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Performer of the game: Brewers ace Gallardo

Performer of the game: Brewers ace Gallardo

Performer of the game: Brewers ace Gallardo
MILWAUKEE -- Yovani Gallardo has been on this stage before, but the circumstances surrounding his last postseason experience were much different than the atmosphere the young Brewers starter stepped into on Saturday afternoon.

Three years ago, Gallardo was fresh off the disabled list, Milwaukee's rotation beset with issues, and he was asked to take the mound in Philadelphia -- hardly a haven for an opposing pitcher -- for the opener of the National League Division Series.

"There was a lot going on," Gallardo said. "I was excited. I had a lot of adrenaline, but yet again, I was nervous at the same time."

Gallardo took the hill Saturday at Miller Park, where the riotous home fans roared and created a dizzying sea of twirling white towels. Working with the raucous atmosphere, the right-hander remained poised and in command, guiding the Brewers to a 4-1 victory over the D-backs in Game 1 of this NLDS.

The win was a continuation of the solid season that Gallardo fashioned for the NL Central-champion Brewers. More than that, though, it was another entry on a growing list of signs that the 25-year-old is developing into a leader for Milwaukee's deep starting rotation.

It was a performance that left his teammates in awe.

"I'd put him up there with any other ace in baseball," said Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun. "It's not a fun day as an offense when he's locating his pitches."

Gallardo was doing just that at a maddening degree for Arizona's hitters.

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Over eight stellar innings, Gallardo piled up nine strikeouts, which tied Don Sutton's club record (Game 3 of the 1982 American League Championship Series against the Angels) for a single playoff game. Six of Gallardo's strikeouts were of the called variety, with five coming via fastball and one courtesy of a sharp slider.

Simply put, the D-backs were overmatched.

"He was just painting on the outside corner," said Arizona manager Kirk Gibson. "He was right on the edge of the zone. ... He had our number. We were unable to make the adjustment."

Instead, it was Gallardo who did the adjusting after a rough first inning.

At 1:07 p.m. CT, Gallardo fired the first pitch of this NLDS -- a 93-mph heater -- and Willie Bloomquist opened the game by drilling the baseball into center field for a single. Bloomquist then stole second base to move into scoring position for Justin Upton, a contender for Most Valuable Player honors.

Upton ripped a one-out offering into left field and Bloomquist hustled around third base with scoring in mind. Braun retrieved the ball and came up firing, sending a two-hop relay to catcher Jonathan Lucroy. Bloomquist arrived a touch ahead of the throw, but Lucroy's block of the plate and subsequent tag silenced the rally.

"It was a big play," Lucroy said. "I think it was a momentum-shifter."

The play certainly gave Gallardo a chance to collect himself.

"If that run scores, it might be a whole different ballgame," Gallardo said. "After that play there on the base hit, I was able to calm down, relax and just pitch my game."

The rest of the way, the lone blemish on Gallardo's line was a home run from Ryan Roberts in the eighth inning. Prior to that, Gallardo had retired 19 of the 21 hitters he encountered. Following Roberts' home run, the pitcher struck out three in a row for an overpowering end to his outing.

Gallardo's success began and ended with his fastball. That pitch made the others more effective.

"Outstanding fastball," said Brewers manager Ron Roenicke. "It had life on it. His location was great. He mixed in some huge breaking pitches at times. Great curveball. The slider, he threw some really good sliders. Really, he pitched off his fastball and commanded it very well."

That approach helepd Gallardo -- in his fifth big league season with the Brewers -- run to a 17-10 record with a 3.52 ERA this season. The starter has elevated his game over the past month, though. Including the regular season, Gallardo has gone 3-0 with a 1.59 ERA with 45 strikeouts and four walks over 28 1/3 innings in his past four turns.

"He's been great his whole career," Braun said. "But I think if you really look at the last month, it's like he's really taken a step forward. He's been dominant. He's thrown the ball better over the last month than I've ever seen, and I've seen him since we were in A ball together.

"I've had a chance to see him throw a lot, and I think he's really taking a step forward."

The Brewers do not expect that to change.

"Yo is stepping up in the big games all year this year," said closer John Axford, who collected the save. "He's just been unbelievable. I think I said it before, he's a Cy Young candidate, and he pitches like it. And he's been doing it all year.

"If he's not going to be in the top five soon, he will be definitely in a couple years, because he's just an incredible starter, and he showed it today."

Gallardo showed flashes of his potential back in 2008, when Milwaukee lost its NLDS pairing with Philadelphia in four games. In that Game 1, Gallardo's second start following a right knee injury that sidelined him nearly five months, he yielded three unearned runs over seven innings of a loss.

It was an intimidating situation that aided Gallardo's learning process.

"It helped me out a lot," he said, "just having that experience."

Gallardo might get a chance to build on his latest experience soon.

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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