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ARI@MIL Gm5: Morgan sends the Brewers to the NLCS

MILWAUKEE -- The Brewers' task was crystal-clear from the first day of Spring Training, when Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum were getting comfortable with a team that finally had a contender-quality pitching staff:

Win the National League Central, but don't stop there.

"If we would have lost today," Ryan Braun said amid a shower of champagne on Friday night, "I think everything we accomplished all year would have been meaningless. We needed a win today to have our own legacy."

And now they do, though it took longer and forced a few more heart palpitations than any of the Brewers had hoped. A hysteria-inducing 3-2 win over the D-backs in Game 5 clinched the NL Division Series in front of 44,028 fans, sending the Brewers to a League Championship Series for the first time since 1982. They played the California Angels then, and Milwaukee was an American League town.

They faced the Cardinals in that World Series, fitting considering those teams will meet again in the NLCS. The Brewers won a win-or-go-home NLDS Game 5 on Friday that was decided in the bottom of the 10th inning on Nyjer Morgan's single after John Axford's first blown save since mid-April.

Cecil Cooper, meet Tony Clutch.

Morgan, a.k.a. Tony Plush and a plethora of other personalities, gave the Brewers their first postseason series win in 29 years, and gave the franchise an iconic hit to celebrate alongside Cooper's go-ahead single in the decisive Game 5 of the '82 AL Championship Series to send the Brewers to their only World Series.

General manager Doug Melvin, the man who acquired Morgan four days before Opening Day when the Nationals were looking to dump a player they viewed as a problem, grabbed both sides of Morgan's head amid the clubhouse chaos and screamed Morgan's signature sendoff: "Ahhhhhhhhh!"

"One man's trash is another's treasure!" Morgan bellowed. He danced around wearing the same S.W.A.T. Team helmet he donned when the club clinched the NL Central last month. "Of course, [his series] started slow, but Plush is always going to finish strong."

How slow? Morgan was 2-for-15 in the series before his big moment, had snapped his bat over his knee after a fifth-inning popout and then misplayed a line drive in the sixth. But his winning hit to center field off Arizona's outstanding closer, J.J. Putz, turned Morgan's first career postseason series into a resounding success, fittingly scoring center-field platoon mate Carlos Gomez, who was at second base after a single and a steal.

Gomez raced home, and the beer started flowing.

"It's a blue-collar town; we're blue-collar kids getting after it," Morgan said.

The NLCS opponent still awaited as the Brewers celebrated with their deliriously towel-waving fans, but this much was clear: Milwaukee was four NLCS wins away from its first trip to the World Series since '82.

Game 1 of the NLCS is Sunday at 3 p.m. CT at Miller Park and on TBS, and when the Brewers punched their ticket carried a dose of import. Greinke was ready to enter Game 5 for the top of the 11th when the Brewers walked off winners. Instead, he will start Game 1 of the NLCS.

"This is just a lot of joy, man," said Prince Fielder, who bear-hugged the group of fans who stayed long after the confetti fell at Miller Park. "We've got to keep going, but this is awesome. I'm a little emotional."

A series that was more interesting than the Brewers had hoped -- they started with a 2-0 series lead, after all, and did not want to be the first NL team of 20 in the current postseason format to take that edge and squander it -- came down to a Game 5 that carried all the drama of the first four games combined.

The Brewers took a 2-1 lead into a ninth inning that Axford has owned all season, with 44 consecutive saves, including his 1-2-3 inning in Game 1. He had not allowed more than one hit in an outing since Aug. 6, a streak of 21 games. He had not allowed a run in 11 straight games.

But the D-backs struck quickly, starting with Gerardo Parra's first NLDS hit, a double to right-center field. Sean Burroughs showed bunt, but wound up blooping a single over shortstop, setting up Willie Bloomquist for a squeeze bunt that tied the game.

Fielder and Axford both charged, and Fielder might have had a play at the plate had he not stumbled and been unable to flip the baseball toward the plate. The squeeze tied the game at 2 and sent Milwaukee's season to the bottom of the ninth, then into extra innings.

With a clean scoop, might Fielder have had a play?

"No, I don't think so," he said. "It would have been an incredible play, but you can't assume I would have made that play. Unfortunately, I slipped. It worked out."

It worked out because Axford stranded the go-ahead runner at third base with help from Yuniesky Betancourt's acrobatic force play, then redeemed himself with a 1-2-3 10th. The Brewers punched their NLCS ticket moments later.

"I don't think there's any doubt going into the 10th, coming back with the top of the order, that there was any doubt we were going to get some guys on base and we were going to score," Axford said. "This has been a special year. You can't exactly say [losing] the game would have negated the year, but it definitely would have been disappointing. We don't want to stop here. We want to keep it going."

The early innings were just as high-stress for starter Yovani Gallardo, who needed 112 pitches for six innings but surrendered only one run, on a Justin Upton home run one pitch after Gallardo thought he had the batter struck out with a slider that instead was called ball three.

The Brewers tied the game in a fourth that could have been much worse for Arizona starter Ian Kennedy, then pushed ahead in the sixth with Betancourt's two-out single to center field.

"They had a great pitcher going for them, also, and we knew it was going to be a low-scoring game," Gallardo said. "After I gave up that home run, I knew I couldn't allow any more."

Kennedy, who lost to Gallardo in Game 1, was tougher this time. Milwaukee had a big inning brewing in the fourth, with the bases loaded and one out, but managed only one run. In the sixth, the Brewers had runners at first and third and again scored only once. Rickie Weeks -- 1-for-18 in the series -- popped out on a bunt before Jerry Hairston Jr. hit a drive to center that looked like it would elude D-backs center fielder Chris Young. Instead, Young conjured his inner Willie Mays and made a no-look catch.

"I tell you what, I don't think I've ever cried on a baseball field, and when Chris Young made that play, outside of Gary Matthews Jr., that's the greatest play I've ever seen a center fielder make," Hairston said. "He broke my heart. I couldn't believe it. I thought we had a big inning there. We golf in the offseason, and when we play again, he's paying for it."

It would be four innings before the Brewers had another hit. Arizona pitchers retired 11 in a row before Gomez's rally-sparking single.

"The fans deserve this because they haven't seen it since '82," Fielder said after taking a victory lap around Miller Park. "I'm just glad we could make them happy."

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