MILWAUKEE -- Thrilling as the past six weeks have been, it's worth remembering that even as they've surged, the Cardinals have hit their share of speed bumps. It's not that things have never gone badly; it's that when they have, the Redbirds have rebounded.
They'll be looking to do that one more time on Monday after another frustrating defeat Sunday. For the second series in a row, the Cardinals saw a big inning derail them in an ugly Game 1 loss. Jaime Garcia was drilled for four runs in a fifth-inning blitzkrieg as the Cards lost to the Brewers, 9-6, in the opener of the National League Championship Series.
Since the League Championship Series moved to a seven-game format in 1985, the winner of Game 1 has gone on to win the series in 31 out of 50 LCS. In all best-of-seven series in Major League history, the Game 1 winner is 95-57, a little bit better than 60 percent. The game had a bit of the high-scoring feel of the 1982 World Series played between these two clubs. Milwaukee won the opener of that series in a walkaway, but lost the Series in seven games.
"Look at how we've been playing over the last six weeks," said Albert Pujols, who was 1-for-4. "We've lost some tough games and we bounced back. We did it against Philly. We did it the last two weeks of the season, when we needed wins. We're too good of a ballclub. This is a long series."
Garcia actually stumbled twice, but the first time around he recovered a bit more quickly. The two lapses were more than enough to cost him in his second career postseason start.
Handed a 1-0 first-inning lead, Garcia gave up a walk and a titanic Ryan Braun homer to fall behind with one out. He gave up two more free baserunners, including hitting Prince Fielder, which drew warnings from the umpiring crew, before getting a pair of strikeouts to escape. After the Cards dug in against Zack Greinke to get the advantage back, Garcia gave it up again in the fifth, this time more suddenly and severely.
"Whatever it was," manager Tony La Russa said of Garcia's fifth-inning struggles, "it was fast."
The left-hander had retired 11 out of 13 entering the fateful fifth. After his first-inning scuffle, he pretty much cruised through the fourth. But just as it happened with Kyle Lohse in the opener of the NL Division Series against the Phillies, when things turned against Garcia, they went south in a hurry.
With the Cardinals leading, 5-2, Corey Hart led off the Milwaukee half of the fifth frame with a single, and Jerry Hairston doubled to left. That brought up about the worst possible situation for any opposing pitcher: Facing the Brewers' two-headed MVP-candidate monster with two runners in scoring position.
Unsurprisingly, it turned out poorly for Garcia. After two pitches, he was behind, and out of the game. Braun hammered a first-pitch breaking ball down the right-field line for a ground-rule double that made it 5-4. The next pitch was a middle-middle offering at 87 mph, and Fielder throttled it to right for a two-run homer.
"Things got ugly in the fifth," Garcia said. "I wasn't able to get the job done."
Fielder had not gone deep in 24 previous plate appearances against Garcia. For the most part, the Cards kept the slugger quiet during the 2011 regular season. But at the biggest moment of the season to date, Fielder obliterated the pitch.
"If felt good," Fielder said. "I thought it might be off the wall or a double in the gap, and it kind of kept going, so that was good."
La Russa got Garcia out of the game after the homer, but faced questions as to whether he ought to have acted sooner.
"We were watching him closely," La Russa said. "If you looked at how he pitched Hart, he just went three scoreless innings. We were encouraged."
Unfortunately for the Cards, it didn't go much better for Octavio Dotel. The veteran righty threw away Rickie Weeks' comebacker, and one batter later, he served up a two-run homer to Yuniesky Betancourt. Those proved to be costly runs as the Cardinals cut the lead to 8-6 in the seventh. Milwaukee pushed across another run in the bottom half of the inning for insurance.
"It was a curveball, and I left it a little high, and he got a good hit," Dotel said. "There's nothing I can do about it. I fight, I fight, and he won the fight."
The late fade was especially disheartening given how the Cardinals had roared back to take the lead. Trailing, 2-1, in the fourth, David Freese pounded a three-run, opposite-field homer to give St. Louis the lead. Lance Berkman singled in a run against Greinke in the fifth to stretch the edge, and with Garcia seemingly gaining steam, the Cardinals appeared to be in very good shape.
"I got a pitch to hit, and I had enough backspin on it to get it out of here," Freese said. "It just kept going a little bit and [crept] over the wall."
In the bottom half of that same inning, Garcia crumbled, and the Brewers had a lead they would not relinquish on the way to taking an early advantage in the series.
The Cardinals' last chance came in the seventh against Takashi Saito. With runners on the corners and no outs, Pujols hit into a double play. It scored the last St. Louis run but snuffed out any chance for a longer rally, and the Cards were done after that.
Still, there was consistent awareness in the visiting clubhouse that it was no more than one game.
"The same thing happened to us in the first game against Philly, and we were able to regroup," Berkman said. "So we'll have to come back tomorrow ready to play."
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.