MILWAUKEE (AP) — Yovani Gallardo could barely see the return tosses from catcher Jonathan Lucroy, losing them in the bright light filtering through the windows at Miller Park.
Imagine how the Diamondbacks felt.
Gallardo emerged from the shadows, outpitching Arizona ace Ian Kennedy as the Milwaukee Brewers kept winning at home with a 4-1 victory in their NL division series opener on Saturday.
“It was tough for me seeing the ball coming back, just having the sun there in the background. I was just hoping Luc didn’t throw one at my face,” Gallardo, who knew the shadows would play a role late. “When you have the lead, for myself, I was just going to keep going out and be aggressive knowing little things like that.”
Prince Fielder chased Kennedy with a two-out, two-run homer in the seventh inning, helping erase the stigma that the big slugger’s playoffs would be anything like 2008, when he went 1 for 14.
Same, too, with Gallardo.
The right-hander retired 14 of 15 during one stretch, perhaps helped by how the shadows cut across the infield. With an early start time, the sun peeked through the retractable roof all afternoon, creating a crazy, changing pattern.
“I’ve played here almost two years now, so I’ve kind of gotten used to it. But I can imagine some of the guys on the other team, and the umpires, too, having problems with it,” Lucroy said. “It’s tough. It’s hitting different. Dark, light, dark coming down through the strike zone. It’s tough to see sometimes.”
Gallardo gave up one run and four hits over eight innings and matched a postseason franchise record with nine strikeouts.
Gallardo was only nicked by Ryan Roberts’ home run in the eighth, and won in his first postseason start since a Game 1 loss in the 2008 NLDS to Philadelphia. An All-Star in 2010, he went 17-10 this season, yet is rarely mentioned among the elite pitchers in the game.
He’s even overshadowed — so to speak — on his own staff by 2009 AL Cy Young winner Zack Greinke.
“He’s been great his whole career, but I think if you look at the last month, he’s really taken a step forward,” Brewers star Ryan Braun said. “He’s been dominant. I think he’s thrown the ball better the last month than I’ve seen and I’ve seen him since we were in A ball together. I’ve gotten to see him throw a lot, and he’s really taken a step forward and I put him up there with any other ace in baseball.”
Game 2 is Sunday. Greinke will start for Milwaukee against Daniel Hudson.
Jerry Hairston Jr., playing in place of starter Casey McGehee, put the Brewers ahead for good in the fourth with a sacrifice fly set up by Fielder’s double.
Braun, who fell just short of the NL batting title, contributed three hits. The All-Star left fielder also threw out a runner at the plate in the first inning as Milwaukee’s shaky defense was suddenly solid.
John Axford pitched a perfect ninth for his first save after converting his last 43 in a row in the regular season. The Brewers started 1-0 at Miller Park after winning a major-league best 57 times at home during their run to the NL Central title.
Gallardo was at his best over his final three starts and reached more than 200 strikeouts for the second straight season. He never made a mark in the postseason in 2008 because he need surgery and missed almost five months after tearing a ligament in his right knee.
“It was even tougher for me. It’s my second start coming after surgery. There’s a lot going on,” Gallardo said. “I was nervous. Having the opportunity here today, it helped me out a lot.”
Gallardo got out of a first-inning jam thanks to Braun’s throw, then cruised until Willie Bloomquist singled in the sixth. Hairston ended that inning when he scooped up a weak grounder to third base by Justin Upton and threw him out as he tried sliding into first.
In the seventh, Lyle Overbay drove a ball to deep center field where Nyjer Morgan gathered it at the warning track before slamming into the wall to end the inning.
Fielder hit his second postseason home run in the seventh after Braun doubled, making it 4-0. Fielder finished 2 for 4, already topping his ‘08 disappointment.
“In ‘08, in my mind, it was a one-game playoff every day. I felt if we lost, the series was over every time, today I was just, like I said, enjoy it. We’ve got a five-game series,” Fielder said.
The Diamondbacks decided not to walk Fielder, who had 38 homers and 120 RBIs in the regular season.
“I’m not going to do that,” Kennedy said. “I just hung that curveball.”
Fielder and his teammates celebrated in the dugout after the shot that broke open the game. The fans also hailed Fielder — a free agent-to-be, he’s already said this is probably his last season in Milwaukee.
As they always do after home runs, Fielder and Braun engaged in a little shadow boxing.
“I think I was really fortunate in that I was able to duck in time because his right hook came quick today,” Braun said. “He was fired up.”
Gallardo’s lone mistake came when Roberts homered off him to start the eighth. But the 25-year-old struck out Gerardo Parra, pinch hitter Sean Burroughs and Bloomquist to end the inning.
Gallardo showed an uncharacteristic flash of emotion, too, slamming his right hand into his glove as he walked off the mound. He improved to 6-0 in six career starts against Arizona with a 1.18 ERA.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be a cakewalk,” Bloomquist said. “Chances are, we weren’t going to go undefeated all the way. We’ll get back after it tomorrow. We’re not going to panic.”
Milwaukee’s normal infield of Fielder, Rickie Weeks at second, Yuniesky Betancourt at short and McGehee at third committed 71 errors this year. With McGehee also struggling at the plate, manager Ron Roenicke started Hairston.
“I’m very confident playing just about anywhere, Hairston said. “I work extremely hard at it. It’s not easy.”
It worked in the field and at the plate.
Braun singled off Kennedy, a 21-game winner, to start the fourth. Fielder followed with a double down the left field line opposite the shift to put runners in scoring position and Kennedy hit Weeks to load the bases with no out. Hairston followed with a sacrifice fly.
Milwaukee took a 2-0 lead with a pair of two-out hits in the sixth. Betancourt tripled and scored when Lucroy’s bloop landed just between Bloomquist at short and Parra in left. Then came Fielder’s shot.
“If your stars don’t produce, you’re putting a lot of pressure on everybody else to try to pick it up. That’s not how we rolled this year,” Roenicke said. “We rolled because Brauny and Prince did their thing and everybody else fit in well with either getting on base for them or contributing down in the bottom of the order.”
Arizona, which has been aggressive under manager Kirk Gibson all season, tested Milwaukee’s defense from the start.
Bloomquist singled to lead off the game and easily stole second with one out. Upton singled and third base coach Matt Williams never hesitated sending Bloomquist home.
Braun’s throw from left needed two hops, but arrived perfectly to the left side of the Lucroy, who blocked the plate and tagged out Bloomquist.
Gallardo settled into a rhythm from there, mixing his slider and curveball with his sharp fastball as the long shadows crossed the playing field in the retractable roof ballpark that opened in 2001.
“Tomorrow will probably be even more challenging than today probably was, being a four o’clock start,” Braun said. “When you get ahead, it’s going to challenging for the other team to come back. It’s definitely not easy to see the ball.”