Gallardo, Rodriguez, Axford get the needed strikeouts
George Kottaras, who usually does not catch Gallardo, went out to the mound for a chat.
“We’re going to get through this,” Kottaras told his pitcher. “We’re going to get out of it.”
Gallardo didn’t say a word in return but he knew what he had to do.
“I knew I needed a strikeout right there,” said the 26-year-old right-hander.
Gallardo not only struck out that hitter, Geovany Soto, he whiffed the next one, too, freezing Marlon Byrd on a fastball on the outside corner. The Chicago Cubs’ rally fizzled Wednesday afternoon and the Brewers hung on for their third consecutive victory at Wrigley Field, a 2-1 nail-biter.
It took everything the Brewers had, including Kottaras’ two-run homer in the seventh and six strikeouts over the last two innings from Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford, to overcome a long-time nemesis, Cubs right-hander Ryan Dempster.
“He pitches great,” Kottaras said of Dempster, who allowed five hits over 6 2/3 innings. “He throws everything for strikes and kind of keeps us off-balance. It’s tough to get in a rhythm when he does that.”
It was Dempster’s third consecutive losing decision to the Brewers, but he is still 15-6 lifetime against them. And, for the longest time, it appeared he’d only need the run that came across in the first inning on Starlin Castro’s sacrifice fly.
As the game progressed, Gallardo figured there was no room to yield another run, and he figured right.
“Coming in after the first inning, I had to keep it there, not give up any more runs and give my team a chance to score some runs,” said Gallardo.
The seven innings of brilliance (five hits, two walks, six strikeouts) by Gallardo was a stark turnaround from his opening day pratfall against the St. Louis Cardinals, who pounded him for four home runs and six runs in 3 2/3 innings.
Gallardo had not one but two bullpen sessions after that with pitching coach Rick Kranitz, working on correcting his mistakes.
“I really focused on having the ball down in the strike zone,” said Gallardo. “My command was a lot better. I was a lot more aggressive with my fastball down in the strike zone, moving it around. And that was probably the best slider I’ve had in awhile.”
After the Brewers failed to capitalize on a first-and-third, one-out situation in the first inning and runners at second and third with one down in the second, Dempster settled in. He retired 11 hitters in a row during one stretch and cruised into the seventh inning with a three-hit shutout.
Mat Gamel led off the seventh with a double into the right-field corner before Alex Gonzalez struck out. Dempster then put a 2-1 slider in the wrong spot to Kottaras, who hammered it out to right for his second homer of the season.
“I wasn’t trying to hit a home run,” said Kottaras, filling in for No. 1 catcher Jonathan Lucroy. “I was just trying to put a good swing on it and off it went.”
As they often do, Rodriguez and Axford made things interesting over the last two innings. Rodriguez issued a pair of two-out walks in the eighth and Axford surrendered a two-out double by pinch-hitter Steve Clevenger in the ninth.
But, as they also do so often, the two wily relievers escaped via strikeouts. When Axford whiffed Reed Johnson to end it, he extended his club record to 45 consecutive regular-season saves.
“When we go to Frankie and ‘Ax,’ I like the outcome,” said Roenicke. “They may get some guys on base, but they make big pitches when you need to make a big pitch. They both can do it.”
And on this day, it was Gallardo who set that tone.