Cardinals clinch Central Division title while Brewers spin wheels again in wild-card chase

What had been apparent for over a month now finally became official on Tuesday night.

The St. Louis Cardinals are the 2022 National League Central Division champions.

It was a bitter pill to swallow to say the least for the Milwaukee Brewers, who'd led their rivals by four games just out of the all-star break only to see the Cardinals go roaring past them a few weeks later and never look back.

Milwaukee's 6-2 loss, as uninspiring a performance in a big moment by the team in recent memory, sealed the deal at American Family Field and left the Brewers with even less room for error now with eight games remaining on their season-defining homestand.

"They’re a good team," said Brent Suter, who was first man out of the bullpen. "They’ve got all the pieces; good starting pitching, good relief pitching, good lineup. Tough matchups all around. They’ve got a chance to do some damage in the playoffs, for sure.

"We hope to see them there, but they’re a good team."

Box score: Cardinals 6, Brewers 2

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The Philadelphia Phillies lost at the Chicago Cubs as well so the Brewers remained 1 ½ games behind in the race for the third wild-card spot – yet another missed opportunity to gain ground.

"We need to try and win as many of those (eight games) as we can," said Christian Yelich. "Obviously we’re not in a position where we control our own destiny, so we (need to) give ourselves the best chance possible by winning as many of these last eight as we can.

"We’ll see what happens. Hopefully we’ll get lucky and we’ll make it in."

Not helping their cause will be another injury suffered by one of their pitchers – this time starter Adrian Houser, who exited after only 3 ⅓ innings with what appeared to be a fairly significant right groin strain.

The Cardinals scored a single run in each of the first two innings off Houser – and both were compliments of the Brewers.

In the first, Brendan Donovan led off with a drive to center that Garrett Mitchell actually overran a bit, with the ball sailing over his head and landing for a double.

A groundout and Paul Goldschmidt sacrifice fly then plated him.

In the second, Dylan Carlson doubled with one out, moved to third on a groundout and scored on a two-out wild pitch that Houser spiked out front of home plate.

Houser worked around a leadoff walk to post a scoreless third before injury struck in the fourth.

One out into the fourth and in a 2-2 count against Albert Pujols – who was greeted warmly prior to his first at-bat as he plays his final games in Milwaukee before retiring – Houser strained his groin delivering a pitch.

After a quick discussion with head athletic trainer Scott Barringer, Houser was removed from the game, and TV cameras showed the right-hander walking very gingerly down the dugout steps.

Counsell said afterward the injury would likely require a stint on the injured list.

"It was just on that last pitch, on that slider; just right at the finish of the pitch when I was letting it go, I felt a pull or a pop in the groin or abductor area," Houser said. "I knew right then that it wasn’t good.

"It wasn’t just a little tightness that I could keep pushing through."

Then, to quite literally add insult to injury, Houser's replacement, Brent Suter, threw Ball 4 to Pujols on his first pitch out of the bullpen with the walk going on Houser's ledger.

Two batters later, Suter surrendered a two-run homer to No. 8 hitter Andrew Knizner, who entered the game 1 for 36 at the plate in the month of September and having gone deep just twice all season.

"The pitch to Pujols was just a little bit off," said Suter. "The one to Knizner was one I threw with a lot of conviction up in the zone like I wanted, but he put a good swing on it, hit it off the yellow and it got out of there.

"That was a huge play in the game and I hated to be on the opposite end of it but sometimes you just gotta tip your cap. I threw that pitch with everything I had. It tracked the way I usually get weak contact there; he just got good hold of it."

Mitchell had a shot at bringing the ball back but came up just short as it hit on top of the wall, bounced over and then back onto the field.

Miles Mikolas, who'd entered 2-2 with a 3.71 earned run average in four starts against Milwaukee this season, was untouchable for the Cardinals with three perfect innings to open.

The Brewers finally got to him in the fourth on an infield single by Willy Adames, two-out single by Hunter Renfroe and walk by Kolten Wong to load the bases. But Mikolas came back to strike Keston Hiura out on four pitches and strand the bases loaded.

St. Louis answered with a one-out double by Lars Nootbaar and subsequent RBI single by Goldschmidt that made it a 5-0 game.

Then in the sixth, a two-out RBI single by pinch-hitter Juan Yepez off Trevor Gott upped it to 6-0.

Mikolas (12-13) allowed a solo homer to Rowdy Tellez in the bottom of the frame that scuttled the shutout, but his overall line – six innings, four hits, one run, one walk and nine strikeouts – in a clinching situation for St. Louis was almost as unsurprising as it was impressive.

"He did a really good job getting ahead," Counsell said. "Our hitters were behind in the count, he was just making quality pitches and it didn’t feel like we got a lot of pitches to hit. He located his stuff well and threw a lot of strikes."

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The Brewers utilized six pitchers overall, although the number would likely have been lower had Houser not been injured.

The Cardinals got an inning from Andre Pallante and then the final two from closer Ryan Helsley, who threw the fastest pitch of the season in the eighth to Tellez – a 104.2-mph fastball – that the Brewers first baseman hit 109.6 mph but right to shortstop Paul DeJong.

An infield single by Mitchell in the seventh drove in the final run of the game.

Omar Narváez's check-swing tapper back to Helsley ended the game, and the Cardinals gathered on the infield for a rather low-key celebration afterward followed by champagne and beer showers in the visitors' clubhouse.

"We just didn’t really play well enough," Yelich opined. "Doesn’t matter if it’s this field, their field or another field. We just didn’t really play well enough all season to deserve winning the division.

"You get what you deserve in sports a lot and we just, for whatever reason, weren’t able to put it all together. Not saying we don’t still have a shot. We still have a shot at a wild card. We have eight games left and are a few back, so we have to try to finish strong."

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Cardinals clinch NL Central title, Brewers 1.5 back in wild-card race