Brewers aim to end any Cardinal hopes of climbing back into NL Central race
Can the Brewers knock their rivals completely out of the picture with a similar performance against them over the next nine days?
While they won’t come out and say it, that’s obviously the Brewers’ aim as they prepare for their final two series of the season against the Cardinals.
The first begins tonight at Miller Park. Then, after traveling to Houston for a three-game weekend set, the Brewers return to Busch Stadium one last time. There, they’ll try to squeeze any remaining life out of the team standing between them and their first division title since 1982.
“You can’t give them any kind of hope,” said right fielder Corey Hart, who comes into the week as Milwaukee’s hottest hitter. “They’re a great team, so if they sense any kind of weakness on our side, they’re going to pounce. So we’ve got to keep focused and keep going.
Manager Ron Roenicke, who all season has been steadfast in his refusal to look much further ahead than the next day’s game, not surprisingly is taking a similar approach with regard to St. Louis.
“I think it’s more of a chance to continue to play good ball,” he said Sunday. “We know we have six games with them left, and we know if we play them tough, play them the way we should play them, I think we’re in a nice situation.”
The Brewers are 8-4 against the Cardinals, including 5-1 at Miller Park. They started 1-2 after the teams’ first series in St. Louis in early May but swept the Cardinals a little over a month later in Milwaukee.
It was the next series at Miller Park, starting
Aug. 1, that really ratcheted up the tension between the two teams.
The Brewers won the first game, 6-2, as Zack Greinke out-dueled Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter.
St. Louis manager Tony La Russa, as he has been wont to do vs. the Brewers, started a mini-controversy when he complained to umpires before the second game about the lighted ribbon boards above the home-plate area being lighter when the Brewers batted.
There were also insinuations Brewer base runners were stealing signs and relaying them to the hitters.
Things got even more heated in an 8-7, 11-inning win by the Cardinals the next night. Brewers reliever Takashi Saito hit Albert Pujols in the left wrist in the seventh inning, and Ryan Braun was then hit in the back with a 97-mph fastball by St. Louis fireballer Jason Motte in the bottom half of the inning.
Both teams were warned at that point, but more fireworks loomed as Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina was ejected in the 10th inning after erupting on home-plate umpire Rob Drake. Molina was suspended five games for his outburst.
Things were calm for the series finale, a 10-5 win by the Brewers the next afternoon. Casey McGehee was the star in that one, hitting three home runs as Milwaukee bombarded St. Louis’ newly acquired starter, Edwin Jackson.
Milwaukee traveled to Houston from there, sweeping the woeful Astros before heading back to St. Louis for a rematch.
The Brewers won the first two games in that series. McGehee’s RBI double in the 10th inning was the difference in a 5-3 victory. Randy Wolf then pitched an eight-inning gem to pave the way for a
5-1 win in the second game.
The Cardinals used a 4-for-4 night from Pujols to win the finale, 5-2.
Since then, the Brewers have remained red-hot, turning what had been a three-team race among Milwaukee, St. Louis and the Pittsburgh Pirates a month ago into a runaway 10½-game lead—the biggest in any division in the major leagues.
Even more impressive is the fact Milwaukee has managed to play so well despite the loss of second baseman Rickie Weeks, who has been out for a month with a sprained left ankle. Strong pitching from the starting rotation and bullpen and continued hot hitting from Braun, Hart and Prince Fielder among others has helped the Brewers make up for Weeks’ loss.
The Cardinals, on the other hand, have gone 7-9 since last seeing the Brewers. A 2-7 stretch that saw them lose consecutive series in Chicago and Pittsburgh, followed by a sweep at home by Los Angeles undoubtedly sends St. Louis back to Milwaukee feeling a major sense of urgency.
With the calendar about to flip to the final month of the season, the opportunities for the Cardinals to make up some real ground on the Brewers are waning. As such, the Brewers certainly expect to see the best from them in the days to come.
“They’ve been there before,” Wolf said. “I don’t think they’re demoralized at all. They probably feel the need to play well against us. It’ll be a good series.
“We’ve played them tough, but even though we’ve had some success I don’t feel like we’ve really pulled away, played no-brainers against those guys. They’re always tough games.”
On the flip side, a sweep of St. Louis would drop the Brewers’ magic number to clinch the division from 18 all the way to 12 heading into the weekend unless Cincinnati passes St. Louis.
With how well the Brewers have been playing, nothing appears to be out of the realm of possibility at this point. In that vein, they’re also setting their sights on an even bigger target.
“The thing we’ve looked at is, we’re playing good baseball and we have a team in front of us in the National League that we still have an opportunity to catch,” said outfielder Mark Kotsay, referring to the NL-leading Philadelphia Phillies, who are 84-46.
“They’ve got a pretty tough September schedule. They don’t have any days off. I think that’s our focus—we’re not the best team in the National League right now.”