Brewers starter Yovani Gallardo delivers a pitch agianst the Diamonbacks… (Morry Gash / Reuters )
Reporting from Milwaukee — With the Milwaukee Brewers back in the playoffs, Ryan Braun was going to be excited no matter what. But watching Yovani Gallardo pitch down the stretch made Braun's imagination race.
"He's been great his whole career," Braun said Saturday. "I've watched him a lot. He and I started together in the minor leagues. In the last month he's taken a step forward. He's been dominant. I'd put him up there with any team's ace."
Braun was speaking after Gallardo and Jon Axford combined on a four-hitter to beat Arizona, 4-1, in their playoff opener, which was a one-sided affair that showed why Milwaukee may have its first World Series team since 1982.
Prince Fielder hit a home run after Manager Kirk Gibson dared to allow 21-game winner Ian Kennedy to pitch to him with first base open, the .332-hitting Braun had a three-hit game and Manager Ron Roenicke was rewarded for his decision to start Jerry Hairston Jr. over the slumping Casey McGehee at third base.
Fielder's two-run homer pulled into the right-field seats touched off a wild celebration among the 44,122 at Miller Park, and in the Brewers' dugout. Fielder punched his fist so hard crossing the plate that Braun said after he was "really fortunate" to get out of the way of a spontaneous haymaker.
Like Braun, Fielder is experiencing a level of excitement he didn't have when the Brewers made the playoffs in 2008. This time around, Milwaukee is positioned to stand toe to toe with the other seven playoff teams.
"I think it starts with our pitching," Fielder said. "Our pitchers have been excellent. It starts there."
In a league featuring the highly decorated rotations in Philadelphia and San Francisco, it has been a transformed Milwaukee staff that has given up fewer runs than anyone else after the All-Star break. The Brewers have succeeded exactly as General Manager Doug Melvin hoped when he added Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf and Francisco Rodriguez over the last two seasons.
Gallardo, the homegrown ace, leads the way. He avoided a first-inning deficit Saturday when Braun cut down Willie Bloomquist at the plate, and carried a shutout into the eighth inning. Ryan Roberts' home run took that away, but no one seemed to care. The right-hander struck out nine batters and walked one.
"He had a real good fastball," Gibson said. "He was painting on the outside corner. Very firm there. He was right on the edge of the zone. He has a good breaking ball. He pitched a great game."
While Gibson talks about "a long series," the Brewers are positioned to make it a short one. They have Greinke, the 2009 American League Cy Young Award winner, set to work against Daniel Hudson in Game 2 — a matchup that favors them more than did Gallardo versus Kennedy — and then will enjoy the advantage of a deeper rotation.
The Brewers have been built for this season — possibly the last one they'll have with Fielder, who is a free agent after the season — and seem prepared to make the most of it.
"We have a lot of fun," Braun said. "We try to enjoy ourselves every day. I think we've created an atmosphere and environment that's conducive to winning and to success. We really enjoy coming to the ballpark."