tom Hallion, McClung and Yost were ejected from the game.
Turnbow, who has struggled with inherited runners on base this season, replaced McClung and overpowered Ryan Ludwick, who struck out.
That's when the nightmare started. Skip Schumacher blooped a broken-bat hit into shallow left-center. Miguel Cairo fouled off some tough pitches before drawing a walk that loaded the bases.
Turnbow clearly was in trouble. With less than two out and / or a better hitter at the plate, bench coach / acting manager Dale Sveum may have lifted Turnbow right then and there.
But, Turnbow was permitted to continue and his first two pitches to Kelly Stinnett, a journeyman catcher who once played for the Brewers, were out of the strike zone.
Turnbow's third pitch caromed off the backstop, bouncing back to catcher Damian Miller before the runners could advance. With the count 3-0, Turnbow simply needed to lob a meatball over the center of the plate because Stinnett was not going to be permitted to swing.
The pitch was a ball.
The Brewers were down by two runs, which is a huge difference in the late innings because it negates the viability of a sacrifice bunt after a leadoff walk or single. When Jim Edmonds was announced as a pinch-hitter for the pitcher, the Brewers brought lefty Brian Shouse out of the dugout. La Russa countered with right-handed batter So Taguchi, who ripped a ground-rule double over the head of Brewers centerfielder Bill Hall.
An infield dribbler by Aaron Miles plated another run. Chris Spurling replaced Shouse and walked Scott Spiezio before retiring Ankiel on a foul out.
The Cardinals had scored four runs with a hit batter, two walks, a blooper, an infield hit and a two-run double.
The Pujols plunking, which marked the culmination of three days of posturing and message-sending, did not cost the Brewers the game. But, it did set in motion the events that put victory out of reach. By playing the game within the game, the Brewers lost sight of the game itself.
Given the performance of their bullpen this season, the Brewers should have focused on getting outs instead of revenge. Milwaukee will play St. Louis roughly 15 times next season. There will be ample opportunity to plunk Mr. Pujols in the back.
Doing it on Wednesday, and counting on Turnbow to clean up the mess, was a critical error in judgment by Yost and the dugout brain trust. The Brewers are not and never have been a particularly combative or retaliatory outfit under Yost. Their attempt to step into that arena couldn't have been less successful.
La Russa, who wrote the manual for such things, was offended at the Brewers for complaining about ball and strike calls late in a blowout victory and really peeved when Corey Hart took an extra base. Hart was drilled in his next at-bat.
When Jeff Suppan threw up and in to Pujols, who was not hit, in the eighth inning on Tuesday, La Russa barked at the Brewers dugout and prompted Yost and Sveum to scream back at him.
It wasn't a surprise that Fielder was drilled in a situation that called for an intentional walk. La Russa knows how to pick his spots. The Brewers picked what seemed to be a good spot for retribution, but their players didn't perform.
As is so often the case, La Russa got the last laugh. He inserted his closer, Jason Isringhausen, into the game to protect a five-run lead. The Brewers scratched out a run, but were left scratching their heads about their priorities and, more important, their lost opportunity.
Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at OnMilwaukee.com. Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.