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Betancourt blasts a three-run homer in fifth

MILWAUKEE -- Whoever lost this battle of the National League Central's top two contenders would have had that sick feeling that accompanies a game given away. Both teams let defensive lapses lead to big innings. Both squandered bases-loaded opportunities with the game tied late, when even a medium fly ball or a well-placed grounder would have been the difference. Both tried, with varying degrees of success, to keep tempers in check.

On a long day that began with cries of cheating, continued with the teams plunking each others' superstars and only ended after 11 innings and nearly 4 1/2 hours of tense baseball, it was the Brewers who ended up with the knots in their stomachs.

The Cardinals won in the 11th, 8-7, to snap Milwaukee's seven-game winning streak.

"Every game is equal, but these are really hard to lose," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "When you think you should have won a game, they're hard to lose."

Jerry Hairston Jr. scored twice in his first Brewers start, Prince Fielder drove in two runs and Yuniesky Betancourt hit a go-ahead three-run home run in the fifth inning for a 7-6 lead that slipped away. The result was a two-game swing in the NL Central; instead of trailing the first-place Brewers by 4 1/2 games and facing a sweep on Wednesday afternoon, the second-place Cardinals pulled back to within 2 1/2 games with a chance to win the series.

Tied at 7 from the middle of the seventh inning until the top of the 11th, a pair of well-placed hits were the difference. Matt Holliday beat an up-the-middle infield grounder to extend the decisive 11th with two outs. Holliday stole second base -- his first swipe this season, and a big one -- and Lance Berkman followed with a bloop single to left field that ended an eight-pitch at-bat against tough-luck losing pitcher Marco Estrada.

Kyle McClellan logged the win for St. Louis and Octavio Dotel notched the save.

"For us to hang in there like that, we've been doing it all year so it's no surprise," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "But it's one of the better ones because we had to work so hard to get it."

The Brewers, meanwhile, lamented their mistakes.

Like the top of the fourth inning, when the Brewers had three chances to retire Albert Pujols on the bases and converted none of them, extending a rally for Jaime Garcia's unlikely three-run home run. Garcia, the Cardinals' starting pitcher, now has one homer in 167 professional plate appearances.

Garcia would not have batted had the Brewers converted one of three chances to retire Pujols. The first chance was his single, which ate up Brewers second baseman Josh Wilson on a high hop. Pujols advanced when Holliday walked, then broke for third on Berkman's fly ball to right field.

That provided the second chance. Corey Hart sailed a throw over the cutoff man's head that beat Pujols but tailed well wide. The third chance came when Skip Schumaker hit a bouncer to Fielder at first base, whose throw home was high, allowing Pujols to score.

"We had him out three times," Roenicke said.

Three batters later, with two outs, Garcia hit his homer.

"I think we let the pitcher beat us in this game at the plate," Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy said. "That can't happen. He just dove out on a changeup and pulled it."

The Brewers answered in the fifth inning after another miscue, this one a bona fide error charged to Cardinals second baseman Schumaker. It led to four unearned Brewers runs -- one on Fielder's RBI single and three more on Betancourt's go-ahead home run. Betancourt took a curtain call after giving the Brewers a 7-6 lead.

The score remained 7-6 into the seventh inning, when tempers flared.

In the top of the inning, Brewers reliever Takashi Saito was already in trouble when he struck Pujols in the wrist with an errant pitch that loaded the bases. The Cardinals tied the game two pitches later on Holliday's double-play groundout.

The Cardinals exacted revenge in the bottom of the inning, when reliever Jason Motte threw ball one to Ryan Braun outside, then came way in with the next two pitches, the second of which struck Braun square in the back. Lucroy later called the Cardinals' retaliation "ridiculous" and "stupid," but Fielder took a more measured approach.

"We've got a baseball game to win, and we don't really have time for the suspense," said Fielder, who has been part of a slew of tense Cardinals-Brewers games over the years. "I think we're past that as a team. It happens and you move on, go try and win a ballgame.

"We're here to win, man. All that fighting stuff, that's for the birds."

They missed their chance to win in that inning. The free baserunner appeared a boon when the Brewers went on to load the bases with nobody out, but they came up empty when Cardinals reliever Lance Lynn retired Betancourt, Lucroy and pinch-hitter Mark Kotsay to preserve the 7-7 tie.

"That's the time when you really need to come through with a hit there," Roenicke said. "Everybody is fired up, and you need to bear down and somehow get those runs in."

The Cardinals felt a similar sinking feeling in the next half-inning, when they loaded the bases with one out against Francisco Rodriguez but did not score.

Tempers were still hot in the 10th inning, when Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina was ejected after a called third strike and directed his frustration at home-plate umpire Rob Drake. An inning later, St. Louis had its win.

"Our bullpen did a great job, their bullpen did a great job, and we just scored one more than they did," Pujols said. "Both of the sides did an unbelievable job."

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