Pujols, Braun and Fielder rising to the occasion
Three-headed monster of superstars excelling in NLCS spotlight
MILWAUKEE -- Barely 24 hours earlier, they had raved about mesmerizing homers and a barrage of scoring stemming from the production of their two star players. But on Monday night, the sellout crowd at Miller Park loudly cheered for something far less significant -- a broken-bat, eighth-inning groundout.
The reason? The Brewers had finally figured out a way to get Albert Pujols out.
By that point, though, he had already ensured that Milwaukee would only be celebrating moral victories.
Pujols did it with another postseason performance we'll never forget -- a four-hit, five-RBI eruption that gave the Cardinals a 12-3 win and evened up this best-of-seven National League Championship Series at 1 apiece -- and one that came the day after Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder stole the show.
The first two games of this series may have ended rather anticlimactically, but they've been all about superstar players coming through like you'd expect.
Who needs Phillies, Yankees or Red Sox when that's the case?
"They're upper-echelon," Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa said. "There's nobody in the game that's more dangerous, day in and day out, than those three guys."
There are plenty others who may be at least equally as dangerous. But the trio represents that star player who can raise his game when the lights are brightest. We've seen so many of them disappoint and fail in these spots, but these three are unafraid, unhinged and unrelenting when the moments are most important.
We already knew that about St. Louis' superstar; now the two stars in Milwaukee are heading down the same path -- making this postseason nirvana.
"I've said it many times -- this is what you live for, this is what you work for," Braun said recently about playoff baseball. "You work to play meaningful games, down the stretch in September and into October. ... I truly enjoy the moment. I enjoy the opportunity to play in meaningful games. It doesn't mean I'm always going to have success, but I expect to."
Watching Pujols, Braun and Fielder continue to trade blows in this series reminds you of some of those epic playoff shootouts. Like Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins in the 1988 Eastern Conference semifinals, or Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach in Super Bowl XIII in 1979.
Except there's three of them.
Of the 30 runs driven in through the first two games of this power-packed series, Braun, Fielder and Pujols have driven in 12, combining to go 12-for-23 with four homers. Fielder has two homers, Braun has four hits and four RBIs -- and now Pujols has made his mark.
Braun (2-for-4 with a double) and Fielder (two hits and a homer) would come through again in Game 2.
But Monday night belonged to the superstar on the other side.
On Sunday, Pujols fell short in a big spot during a three-run game in the seventh, when he hit into a double play with runners on the corners and none out. Takashi Saito had thrown him a hanging 2-2 breaking pitch that Pujols didn't capitalize on.
Afterward, Pujols said: "If he throws me that pitch, I bet you, seven out of 10 times he throws it, I'll put the ball in the seats."
The next time Pujols came to bat, he did exactly that.
Pujols hit an absolute bomb off Shaun Marcum in the first inning to snap a 47-at-bat postseason homerless streak and give the Cardinals a 2-0 lead. Then he hit a two-run double in the third that put the Cards ahead by four runs. He knocked in another run with a double in the fifth to make it a 6-2 game and hit a ground-rule double to spark a four-run seventh inning that made Game 2 a laugher.
The Cardinals won a game in baseball's most difficult venue, and now they go home for three straight, with their ace on the mound and their chances of reaching the World Series a lot more likely.
It was all because Pujols did what superstars are supposed to, yet rarely, do.
"Big guys play big," La Russa said, "you have a chance."
La Russa played the role of fortune-teller pregame, when he said of Pujols: "I think he could be the hitting star today, and nobody would be surprised."
Surprised? Probably not. Continually amazed? Absolutely.
"You learn from the mistakes that you make," Pujols said. "Yesterday was so tough. Going to bed, I was just thinking of some of the opportunities that I could help our ballclub to win. But you know what, man -- I turn that page, in knowing that today was a new day, and what can I do to help my ballclub to win today."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.