MILWAUKEE -- Jonathan Lucroy is earning quite a reputation for his skills with a bat. Specifically, the Brewers' catcher has shown an ability to drop down a perfectly placed squeeze bunt at the most opportune of times.
It is a talent that earned Lucroy a new nickname on Sunday night, when his act of small proportions played a huge role in Milwaukee's 9-4 triumph over the D-backs in Game 2 of the National League Division Series.
"Mr. Squeeze always comes through," Brewers right fielder Corey Hart said with a smile.
Lucroy used a bunt single to deliver a walk-off win over the Giants on May 28. Then, in a game against the Astros a month later, he brought in a run with a second-inning squeeze bunt. Pulling off the exceptional feat on the postseason stage -- for a team looking for its first playoff series win since 1982 -- is something entirely different.
Given the situation in the sixth inning, Arizona sensed it was coming.
D-backs manager Kirk Gibson even went over possible bunt scenarios during a mound visit during the five-run sixth inning that swung Sunday's contest in Milwaukee's favor. D-backs reliever Brad Ziegler was showing signs of fraying and doing all he could to avoid coming undone at the seams.
So with the game caught in a 4-4 deadlock, and runners on the corners with one out for the Brewers, Ziegler was anticipating a squeeze attempt from Lucroy. Sure enough, the catcher struck again, squaring at the last moment and pushing a pitch down the first-base line. When the baseball hit the grass, Jerry Hairston Jr. sprinted from third toward the plate.
The rally was officially in motion.
"You've got a catcher who can handle the bat pretty well," Ziegler said. "I fully expected it."
Ziegler did not react according to the plan, though.
As Lucroy hustled up the first-base line, Ziegler ran after the bouncing ball. The pitcher gloved it and made a quick flip in the direction of home plate. Hairston slid in safely with ease as the baseball sailed away from catcher Miguel Montero. Courtesy of that costly gaffe, Lucroy advanced to second on the play.
"It's just an excitable moment," Gibson said. "He obviously thought he had a chance at it [at the plate]. Again, in that situation, you just want to try to take your out. ... People are reminding people about the bunt, take your out. We specifically went over that when we were out there.
"We are where we are at in the game, you don't have to make a great play. Let's make sure that we get our outs."
Ziegler knew his mistake.
DEEP-SIXEDThe Brewers took the lead for good in a five-run sixth inning that saw four hits, a balk, two walks and a squeeze play.
Brewers' sixth-inning play by play
- Rickie Weeks grounds out to short, one out.
- Jerry Hairston doubles to left.
- RHP Brad Ziegler replaces RHP Daniel Hudson.
- Ziegler balks, Hairston to third.
- Yuniesky Betancourt walks.
- Jonathan Lucroy safety squeeze bunt, Hairston scores. Lucroy to second, Betancourt to third, throwing error by Ziegler, 5-4 Milwaukee.
- Ziegler intentionally walks pinch-hitter Mark Kotsay.
- Corey Hart singles to center, Betancourt scores, 6-4 Milwaukee.
- Nyjer Morgan singles to center, Lucroy scores, Kotsay scores, Hart to third, 8-4 Milwaukee.
- Ryan Braun singles to center, Hart scores, 9-4 Milwaukee.
- LHP Joe Paterson replaces Ziegler.
- Prince Fielder strikes out swinging, two outs.
- RHP Bryan Shaw replaces Paterson.
- Weeks grounds into forceout, three outs.
"I should have just taken the out at first," said the pitcher. "But, knowing that was the lead run over there, I wanted to try to cut it down. I got to the ball pretty quickly, but it wasn't a smart play. The smart play would have been to go to first."
In a game that had been defined by power to that point -- Milwaukee and Arizona had combined for four home runs through the first five innings -- it was that perfectly executed example of small ball that paved the way for a big inning. Hart, Nyjer Morgan and Ryan Braun each followed with run-scoring hits and the Brewers had a 9-4 lead by the time the smoke cleared.
The turning point was Lucroy's bunt.
"The squeeze is the best out of all of those," Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder said. "That's not easy to do, especially against a righty like that. Luc got it down. That's a great play."
The inning's catalyst was a balk.
Milwaukee's push began when Hairston ripped a pitch from D-backs starter Daniel Hudson into left field for a one-out double. At that juncture, Gibson brought in Ziegler, a sidearmer with a 1.74 ERA this season for Arizona, to face free-swinging shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt.
On a 1-0 count to Betancourt, Ziegler lifted his front leg, hesitated and then spun around to look at second base. The pitcher was called for a balk, allowing Hairston to advance to third base.
"We unraveled there," Gibson said. "The balk hurt and then that really seemed to get to Ziggy."
On the play, Ziegler brought his lead foot back to the pitching rubber, making him confident that it was a legal motion.
"I didn't feel I balked," he said. "I felt my foot come down on the top of the rubber. So I felt I was clear of my back foot then at that point. It didn't matter after that."
After that, Betancourt drew an unintentional four-pitch walk -- something the shortstop accomplished just three times in 584 regular-season plate appearances. That set the stage for Lucroy, who was on the receiving end of an insult from D-backs pitcher Ian Kennedy just one day earlier.
In Saturday's 4-1 win over Arizona, Kennedy chose to pitch to Lucroy with the pitcher on deck in the sixth inning, and the catcher responded with a crucial RBI single for the Brewers. Following the game, Kennedy said he decided to attack Lucroy in that situation because he was "a guy who can't really hit."
Lucroy shrugged off Kennedy's comment.
"It doesn't matter to me," Lucroy said.
Lucroy hit .265 with 11 home runs and 59 RBIs in his first full season in the big leagues, but had been mired in a 12-for-70 slump over his final 20 starts. Even so, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said it is never easy to instruct Lucroy to bunt instead of letting the catcher hack away.
"It's always a tough call for me," Roenicke said. "I still like him offensively swinging the bat, but he's doing such a good job at the squeeze, and he's in the right spot to do it. Sometimes you look at your lineups. You've got your pitcher after him. If there's not a place to put Luc on, it's a nice play for him."
And, as it has turned out a handful of times this year, a great play for the Brewers.
"It's a free RBI if you execute," Lucroy said. "I really work hard to try to get that down and it's worked out for me."