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NL Central rivals square off in opener

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Tom Haudricourt, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
April 6, 2012
— And so they meet again.

Already.


The St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers are wasting no time in resuming their fierce National League Central Division rivalry. The Cards already have a 1-0 record after a successful one-night stand in Miami, but it will be Game


No 1 for the Brewers when the teams meet at 3:10 p.m. today at Miller Park.


The Cardinals ended the Brewers’ World Series hopes last fall, pounding them, 12-6, in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series at Miller Park. It was a turnabout from the regular season, when the Brewers captured the division for the first time and St. Louis got hot enough at the end to claim the wild card, only to get the last laugh by winning it all.


Now, 173 days after that NLCS clincher, the Cardinals return to the scene of the crime.


“It’s almost like it has to happen this way,” said Brewers right fielder Corey Hart. “You get it out of the way and get on with the season. But it’s going to have a different feel this time.”


Indeed, the three major protagonists from past battles are missing. Prince Fielder is playing in Detroit, Albert Pujols is wearing a Los Angeles Angels uniform and former St. Louis manager Tony La Russa, the man Brewer Nation loved to hate, is a new employee of the commissioner’s office.


Can former Brewers catcher Mike Matheny, St. Louis’ rookie manager, engender the kind of passion that La Russa fueled when these combatants squared off?


“Obviously, he was good at what he did,” Hart said of


La Russa. “He was good at getting the other team riled up and have it work in (the Cardinals’) favor. He managed very well; I’ll say that. But there always was stuff going on.


“(St. Louis right-hander Chris) Carpenter isn’t going to be there, either (Carpenter is on the DL). There was always a little something with him. Prince was a big part of all of that, too. So you wonder what it will be like.”


Despite the losses of the two biggest personalities on the club, not to mention respected pitching coach Dave Duncan, the Cardinals are the preseason pick of many to win the division. The Cincinnati Reds, who now must make do without injured closer Ryan Madson, are considered co-favorites.


The Brewers? Nationally, nearly a consensus pick to finish third. That’s how much the pundits believe the club is going to miss Fielder.


Those who will line up on the first-base side for pre-game introductions today don’t see it that way, however. They note that a solid pitching staff returns nearly intact, but with uber-setup man Francisco Rodriguez on board for the full season.


The Brewers also point to the spectacular spring of veteran shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who replaces the erratic Yuniesky Betancourt. They quietly note that third baseman Aramis Ramirez is bound to fare much better than struggling Casey McGehee did in 2011. And teammates have confidence that Mat Gamel will hold his own as the new first baseman.


“I guarantee you that nobody in this clubhouse thinks we’re going to finish third, and that’s all that matters,” said Ramirez. “We don’t worry about the media and baseball writers. We know what we can do.


“It’s a good thing, actually (that few expect a lot from the Brewers). We know what we are capable of. If we do things we know we can do and stay healthy, we should do much better than that.”


As for the Cardinals, Ramirez added, “We know they are the World Series champions. But we are in the same division, so we are going to have to play them many times. It’s good to see what they are going to bring to the table.


“They still have a pretty good team. We’ll see how things go. We’re ready for the challenge.”


To hear general manager Doug Melvin tell it, those who expect the Brewers to have “Prince-partum depression” might be a bit surprised. No one is saying that Fielder didn’t cut a wide swath through the clubhouse, but Melvin liked the way the players went about their business during spring training.


“I think everybody has accepted life without Prince,” said Melvin. “It’s not something that’s lingering or something where we say, ‘How are we going to survive without Prince?’ They turned the page pretty quickly on that. They understood that he’s not here and we’ve got to move on.


“The guys in the clubhouse, the fans, everybody understood that.”


Another reason the Brewers are getting little preseason love is the expectation that Ryan Braun’s production will drop in 2012. Beyond being pitched to differently without Fielder as protection, folks want to see how he’ll react to the pressure and fans’ taunts on the road after the drug-test saga that dominated his off-season.


Braun did not look like himself in the early weeks of exhibition season but gathered himself nicely at the end and finished with a flourish, booming a double to center in his final spring at-bat Wednesday against Arizona.


“You can’t bring (hits) with you (from spring training),” said Braun. “You always want to have success. I think you dictate and define your own success. For me, at the beginning of spring training, success means getting your work in, physically preparing yourself for a 180-game season, hopefully.


“Then, you hopefully are locked in at the end of spring training. I feel great. The last week, week and a half, I’ve hit the majority of balls on the barrel.”


The Brewers have no choice but to be ready from the outset, with the ring-bearing Cardinals cracking the lid on Milwaukee’s home season.


“We enjoy the atmosphere when we play these guys,” said Braun. “They have a great team, year in and year out.”


You know they’re going to be in it at the end of the year. We certainly hope to be in it and expect to be in it at the end of the year. Those guys always play hard, so it just makes it that much more fun to compete against them.


“Even without Pujols, I think they still have a really good team. There’s a reason they won the World Series last year. I’m sure they have the same expectation they have every year, which is win the division and go back to the postseason. That’s our expectation, too.”



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