Jody Gerut hit his first Miller Park home run for the Brewers, a solo shot in the fifth inning, and Prince Fielder followed three batters later with a two-run blast for a 3-2 lead. Braun was working on a nice night himself, with three hits and a walk in his first four plate appearances, but his evening turned sour in the top of the 10th inning.
With Mike Burns (3-5) on the mound for Milwaukee, a runner at second base and two outs, pinch-hitter Darnell McDonald hit a line drive to left-center field and Braun took what could be described kindly as a circuitous route.
Braun wasn't so kind.
"A real bad route," Braun said. "It was one of those balls that looked like it got in on him a little bit more and jammed him. By the time I recognized that it didn't, it was too late. It was a crucial mistake in a big situation. That's another tough loss."
It was especially tough because the Brewers, who have been starved for quality pitching performances over the past two months, got one on Wednesday from starter Braden Looper, who limited the Reds to two runs in six innings. And it was also tough that the Reds' hero was McDonald, whose throw home from left field retired Braun in the bottom of the ninth inning on Tuesday, dousing a five-run Brewers rally and sending the teams to extra innings.
McDonald conceded that Burns' pitch jammed him, and he couldn't see initially whether Braun had made the catch. Reds manager Dusty Baker had a better view, and he took issue when a reporter characterized McDonald's hit as a fly ball.
"That was no fly ball. It was a line drive. That ball was hit a ton," Baker said. "That's a tough read right there. That ball had some backspin on it and took off. It was hit harder probably than Braun thought. He was probably playing a little shallow to throw the runner out at the plate. That was a matter of good hitting by us and we caught a break."
The Brewers used some good hitting against Cincinnati starter Kip Wells to build a middle-innings lead. They put at least one runner on base against Wells in each of the first four innings but couldn't score against him until the fifth, when Gerut lined a homer to the short porch in right field to cut the deficit to 2-1. Fielder followed minutes later with a two-run home run, his 34th this season.
Vargas surrendered the lead in the eighth when, with runners at the corners and one out, one-time Brewers prospect Kevin Barker tapped a grounder between third base and the pitcher's mound. Vargas scooped it up, looked the lead runner back to third but then sailed a throw way over Fielder's head at first, allowing the tying run to score.
Vargas recovered to strike out Drew Stubbs and Paul Janish with the bases loaded to preserve the 3-3 tie, but the damage was done.
"The defense cost us two runs," Brewers manager Ken Macha said quietly. "When you have one-run games, the defense is very important."
For the Brewers, the defense has not been very good over the past two nights. The team committed three errors on Wednesday.
Looper deserved a better fate after his second consecutive quality start. He surrendered a solo home run to former Brewers player Laynce Nix -- Nix's third of the series in only two games -- and an RBI single to Paul Janish in the fifth but allowed only three other hits.
"I felt all right," Looper said. "They did a really good job of fighting off a lot of pitches, and that made my pitch count get up there. I felt like I had really good command today."
The Brewers dropped to 12 games behind the first-place Cardinals in the National League Central, but Braun said, "We haven't looked at the standings for a while. There's no reason for us to focus on anything like that. We just focus on ourselves. I think everybody here has enough pride and integrity that we want to come out here and perform every day to win as many games as possible. We recognize the situation we're in."
Looper insisted that he hasn't seen any signs of players giving up, but there was at least one sign of frustration in the clubhouse late Wednesday night.
Coaches post the next day's schedule on a board by the clubhouse door, and this time it read, "Since we haven't performed well in day games this season, let's try something different tomorrow." It called for an 11:30 a.m. "mandatory team stretch" and added a promise: "Attendance will be taken!!!"
The schedule had obviously been torn down and then taped back up. One by one, players did double-takes as they passed the posting before heading home for the night.
Looper insisted that players are all still pulling in the same direction.
"We played hard today and we played hard yesterday against a really good bullpen," he said, referring to the first two games against the Reds. "I haven't seen anybody quit, and that's a positive thing about this team. We have a bunch of guys who are grinding it out."