ST. LOUIS -- So, apparently the Cardinals and Brewers are pretty well matched after all. Any thoughts of a quick dismissal of National League Central champion Milwaukee by upstart St. Louis were dashed on Thursday night. This is going to be a series.
Of course it is.
The Brewers fought back from an early hole to beat the Cardinals, 4-2, in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series. The Cards' defeat evened the series at two games apiece.
And that's exactly to be expected. The rivals have played 22 games in 2011, and each team has won 11. They're separated by a grand total of two runs in those meetings and have hit the same number of home runs. It was nice for Cardinals fans to dream of celebrating a pennant on home turf, without the series going back to Miller Park, but it's hard to think that it was ever realistic.
"Obviously when you go up, 2-1, you hope that we can win tonight and have a chance to put them away tomorrow," said Lance Berkman, who singled as a pinch-hitter in the ninth. "But they have a great team. So while we'd like for that to happen, obviously realistically we figured that they'd probably win one of these games at least. They're going to be tough."
The series is now assured of going at least six games. That means there will be at least one more game at Miller Park, where the Brewers were the best home team in baseball this year. The clubs split the first two games of the series in Milwaukee, and no team won more regular-season games against the Brewers at Miller Park than the Cards.
Brewers starter Randy Wolf was a bit shaky early, but the Cardinals only took the slightest advantage of it. The inability to knock the lefty out ended up costing them dearly. Solo homers from Matt Holliday and Allen Craig in the second and third innings provided all the runs for the home team, who searched fruitlessly all night for the big hit.
Holliday's homer, even in a loss, was nonetheless one of the biggest moments of the night for the Redbirds. He hadn't gone deep since Sept. 6 and hadn't managed an extra-base hit since Sept. 26. He had two extra-base hits on Thursday, a very welcome sign for a team that could use its usual cleanup hitter to get on a roll.
There just wasn't much else to like for St. Louis on offense. The Cards had men on second and third with one out in the second, and couldn't convert. A two-on, two-out chance in the third went by the boards, as did a leadoff double in the sixth. For the most part, the final six innings were quiet for the Cardinals' offense. Wolf, who looked so vulnerable early, settled in and shut the Redbirds down.
"He made a good pitch on me to strike me out," said Albert Pujols, who was 1-for-4. "He was sharp the whole game. He didn't make too many mistakes, and when he did, I think even that ball Allen Craig hit out, and Matt, they weren't bad pitches. ... He was making good pitches [from when] he threw that first pitch out there, and he was cruising from there on."
By contrast, things got worse for Cardinals starter Kyle Lohse as he went along. He allowed only a single over the first two innings, and in the third, he dodged a second-and-third, one-out jam of his own. Lohse came unraveled a bit in the fourth, though, with two doubles and a single adding up to a game-tying pair of runs. The second run scored when Jerry Hairston made a tremendous slide to avoid a relay throw from Pujols on Yuniesky Betancourt's single to left.
"Really close," Lohse said. "He barely got it with his fingertips, I guess. I thought it was really close."
Lohse was lifted in the fifth before facing Braun for a third time, and on this night, perfection was too much to ask from the St. Louis bullpen. Mitchell Boggs permitted a ground-ball single to Braun, putting the Brewers ahead.
An inning later, a run scored when Ryan Theriot couldn't handle George Kottaras' grounder to second, and that was all the Brewers would need. Rickie Weeks might well have scored on the play regardless, but with the infield in, it's likely that Theriot would have at least tried for the out at home if he'd fielded the ball cleanly.
On many nights, a two-run deficit would have been no hill at all to the Cardinals, though. On Thursday, it was a mountain. As Wolf got sharper, the Cards had a harder and harder time. An offense that has scored five or more runs in five out of nine games this postseason was kept quiet.
"I thought we took some really good at-bats to create some stuff," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said. "But we had twice where we had a runner the third, and one time [Jon] Jay didn't get him in, one time Theriot, he's a productive guy. [Wolf] just made really good pitches, and we didn't create a whole lot after that, because he pitched really well."
Wolf worked seven innings and limited the Cardinals to six hits and one walk, with six strikeouts.
The loss lengthens the odds for the Cards, who had been briefly in control of the series. In best-of-seven series, the team with home-field advantage after the series is tied at 2 has won 26 of 46 series (56.5 percent) over the history of baseball.
The true odds, though, may be even closer than that.
"I think it's classic," La Russa said, "because we've played each other so many times, we're dead even. And I think it's clear we have a lot of similarities, so it comes down to that day to, you know, who makes the pitch."
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.