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Braun's homer gives Brewers NL Central crown

By Colin Fly

AP Sports Writer

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 08:50 p.m. HST, Sep 23, 2011


MILWAUKEE >> Ryan Braun stepped into the box when a familiar feeling overcame him. Just like in 2008, the Brewers homegrown slugger propelled Milwaukee back into the postseason.

"It's not new," Prince Fielder said. "That's what he does."

Braun hit a three-run, go-ahead homer in the eighth with chants of "M-V-P" ringing throughout the sellout crowd and the Milwaukee Brewers beat the Florida Marlins 4-1 on Friday night to win their first division title since 1982.

"I think for me honestly, I live for that moment. You play the game to have the opportunity to play meaningful games down the stretch in September," Braun said. "I truly expected to come through in that situation."

Fielder also homered for Milwaukee, which clinched the NL Central and reached the postseason at the earliest date in team history after waiting 20 minutes for the Cubs to finish off their 5-1 win over the Cardinals.

With most of sellout crowd still in its seats, fireworks went off again after the Cardinals lost and fans were showered with confetti and streamers.

Nearly an hour after the Cubs' victory, Fielder took a victory lap around the field, hugging several of the nearly 5,000 fans that stayed to party.

Braun homered off Clay Hensley (6-7) to end a 1-for-16 skid. He then pointed his bat in the air toward owner Mark Attanasio and the fans before rounding the bases.

"I definitely knew I hit it pretty good. It felt amazing," Braun said. "It just feels so good, all of us as a team, to be in this moment."

It was reminiscent of his 2008 homer on the last day of the season that lifted Milwaukee to its first postseason appearance since winning the AL East in 1982. Now, they're back.

"It's eerily similar," said Braun, who signed a $105 million extension this season that keeps him in Milwaukee through 2020. "Having the opportunity to watch the last couple of innings of somebody else's game feels almost identical.

"Obviously a little better, though, because we won our division instead of the wild card," he said.

In 2008, the Brewers waited for the Marlins to eliminate the Mets before they could celebrate.

Shortly after the Cardinals' first out, the team congregated in the Brewers clubhouse, passing out champagne and preparing for its second celebration in four seasons.

The stadium has remained packed even though this season hasn't been as dramatic as '08. Milwaukee built a 10½-game lead midway through August over St. Louis, and even though the Cardinals whittled it down, time ran out.

"It means a lot, we've got a great team, the fans are with us all here," Fielder said. "I'm just glad we're able to do it, we've got a little ways to go, but I'm going to enjoy the hell out of this. Hopefully, we go all the way."

Milwaukee fell to the Cardinals in seven games in the 1982 World Series, but even that season they didn't have a home-field advantage like this.

The Brewers are 53-23 at Miller Park, one win away from tying the most home wins in franchise history.

Brewers starter Yovani Gallardo pitched into the eighth, setting two franchise records for strikeouts before leaving when Emilio Bonifacio singled and second baseman Rickie Weeks couldn't handle a throw that put two on.

Francisco Rodriguez (6-2) came in and struck out Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison to end the inning, pumping his fist and beating his chest after escaping the jam.

Corey Hart doubled off Hensley with one out and Nyjer Morgan walked to bring up Braun. Milwaukee had been 0 for 7 with runners in scoring position before Braun's at-bat.

After fouling a pitch off and working the count to 3-1, Braun hit Hensley's slider to deep left-center field, hitting off the scoreboard supports, then returned for a curtain call from the crowd of 44,584.

"Ryan loves the big stage," Attanasio said.

John Axford converted his 44th save in 46 chances with a perfect ninth, including the last 41 in a row, but had to pause with two outs in the ninth when the Cubs-Cardinals score was displayed after Alfonso Soriano hit a three-run homer.

Milwaukee has made three previous trips to the playoffs, but never was assured a spot until either the next to last day or final day of the season.

Fielder's homer off Chris Volstad was his 35th this year, but that was the only mistake the lanky right-hander made. Volstad deserved better. He scattered five hits and struck out five, but hasn't won a start since July 10.

The Marlins tied it in the fourth when Sanchez doubled and scored on Petersen's two-out single. Braun made a diving catch in the fifth, setting the stage for his big at-bat.

"That may have been the turning point of the game," Marlins manager Jack McKeon said.

General manager Doug Melvin said his goal coming into the season was to drop confetti from the Miller Park roof, just like in 2008. In the offseason, he decided to keep Fielder, a free agent to be, and built the starting rotation by trading away his farm system's top talent.

In the span of two weeks in December, Melvin dealt his starting shortstop, backup center fielder, top pitching prospect, top hitting prospect and two pitchers who projected to be no worse than major league relievers.

The returns included 2009 AL Cy Young winner Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. Melvin said the Brewers were all-in, just liked they were in 2008 when they traded for CC Sabathia at midseason.

The gamble paid off again, but it took longer than expected for rookie manager Ron Roenicke.

Milwaukee remained in third place behind Pittsburgh and St. Louis on July 25. Milwaukee then won 27 of 32 to take a 10½-game lead in the NL Central.

"I know the team always felt like we were going to play good ball," Roenicke said. "It didn't take long for us to turn that around."

Milwaukee joined the NL in 1998 and watched St. Louis win seven division titles while the Brewers remained mostly in the bottom of the division.

Things began changing when Attanasio, an L.A. investment banker, purchased the Brewers in September 2004 from Commissioner Bud Selig's family and steadily raised the payroll, up to more than $85 million to start this season.

Milwaukee holds losing records against the Phillies, Braves and Diamondbacks — the other three NL teams in line to join them in the postseason. This time, the Brewers come in as a team built on pitching with a potent offense.

"It's the most fun you can possibly have," Attanasio said. "The thing about all our guys, they really pull together."

NOTES: Marlins closer Leo Nunez admitted Friday to using fake documents and a fake ID to sign a professional contract more than a year ago and Dominican authorities arrested a man accused of falsifying Nunez's documents. ... With Nunez gone, McKeon will finish the season mixing and matching who will close games. ... Morgan received an award as the team's high energy player of the year, and his alter ego, Tony Plush, got a second trophy in a lighthearted moment. ... Greinke (15-6, 3.75 ERA) faces Marlins RHP Alex Sanabia (0-0, 1.29) in the second of this three-game series on Saturday night.






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