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CBSSports.com Senior Baseball Columnist

Properly strapped in, Brewers' Wolf is one focused jock


It's not a stretch to say Randy Wolf delivers in a clutch situation for Milwaukee. (Getty Images)  
It's not a stretch to say Randy Wolf delivers in a clutch situation for Milwaukee. (Getty Images)  

ST. LOUIS -- Not to brag, but I'm about to take you so deep inside the art of pitching that you won't even hear this secret from the most respected coaches in the game.

Ready? Here goes: With the entire city of Milwaukee hanging on Randy Wolf's Game 4 start, one of the earliest signs that all systems were go in his beautifully pitched 4-2 NL Championship Series victory against the Cardinals came during his pregame warmup in the bullpen.

His jock strap didn't break.

Yes, all you Little League and high school coaches, gather 'round and heed this advice: A sturdy jock strap can lead to untold success.

You thought that maybe the Diamondbacks' shelling him in Game 4 last round was the Peter Principle at work (a person rises to the level of his incompetence)? Um, not really. But something like that.

Six warmup pitches in last week in Phoenix, one of the straps on his jock snapped. Just snapped.

NLCS: Brewers at Cardinals
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"There was panic," Wolf admitted after schooling the Cardinals here Thursday night, limiting them to two runs on six hits in seven innings.

Darn right there was.

"That sleeve to put the cup in, it's not the easiest thing to do," Wolf said. "Especially when your adrenalin is pumping."

He dispatched bullpen coach Marcus Hanel to fetch a new jock and, by the time that was retrieved and Wolf quickly changed, he figures, "I probably cut my warmups by 15 pitches."

Randy Wolf is a pitcher who needs a clear mind and a good plan when he starts a game. He is not overpowering. His stuff is the opposite of "filthy." He puts one carefully placed pitch on top of the next to begin laying his foundation, and if he can continue in that vein, by the time he departs, he has left a trail of riddles and mysteries that cuts straight through his opponent's exasperation.

"It threw him for a loop when it happened," George Kottaras, who has become Wolf's personal catcher this season, said of the personal snafu just before Wolf was lit up in the desert last week. "He was frustrated."

Talk about giving new meaning to the term "personal catcher."

"He didn't really have to explain it," Kottaras said. "I saw it dangling, I guess. I was flustered.

"It was a mess."

There were no messes as Wolf dispatched the Cardinals on 107 pitches to guarantee that this series returns to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Sunday.

There was nothing, um, dangling ... except, perhaps, raw nerves in a couple of cities that have seen the Brewers and the Cardinals, over 22 games so far this season, battle to an 11-11 record.

Game 7 could be one whale of a tiebreaker.

"I'll be honest with you," said Wolf, who was torched by the Diamondbacks that night for seven earned runs and eight hits in three innings. "The day after the Diamondbacks start, I didn't eat or shower that day.

"I don't know if they call that depression, but it was tough to swallow."

What a difference a killer breaking ball and quality undergarments can make: On Thursday, Wolf became the only one of the eight starters so far in this series to produce a quality start (at least six innings pitched while allowing three or fewer runs).

He also became the only Brewers pitcher in this NLCS so far to hold the Cardinals scoreless in the first inning.

Credit the Brew Crew's success on this night to nothing snapping for Wolf but his big bender of a curve, and to general manager Doug Melvin's astute acquisition of Jerry Hairston Jr. from Washington on July 30.

Employing Hairston like a lucky rabbit's foot, manager Ron Roenicke has iced regular-season third baseman Casey McGehee in favor of the streaking Hairston. The guy has hit in eight of Milwaukee's nine postseason games so far, batting .375 with five doubles, four RBI and six runs scored.

His most recent visit to home plate came in the fourth inning Thursday, tying the game at 2, when he swiped his left hand across the dish with an acrobatic slide maneuvering around catcher Yadier Molina.

"What's amazing is, when he first got here, he was playing center field," veteran infielder Craig Counsell said. "This guy can play center field and third base at a pretty high level. Not many people can do that in the major leagues.

"This guy is a really good player."

I don't think many people realize just how good of a player. He played an incredibly underrated role on San Diego's stunning 90-win team in 2010, so big of a role that the 10-game losing streak that wrecked the Padres' season coincided with Hairston's being placed on the disabled list with a strained right elbow.

Then, right after he came back in mid-September, he was lost for the season with a fracture in his right shin. Again not coincidentally, the Padres were cooked.

"That destroyed me," Hairston said. "That was the toughest winter. We were seven games up on the Giants, and for me to watch that, that's the most painful thing I've gone through."

Now, it's as if he's making up for lost time.

And that he is threatening to take over this series is among the least strangest of developments.

From the power of Prince Fielder, the brawn of Ryan Braun and the muscle of Albert Pujols, we took a sharp turn to the finesse of Wolf, who lasted longer than Chris Carpenter, Yovani Gallardo or Zack Greinke.

Manager Ron Roenicke pairs him with a personal catcher because Kottaras is in "rhythm" with Wolf. Yes. Rhythm.

Alex, I'll take Dancing With the Brewers for $100, please.

"I like to give him the ball quick," Kottaras explained.

Rhythm is important because there is a 23 mph or so difference in some of Wolf's pitches. According to the Web site Fangraphs.com, Wolf's curve averages 67.7 mph, second-slowest in the game behind Livan Hernandez (66.4). But Wolf's fastball tops out at 90. Add, subtract, in, out, up, down, swing your partner round and round.

"He was great, man," Counsell said. "He was on top of his game.

"We needed it. It was a big moment."

When Wolf is on, he is masterful.

And when his jock strap is on, look out.

In that three-inning disaster in Arizona last week, mixed into his 81 pitches were only 41 strikes and 40 balls.

Thursday in St. Louis, in 107 pitches, 74 were strikes.

"Today, I was throwing my curve for strikes," he said. "Last game, I wasn't.

"That was the difference."

Correction. That was the visible difference.

In St. Louis, on the most important evening of Milwaukee's season, he didn't so much need run support as ... um, other support.


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