Faces change, stakes the same for Brewers, Cards
During the run-up to last year's NL championship series, the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers openly acknowledged something most people already knew: The two division rivals didn't like each other very much.
The Cardinals went on to earn ultimate bragging rights in one of baseball's most spirited rivalries last season, knocking the Brewers out of the playoffs and going on to win the World Series.
Now some of the main characters in that rivalry are gone, with Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols leaving via free agency and Tony La Russa retiring as manager.
Going into the Brewers' 2012 home opener against the Cardinals on Friday afternoon, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke acknowledged that the tone of the rivalry may change.
''I think it's still there a little bit,'' Roenicke said. ''But yes, personalities, when they leave, sometimes do change how guys feel about that other squad. Even manager to manager - it is a little different not having Tony over there.''
When asked what specifically might be different without La Russa on the Cardinals' bench, Roenicke answered cautiously.
''There's a lot of specific things I would rather not get into,'' Roenicke said. ''Sorry.''
New Cardinals manager Mike Matheny downplayed any past tension between the two teams.
''You just play the game,'' Matheny said. ''I don't think you put anything premeditated into what's happened before. You just go out and watch how things play out, and compete.''
Matheny was complimentary of last year's Brewers team and spoke highly of his time as a player with the Brewers in the 1990s. He joked about the reception he got in Milwaukee when he came back as a player for the opposing team.
''I remember one lady clapping, one guy booing,'' Matheny said. ''So I figured it was a wash.''
Even given the higher profile of his new role, Matheny certainly won't face the same level of vitriol that Brewers fans reserved for La Russa, mindful of the veteran manager's past criticisms of the Brewers, their fans and even Miller Park.
But while the faces on both teams have changed, the stakes haven't. The Brewers and Cardinals still are expected to be prime contenders for NL Central supremacy and beyond.
''I don't think it'll change,'' Brewers opening day starter Yovani Gallardo said. ''They're competitive. They play hard. That's the kind of team that they have, and it's the kind of team that we have. So there's always going to be a lot more excitement going on when two teams face each other that are very competitive and leave everything out on the field.''
Gallardo faces Jaime Garcia in Friday's opener, followed by Zack Greinke vs. Adam Wainwright on Saturday and Randy Wolf vs. Lance Lynn on Sunday.
It's a new start for the Brewers, and some expect them to fall short of last year's playoff run without Fielder.
''That's cool for us,'' Nyjer Morgan said. ''People are going to say what they're going to say. But we know what we have, and we know what we're capable of doing.''
But there are reasons for optimism. Ryan Braun got a potential suspension under baseball's drug policy overturned, providing an immediate boost to the Brewers' hopes. Braun struggled in spring training but expects to be back to his NL MVP-winning form. Milwaukee also signed former Chicago Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez.
But the Brewers' biggest strength may be their pitching, one of the main reasons Roenicke has high expectations.
''I feel really good about this team,'' Roenicke said. ''I felt good about that team last year, but when you don't really know guys, it takes a little bit to get to the point where you think that the squad has the ability to go a long ways.''
Meanwhile, the Cardinals still are widely considered favorites in the division despite losing Pujols.
''There's plenty to be excited about,'' Matheny said. ''You're looking at two teams that have a lot of expectations on themselves, and the fan base and all around baseball have a lot of expectations for us. So it should make for a good series.''