CHICAGO -- Statistically speaking, this may not be Yovani Gallardo's best season, but it is shaping up as his most consistent.
The Brewers right-hander authored his Major League-leading 22nd quality start on Tuesday night, capping his perfect August with seven solid innings and riding rookie Jeff Bianchi's first Major League home run to a 4-1 win against the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
Gallardo surrendered a solo homer to the opposing pitcher but otherwise allowed two harmless singles. He walked three batters but struck out nine, and he retired the final 13 men he faced before the Brewers played it safe and went to the bullpen after 102 Gallardo pitches.He appeared to pitch on cruise control. But from the opposing dugout, Cubs manager Dale Sveum said it did not even appear that Gallardo had his good stuff. "He's a big-game pitcher, not that tonight's a big game," Sveum said. "When the chips are down, I'll take him on the mound with anybody." Sveum has expressed that sort of admiration before. The former Brewers coach was Milwaukee's interim manager at the end of 2008, when Gallardo was 22 years old and barely back from knee surgery. Sveum liked Gallardo so much back then that he gave him the ball to start Milwaukee's first postseason game in 26 years. Three years later, Ron Roenicke made Gallardo the Brewers' Game 1 pitcher again in the National League Division Series, this time against the D-backs. "Outstanding," was Roenicke's one-word description of Gallardo. Red-hot rookie Bianchi provided most of the run support with a two-out, three-run blast in the second inning off Cubs starter Travis Wood. It was Bianchi's fifth hit in as many at-bats after beginning his big league career 0-for-15.
Wood reclaimed a run with his homer leading off the third inning, but Gallardo otherwise was dominant in working at least seven innings for the sixth consecutive start, all wins. The first happened to fall on July 31, the non-waiver Trade Deadline, in Gallardo's first start after the Brewers traded away Zack Greinke in a move that reinstated Gallardo as the team's unquestioned ace.He insisted the Greinke deal had nothing to do with his sudden hot streak, but Gallardo nonetheless rose to the occasion, giving the Brewers a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing second half. Only once all year has he surrendered more than three runs in consecutive starts -- July 21 and 26, just before his current run of success -- and with nine more strikeouts on Tuesday he has 172 this season, leaving him approximately six starts to acquire 28 more for his fourth consecutive 200-strikeout season, an unprecedented accomplishment in Brewers history. This is rare territory. Entering this season, only 40 pitchers since 1901 had as many as four seasons with 200-plus strikeouts. "Anything that's not easy to do, it's a good feeling," Gallardo said. "But the wins come first. That's most important." Bianchi sealed the win by pouncing on a 3-0 pitch from Wood, with two outs and Gallardo in the on-deck circle. Bianchi was granted the green light, and Roenicke was surprised he took it. "I was like, 'Woah,'" Roenicke said. "I didn't expect him to swing. I'm glad he did, not just because of the outcome, but he's got the pitcher behind him, and I'm glad he did. Most young players won't swing there. It's hard to get most veteran players to swing." Before this season, Bianchi typically did not swing on 3-0. But after Roenicke discussed hitting in that count during a Spring Training session, Bianchi began giving it a try in Cactus League games, with positive results. More than six months later, that talk translated to a Brewers win. Bianchi's confidence had been high since he snapped a hitless streak that spanned three separate callups from the Minor Leagues. He logged his first two hits on Saturday in Pittsburgh, came through in the pinch on Sunday and Monday, then homered in his first at-bat on Tuesday. Thanks to the Wrigley Field tradition of tossing home run balls back onto the field, Bianchi has another souvenir. Equipment manager Tony Migliaccio already had the baseball from Bianchi's first Major League hit stored in a plastic baggie for transit back to Milwaukee. "I think it calmed me down a little bit," he said. "I've been 0-for- before in my career; I might have done it earlier this year at Triple-A, and it's part of the game, but after that first [Major League hit], I think I just kind of relaxed a little bit and began enjoying [it] here and helping the team win." Earlier in the day, Gallardo called the shot. "Before the game, just joking around with him, I was asking him if he was going to hit his first big league home run," Gallardo said. "I mean, it's getting kind of late. He laughed." With Gallardo out of the game in favor of a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning, the Brewers stole an insurance run when Rickie Weeks, breaking from first base, was caught in a rundown long enough for Norichika Aoki to score from third. Relievers Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford sealed the victory. The save was Axford's 21st this season. He needed only 10 pitches, seven of them strikes.