Close loss all but assures Cards road trip
A late slump has assured the St. Louis Cardinals that they'll open the postseason on the road. Still to be decided is whether Kyle Lohse or John Smoltz will get the final spot in the NL Central champions' playoff rotation.
The Cardinals lost for the fifth time in six games since clinching the division, 5-4 to Ryan Braun and the Milwaukee Brewers on Saturday.
Lohse (6-10) worked six innings and allowed five runs, but only two earned. Tony La Russa will pick between Lohse and Smoltz for the fourth starting spot - the manager wouldn't tip his hand while judging that Lohse did "mostly good things."
"Obviously I want to start, but that's not up to me," Lohse said. "I think Smoltzie and I are both just sitting there going, 'Just let us know what we're doing."'
The Cardinals have dropped to the third playoff seed ahead of only the wild-card winner.
"We're definitely not firing on all cylinders," La Russa said. "If it's true that we lost a little focus or lost an edge, that's not our style. The fact is we've gotten beat and at some places it has not been pretty, but we'll see if we can pretty tomorrow afternoon."
A late-season offensive splurge enabled Braun to reach 200 hits for the first time with one game to spare. He hit a two-run homer in the first inning and added an infield hit.
Braun is batting .432 (16 for 37) during an eight-game hitting streak with three homers and 10 RBIs.
"It wasn't something I was thinking about at all, it wasn't on my radar," Braun said. "I'm swinging the bat well, and it's always nice to finish the season strong individually and as a team."
Second baseman Julio Lugo made two of the Cardinals' three errors, which matched a season high. His wild throw on Alcides Escobar's two-out, bases-loaded grounder allowed the tying and go-ahead runs to score in the sixth as the ball sailed over the heads of first baseman Albert Pujols and Lohse when both scurried to cover the bag.
Lohse was afraid somebody was going to get hurt and La Russa would have preferred Lugo go to second for a force.
"I tried to get to the ball but there wasn't any way I could have reached it without colliding with Albert," Lohse said. "I don't see anything good coming out of it, either one of us."
Braun leads the NL with 201 hits and is the fourth Brewer to top 200, joining Cecil Cooper, Paul Molitor and Robin Young. Cooper did it three times and Molitor twice. With one more steal in Sunday's finale, Braun will become the second Brewer to hit 30 homers and steal 20 bases.
Carlos Villanueva (4-10) won his first game as a starter in six attempts, allowing four runs in five innings. He had been 0-3 with a 6.38 ERA as a starter, and was filling in for Dave Bush (triceps).
"Honestly, I'm just glad I could get five innings and let the game be close when I left," Villanueva said.
Trevor Hoffman worked the ninth for his 37th save in 40 chances.
Pujols tied the major league single-season record with his 184th assist at first base on a flip to reliever Blake Hawksworth that beat pinch-hitter Corey Patterson in the eighth. He matched the mark set by Boston's Bill Buckner in 1985.
Brendan Ryan doubled twice while going 3 for 3 with an RBI, and kept himself alive in a rundown long enough to allow Pujols to get to second on a groundball in fifth. Ryan Ludwick had a two-run single in the first.
The Brewers had two hits and two walks against St. Louis closer Ryan Franklin but didn't score, after Craig Counsell was caught stealing on Braun's strikeout and Prince Fielder was out at the plate on Mike Cameron's third hit of the day.
The Cardinals are 14-15 since Sept. 1. ... Rick Ankiel struck out all three times against Villanueva, leaving two on in the first and the bases loaded in the fifth. He's 1 for 14 with eight strikeouts against the right-hander. ... Brewers pitcher Braden Looper has allowed 39 homers, by far the major league high. He allowed six runs in six innings Friday in the Brewers' comeback 12-6 victory, but no long balls. ... Braun leads the NL with 63 multihit games.