By Todd Rosiak, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –
PITTSBURGH — One TV in the Milwaukee Brewers’ clubhouse at PNC Park was tuned in to the Los Angeles Dodgers-Washington Nationals game late Wednesday night. The other was tuned to the Houston Astros-St. Louis Cardinals game.
Are the Brewers scoreboard watching?
“No, definitely not,” quipped closer John Axford. “There aren’t a couple games on TV.”
Of course the Brewers are keeping tabs on what their competitors for the second and final wild card in the National League are doing. But they’re also taking care of business on the field, which is the most important thing.
After beating the Pittsburgh Pirates, 3-1, for the sixth consecutive time behind yet another strong start — this one a seven-inning three-hitter by Marco Estrada — Milwaukee remained right in the thick of what continues to be a compelling chase for that last spot in the playoffs.
The Cardinals, currently in that second spot, held serve by beating the Astros. The Dodgers split a doubleheader with the Nationals to end the night two back. The Brewers remained 21/2 games back but dealt another blow to the Pirates’ hopes by dropping them to 41/2 behind and .500 at 74-74.
A second consecutive series sweep of Pittsburgh is now the next goal on the agenda for Milwaukee, winners of 22 of 28 and four games above .500 for the first time this season at 76-72.
“This is a lot of fun,” said Estrada. “This is exciting and we’re all very confident right now and feeling pretty good.”
Estrada was feeling good by the time he took the mound in the bottom of the first inning after watching Norichika Aoki boom a home run to right off rookie Pirates starter Kyle McPherson just two pitches into the game.
It was Aoki’s first leadoff homer and ninth of the season. It was also the NL-leading 185th homer of the season for the Brewers, matching their total for all of last season.
“You get ahead in any game right away, it’s a great feeling for a pitcher,” Estrada said. “You’ve just got to try to keep the game close.”
Despite feeling “a little weird” in the bullpen after a full seven days between starts, Estrada shook off some early rustiness and found his groove quickly. He struck out the side in the second with a Michael McKenry doubled mixed in, and erased a one-out walk in the third by getting Starling Marte to ground into a 5-4-3 double play.
He faced one over the minimum — a single by Pedro Alvarez — before leaving after seven complete.
“He’s really throwing the ball well,” said manager Ron Roenicke. “He’s another one of the starters that’s putting up a lot of zeros and really, we need it. We need the starters to hold these guys and give our offense a chance. And night after night, it seems like they’ve been doing it.”
Estrada also did some damage with the bat. He drove in Jean Segura with a single to right in the fifth inning to give himself a 2-0 lead with which to work, then put the ball in play again in the seventh. Segura again scored, this time on an error by Brock Holt, to make it 3-0.
Jim Henderson took over in the eighth for Estrada and eventually struck out the side after making things interesting by allowing a leadoff single to Travis Snider and a walk to Holt.
The only mystery that remained heading into the ninth was whether the Brewers would be able to register their third consecutive shutout, a feat that had been accomplished only once previously in team annals — April 19-21, 1990.
Andrew McCutchen torched any hopes of that on a 1-2 pitch from John Axford, belting a homer to right to make it 3-1. That left the Brewers to settle for 26 consecutive scoreless innings, and Axford to bemoan his place in the streak.
“I already saw on Twitter I was the last one to give up runs on this team — I gave up a two-run homer (on Sept. 15) and I gave up a solo homer (to McCutchen),” he said.
Axford recovered quickly, though, and worked his way through the remainder of the inning with Snider’s groundout to Segura ending it. Axford now has 30 saves, joining Dan Plesac (1988-‘89) as just the second player in franchise history to notch at least 30 in consecutive seasons.
As a member of a once-beleaguered bullpen that’s been clutch throughout the Brewers’ current run, Axford is now enjoying the success.
“It’s been great,” said Axford, who has saved 12 straight. “Especially in games like today, keeping games close, pitching out of jams. It keeps the bullpen on our toes, too, down there. It gets you excited. When you see good pitching, it breeds good pitching at the same time.
“Luckily that’s the way things have been going for us.”
Brewers keep distance in pursuitAfter beating the Pittsburgh Pirates, 3-1, for the sixth consecutive time behind yet another strong start — this one a seven-inning three-hitter by Marco Estrada — Milwaukee remained right in the thick of what continues to be a compelling chase for that last spot in the playoffs.