Bullpen strong until Hoffman blows save

Bullpen strong until Hoffman blows save

MILWAUKEE -- Brewers manager Ken Macha slumped in his seat and said what everybody else was thinking.

"That," Macha said, "was a tough one."

Chalk it up as one of the Brewers' toughest losses all season, considering the way they scrambled to get the ball into Trevor Hoffman's steady right hand with a one-run lead in the ninth inning. But Hoffman surrendered a two-run homer to Matt Holliday, and the Cardinals escaped with a 4-3 win at Miller Park that spoiled a special game for the Brewers' bullpen.

Macha used seven relievers after starter Manny Parra exited with neck spasms after one inning, and the eight total arms matched a franchise record for a nine-inning game. The surest one was Hoffman, who was 30-for-32 in save chances this season and had converted his last 11 chances. And by the way, he's also Major League Baseball's all-time leader with 584 saves.

"The guys did a great job to get me the lead at the end of the game, and I didn't do my job," Hoffman said.

With one out in the ninth, Hoffman walked Albert Pujols, whose solo homer off David Weathers in the seventh inning made it a one-run game. That brought up Holliday, who was just 2-for-13 in his career against Hoffman.

Holliday fanned at a first-pitch slider before Hoffman fell behind in the count, 2-1. When Hoffman went back to the slider, Holliday didn't miss it.

"Any time against the greatest closer of all time, it's a special home run," Holliday said. "Albert gets on base, gives us a chance where with one swing of the bat we could take the lead. And I was able to do that.

"I'm just trying to get to him before he gets to his changeup. His changeup is obviously the pitch that has allowed him to be one of the greatest closers of all time. You try to get a fastball or a breaking ball and hope that it's up."

The long home run to center field was just the second Hoffman has allowed in 44 innings this year. Pujols and Holliday made up for a night on which Cardinals hitters were 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position and stranded 11 men on base.

"Give our [relievers] credit. They pitched their butts off," Macha said. "The only negative part was that we walked a few guys, and what that does is turn over their lineup. You give those two guys in the middle of their lineup five at-bats, they're going to do some damage, and that's what happened. That's a tough loss. A pretty intense game, but a tough loss."

The Brewers were two outs away from an intensely gratifying win, even if it meant losing Parra to an injury. He stranded two runners on base in a scoreless first inning but complained of a shooting pain in his neck and was pulled from the game.

When Prince Fielder belted a two-run homer off Cardinals starter John Smoltz in the bottom of the first inning, Carlos Villanueva was already warming up. Villanueva delivered three innings of stellar relief, striking out six. He got an insurance run on Mike Rivera's second-inning RBI single and would likely have gotten the win (Parra was ineligible, having not gone five innings) when Hoffman entered to "Hells Bells" in the ninth.

Along the way, the Brewers' offense had shut down -- no hits after the third inning -- while the Cardinals rallied in almost every inning. Parra stranded a runner at second base in the first inning and so did Villanueva in the second. Todd Coffey inherited a runner at third base with two outs in the fifth inning and induced a Pujols groundout.

St. Louis finally scored in a sixth inning that could have been much worse for the Brewers. Coffey loaded the bases with a couple of singles and a walk but induced a Yadier Molina double play that drove in a run. It turned into a fair trade for the Brewers when Mitch Stetter walked the first hitter he faced but retired Khalil Greene on a flyout, stranding another man at third.

Pujols homered in the seventh to make it 3-2, and the Cardinals were poised for more damage against Claudio Vargas in the eighth, partly because Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun made a poor decision to slide for a Ryan Ludwick double instead of keeping the ball in front of him for a single. That play forced Vargas to pitch around Mark DeRosa, who walked, and both runners moved up on a groundout.

Vargas intentionally walked Skip Schumaker to set up bases-loaded showdowns with a pair of Cardinals pinch-hitters, both of whom worked to full counts. Colby Rasmus struck out and Julio Lugo grounded out on Vargas' 37th pitch of the inning, and the lead was intact.

"It was a good battle," said Rivera, who made a rare start behind the plate on his 33rd birthday. "The bullpen had to suck it up on that one and I think we did a good job. When you face a lineup like the Cardinals', if you throw too many pitches, you know they're going to hurt you."

Macha had only one regret: the Pujols homer off Weathers. Including that hit, Pujols is 11-for-20 against the veteran reliever with three doubles, four home runs and 10 RBIs.

"But he got the first two guys out," Macha said. "I would have been asking Vargas to go 1 1/3 innings [had I pulled Weathers]. You can't expect it to be totally clean coming out of there when you're using everybody out of the bullpen."

Fielder ran his Major League-leading RBI total to 125, one shy of Cecil Cooper's 26-year-old franchise record, but the loss continued a heartbreaking homestand. The Brewers are 1-4 so far with three one-run losses and have scored a total of nine runs in those five games.

"Our bullpen [guys] pitched their heart and soul out," Macha said. "That was a tough one. This homestand has been marked with a bunch of tough ones."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.