Five years ago on Friday, the Brewers defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks in Game Five of the 2011 National League Division Series, their first playoff series victory since 1982. The series ended with phenomenal drama, as the game-winning single in the 10th inning off the bat of Nyjer Morgan has been forever etched into Brewers history.
Morgan was not the only hero of that game, of course. There was Carlos Gomez, who singled and stole second to set up Morgan’s game winner. There was the unlikeliest hero, Yuniesky Betancourt, whose RBI single in the sixth inning gave the Brewers a 2-1 lead and continued a surprisingly productive postseason for the much maligned shortstop. There was the bullpen, between two scoreless innings from Takashi Saito and Francisco Rodriguez, and the resilient performance of John Axford, who threw a scoreless 10th to earn the win one inning after blowing his first save in months.
But arguably the biggest hero in that series was Yovani Gallardo, who pitched like an ace when the Brewers needed him to most. In Game One, Gallardo threw one of the best games of his career, as he held an Arizona lineup that scored the fourth-most runs in the National League to just one run in eight innings. The only damage came on a solo home run from Ryan Robert. Gallardo managed to strike out MVP candidate Justin Upton twice and held Arizona’s 4-5-6 hitters Miguel Montero, Chris Young and Lyle Overbay (thank you, Kirk Gibson, for benching Paul Goldschmidt to get the platoon advantage, a move that only looks more ridiculous with time) to an 0-for-9 afternoon.
And then Gallardo took the hill for Game Five, forced to clean up the mess left by blowups from Shaun Marcum and Randy Wolf. Gibson didn’t give Gallardo the same gift he did in Game 1 and inserted Paul Goldschmidt into the lineup at first base, and threw the full force of Arizona’s lineup at the Brewers. Could Gallardo hold down such a powerful lineup twice in a week?
Justin Upton got to him in the third inning to open the scoring, blasting a line-drive solo home run to right field. And Paul Goldschmidt managed a pair of hits. But whenever the Diamondbacks threatened to bust open a rally, Gallardo buckled down. Gallardo struck out five batters over six innings, two of which ended innings with a runner in scoring position. The two times Goldschmidt did single, he was batting without a runner on base. Gallardo managed to hold the top four hitters in Arizona’s lineup — Willie Bloomquist, Aaron Hill, Upton and Miguel Montero — to just 1-for-12, keeping Goldschmidt out of high-leverage at-bats.
Gallardo left after six innings, having limited the damage to just the Upton solo homer. It wasn’t always pretty — he nibbled around the plate, as he threw just 66 strikes in his 112 pitches — but he was nasty enough to shut down the Diamondbacks and keep the Brewers in the game even as the offense struggled against opposing starter Ian Kennedy. Gallardo routinely came up clutch in an elimination game, undoubtedly the highest stakes game the city had hosted since the 1982 American League pennant season.
Gallardo wasn’t a particularly decorated player in his Brewers career — he made one All-Star team, in 2010, and didn’t once earn a Cy Young vote. He quickly become a solid major league pitcher with the Brewers, but he never made the next step to become a true staff ace over the course of a full season; from 2009 through 2012, he finished with an ERA between 3.50 and 3.90 every season. But when Milwaukee needed him to pitch like an ace in the 2011 NLDS, Gallardo stepped up, giving the Brewers a performance as deserving of celebration five years down the line as any other we saw that season.