Upstart Brewers meet Cardinals at the top
Milwaukee has best record in baseball, but St. Louis is as formidable as ever
MILWAUKEE -- It may be that the 2014 Milwaukee Brewers are considerably better than many people thought.
But the Brewers' problem is that the 2014 St. Louis Cardinals could be every bit as good as many people thought.
The Brewers came into Monday night as the hottest team in the Major Leagues, the winners of nine straight. Their bid to win 10 straight was short-circuited by the performance of the Cardinals in general and the pitching of Lance Lynn in particular.
Lynn transformed the Brewers from hot to lukewarm with seven innings of three-hit, 11-strikeout, scoreless work. Dominant would be a fair descriptor.
The Cardinals' 4-0 victory still left the Brewers with the Majors' best record at 10-3, so there wasn't much immediate cause for dismay in Milwaukee. The Brewers' early showing may have surprised some people, but don't count Cards manager Mike Matheny among them.
"It tells me that I was right in what I was thinking; that this is a pretty good team," Matheny said. "People love to make early-season predictions. The predictions that we made, this team is going to be right in the middle of everything. They've got all the things that you need to be a successful team, and they're showing everybody right now. I don't think anybody who knows what this team has is surprised with where they are right now."
Last year, the National League Central qualified three teams for the postseason; the division-winning Cardinals and both Wild Card entrants, the Pirates and the Reds. This neighborhood was Competition Central. It was relatively easy for many people to predict that in this difficult company the Brewers would finish a quiet fourth this year.
"The Central isn't a secret like it was last year," Matheny said. "The thing that adds to it is that the Brewers are a solid team, and they're going to be right in the mix. It's going to be a long, tough fight. We know that."
The Cards, of course, as the defending NL champions, require no further introduction. On paper, they appear to be even better than they were last year, when they led the NL with 97 victories.
The Brewers know all too well about the Cardinals. One of the reasons they were non-factors in the Central last year was that they were 5-14 against St. Louis. But when manager Ron Roenicke was asked if there was something extra riding on this series, he had to say no.
"We know we have to beat them," Roenicke said. "But we felt that same way against Pittsburgh. They're all important. If we're going to compete with Pittsburgh, if we're going to compete with Cincinnati, if we're going to compete with the Cardinals, we're going to have to play well. If we play good baseball, whether it's against the Cardinals or anybody else, we should be able to compete with anybody."
What put both of these teams in a position to compete Monday night was Miller Park's retractable roof, which was closed as tightly as possible. The calendar said mid-April, but the weather outside said mid-winter. It was snowing. The game-time temperature was 31 degrees, heading toward an overnight low of 23. A northwest wind howled.
When the Brewers played outdoors at County Stadium, it was thought that they had a home-field advantage in weather like this. But in fact, the real advantage was held by the stores that were still selling winter coats. Matheny played his formative Major League seasons for Milwaukee in the old ballpark. He got the meteorological picture.
"I don't think any of us would be excited right now if we were in County Stadium," Matheny said. "It was a great place to play, but days like this, it was rough.
"I have great memories, even from the cold days," Matheny said with a smile. "My first day here was a six-inch snowfall, and I remember there were still something like 60,000 shirtless people out there. It was beautiful. It was such a great crowd, and we had great support here even when the years were pretty lean. I have a lot of good memories, but they've done a nice job of adding to it with [Miller Park]. This is a beautiful park, and we enjoy coming here."
The Brewers may appreciate the kind words regarding their weatherproof facility. But their problem is that the Cardinals continue to enjoy coming to Milwaukee a bit too much.