MILWAUKEE -- The half-empty stands in the ninth inning told the story better than the scoreboard ever could. The Cardinals had their way at Miller Park in a manner that no team had managed to do all year. Now they get to play their biggest games in five years in front of their own home fans.
Albert Pujols led an all-out assault on Shaun Marcum and a string of relievers as the Cards handed Milwaukee its worst home loss of 2011, throttling the Brewers by a 12-3 score Monday night in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series. The Brewers had not lost by more than seven runs at any point in 2011, and had not allowed an opponent to score double-digit runs at Miller Park since May 11.
The game featured some dramatic moments, even when the visitors were up by five runs in the middle innings. But it was over for all practical purposes in the middle of the seventh following the Cards' fourth multi-run inning.
St. Louis thus seized home field in the series, just as it did a round earlier. The division rivals each took one of the first two games of the best-of-seven, and the next three games are at Busch Stadium. It's the same formula the Cards used in their NL Division Series against Philadelphia, bouncing back from a Game 1 loss to earn a split and guarantee another "happy flight."
The Cardinals are three wins from their first pennant since 2006, when they won the World Series.
"Every game, we're playing out there like it's our last game," said outfielder Jon Jay, who racked up three hits and three runs in front of Pujols. "It's the playoffs, everyone knows what's at stake. We play hard every game, and today we came up with the win."
The Cardinals won their 15th consecutive getaway-day game, a streak that dates back to early August. The last time they boarded a plane coming off a loss was Aug. 3, when they dropped an ugly decision to the same Brewers at Miller Park. The man who pitched that game, Edwin Jackson, also started on Monday -- with quite a bit better results.
Since then, a great deal has changed. The Brewers went on a tear right about that time, as the Cards fell further and further back in the NL Central through August. Then St. Louis roared back into the playoff picture in September. Now they're facing off in a best-of-seven, and all that matters is the next week. If the Cardinals win three of the next five, they're going to the World Series.
"Two months ago, everybody was making vacation plans and thinking that we were out," said Pujols. "And we had 35 games left and we just told ourselves, 'Let's see how many games we can win.'"
The number is 27, to be exact, and counting. Since the low point of their season, Aug. 23, the Cardinals are 27-12, a .692 winning percentage.
Pujols led Monday's onslaught, taking out a couple of weeks' frustration on a team that's pitched him well all season. Pujols had five RBIs in his previous 23 games, and hit .250 with a .303 on-base percentage against Milwaukee in the regular season. On Monday, though, the Brewers couldn't contain him.
"He's unbelievable," said teammate Rafael Furcal. "You know what Albert can do. It's not a surprise. You know what kind of hitter he is, what kind of player he is."
Pujols hammered a two-run homer to left in the first, a two-run double to center in the third and an RBI double to right-center in the fifth -- driving in five of the Cardinals' first six runs. He added another double for a 10-total-base evening
The slugger set or tied a number of records. Pujols' homer was the 14th of his postseason career, passing Jim Edmonds for the franchise record. His five RBIs gave him 23 for his career in LCS play, passing another franchise mark previously held by Edmonds. Pujols' three doubles set an LCS record and tied a Cardinals postseason record, and his four extra-base hits tied an LCS record.
"He got some good pitches to hit," said outfielder Lance Berkman. "I thought he made a real nice swing on the first fastball in. And then I think he got a couple mistakes later that he did what he was supposed to do with them. He's been the greatest hitter in the history of the game for the first decade of his career, so it's not surprising."
After Pujols made his mark on the game, he handed it over to the rest of his teammates, and they did plenty as well in a collective 17-hit attack. Cardinals batters ground out six consecutive hits, starting with Pujols' last knock, in a four-run seventh that put the game out of reach.
Jackson looked tough out of the gate, but got into trouble in the middle innings and didn't last long enough to qualify for the win. Holding a 7-2 lead in the fifth, Jackson allowed a walk and a double and was lifted before he could face Prince Fielder. Arthur Rhodes walked Fielder, but rookie Lance Lynn stabilized the game by inducing a double-play ball from Rickie Weeks that ended the threat.
Replays appeared to indicate that Weeks actually beat the throw from second baseman Nick Punto, but he was ruled out all the same, and it was the last time the Cardinals really had any stress in the game.
"I didn't see the replay, a lot of our guys did," said Brewers manager Ron Roenicke. "It was big, yeah, it was a big play."
Since the League Championship Series went to a best-of-seven format, teams that go home with a 1-1 split have won the NLCS nine out of 15 times. In all seven-game series, it's a 30-38 record for clubs going home with a tied series, but the Cards' odds feel a little better than that right now. They went into the ballpark of the best home team in baseball and came out with a rout.
"It's going to be a very interesting series," Furcal said.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.