ST. LOUIS -- A few more games like this would help calm what catcher Johnny Estrada this week called the "panic zone" back in Milwaukee. Claudio Vargas pitched past the sixth inning for the first time all season, and the Brewers offense bashed 19 hits in a 12-2 win over the Cardinals at Busch Stadium on Friday that was twice delayed by rain. Vargas waited out a quick, seven-minute delay at the start, and then a 39-minute pause in the third inning before tying his career high with eight innings pitched. He struck out eight while allowing two runs on nine hits. Just as importantly, Vargas (9-2) positioned the Brewers nicely for a day-night doubleheader on Saturday. The team picked up a game on the Cubs, who lost in Cincinnati and now trail the National League Central-leading Brewers by three games.
Estrada went 2-for-4 after missing the previous three games with a tight hamstring, and was front and center in manager Ned Yost's pregame engagement with reporters. Estrada told SI.com reporter John Donovan about what Donovan described as the "nail-biting fans" in Milwaukee and the "ready-to-pounce media" waiting for the Brewers to blow their division lead. "It's unbelievable, the mentality here," Estrada told the Web site. "When I was in Atlanta, they won 14 straight championships. We could lose eight straight and you'd get the same response: 'No big deal.' When you're used to winning, it's a different attitude. A different feeling. A different mentality. Here, it's like a panic zone. This is a different team. I guess, every year, when things go bad, it's like, 'Here we go again.'" Asked about those comments before the series began in St. Louis, Yost agreed. "Our team is not panicking," said Yost, who has instructed his players to avoid scanning the Internet, reading the papers or listening to sports radio. "It's outside the clubhouse. He's a little bit right. ... "There's a lot of stuff that fans don't understand about this game. They think it looks really, really easy, and it's not. Not having won for 25 years, yes, the fans are nervous. They don't know how to handle it. My only advice to them is just relax. Sit back and enjoy it right now, have fun with it. That's what we're doing." His players did just that on Friday, jumping on Cardinals starter Mike Maroth (0-4) in the third inning. The Brewers sent 10 men to the plate in the inning and scored three runs before the longer rain delay, then tacked on two runs more after Maroth returned. Corey Hart hit a solo home run in the fourth inning, and the Brewers scored four more runs in the fifth inning against Maroth and reliever Kelvin Jimenez, and the rout was on. Kevin Mench matched a career high with four hits. Hart and Bill Hall had three hits apiece, and Tony Graffanino led the way with three RBIs. "We need it right now," Vargas said. "The last series in Cincinnati, we were struggling to score some runs and we come here and we start again. It was really big tonight. Hopefully it can be like that for the whole series." Maroth, Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa and catcher Gary Bennett all said Maroth was tipping his pitches beginning in the first inning. "Whenever he made good pitches, they hit them," said Bennett, a former Brewer. "When he made bad pitches, they crushed them." The way Vargas pitched, it didn't matter. He could have pitched into the seventh inning in his previous start, but the Brewers instead opted to pinch-hit in the middle of a sixth-inning rally. This time, Vargas got his chance and he struck out the side in the seventh, then pitched through the eighth inning for the first time since 2003 with Montreal. The Brewers improved to 15-3 when he starts. "My last two outings, I feel better," Vargas said. "I'm pounding the zone more early in the count, and I'm making the hitter make contact more early in the count," he said. "That's why I have been able to throw more innings." Recently-acquired reliever Scott Linebrink made his Brewers debut with a scoreless ninth inning. He struck out Ryan Ludwick on three pitches, then walked the next hitter but induced a game-ending double play. Linebrink arrived just a few hours before the game and was glad to get his first inning of work since Monday. "There's a lot of extra emotions playing into all of that," the former San Diego Padre said. "So to come in here [Saturday] knowing that I've already put on the uniform on once and gone out there and done the job, [it] helps you relax a little bit." After playing the last few seasons with the Padres, a team that plays home games in spacious PETCO Park, and known for quality pitching and spotty offense, Saturday's 12-run outburst was nice, too. "I'll tell you what, that was good to see some two-out hitting with runners in scoring position in that [third inning]," Linebrink said. "That's something I hadn't seen a whole lot of this year."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.