Cardinals give first series rare importance
When Milwaukee Brewers fans last filed out of Miller Park, a record-breaking season like few in franchise history had come to a crushing, deflating end two victories shy of a World Series berth thanks to a familiar foe.
Yes, the Brewers had set a franchise record with 96 regular-season wins and captured their first playoff series victory in 29 years — two achievements that won't soon be forgotten. But losing to the hated St. Louis Cardinals so close to the ultimate finish line rubbed salt in the wound and made waiting through the fall and winter months for another crack at a championship especially difficult.
After an excruciatingly long 173-day hiatus, that chase for a title finally begins anew on Friday with the Brewers' Opening Day. Guess which team is standing in Milwaukee's way at Miller Park again?
Yep, those pesky defending World Series champion Cardinals.
Certainly, much has changed since that evening last October 16, when St. Louis knocked off Milwaukee, 12-6, in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series and celebrated the night away on the Miller Park field.
Cardinals legend Albert Pujols signed a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels. Brewers star Prince Fielder inked a nine-year, $214 million contract with the Detroit Tigers. NL MVP Ryan Braun received a 50-game suspension before having it overturned.
Yet despite an offseason of turnover, much remains the same — and that's good news for the Brewers in their quest to topple the Cardinals.
Five of Milwaukee's eight positional starters return, and virtually the entire pitching staff is back, too, led by starters Yovani Gallardo and Zack Greinke. The duo finished last season 33-16, and neither of them compiled an ERA worse than 3.83.
Gallardo will become the fourth Brewers pitcher in team history to start his third Opening Day at 3:10 p.m. CT Friday, when he opposes Cardinals lefty Jaime Garcia.
With those two anchoring the rotation, coupled with starters Randy Wolf, Shaun Marcum, Chris Narveson, setup man Francisco Rodriguez and closer John Axford, there is plenty of optimism that Milwaukee can once again wrestle away the NL Central from St. Louis. Last season, the Brewers edged the Cardinals by six games to take the regular season divisional crown, while St. Louis wound up with the wild-card playoff berth.
Of course, solid starts from Gallardo, Greinke and Wolf on opening weekend won't fully erase the sting of that six-game postseason series loss to the Cardinals. The Brewers committed seven errors over the final two games, shooting themselves in the foot repeatedly in two losses. Milwaukee tallied nine errors in the series, an NLCS record, only adding to the misery of losing to St. Louis.
Since Milwaukee moved to the NL Central for the 1998 season, St. Louis has served as the division bully, picking on the Brewers and any other team crossing its path. During that time, St. Louis has made the playoffs eight times, won six division titles and two World Series championships.
Milwaukee, meanwhile, has made the playoffs twice in that span and won its lone division title last season — and still lost to St. Louis in the playoffs.
The Brewers' distaste for the Cardinals and their success dates back even before that.
In 1982, when Milwaukee tied a then-club record with 95 regular-season wins and made its only World Series appearance, St. Louis was there to snatch the final two games to take the championship four games to three.
It took 29 more years for the Brewers to reach the precipice of the World Series and just a few short hours for the Cardinals to ruin those dreams again.
They say hope springs eternal in baseball circles this time of year. The Brewers can do nothing about their unfortunate past against the Cardinals. All Milwaukee can do is take the lessons it learned from last season and apply them now to beat St. Louis.
For what it's worth, Baseball Prospectus projects the Brewers to win 86 games this season — three behind the Cardinals for first place in the National League Central.
What better way to make up those three games and slowly erase the sting of seasons past than with a sweep of the rival Cardinals on opening weekend?
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