BenFred: Brewers remind Cards (and Cubs) who’s the NL Central favorite – STLtoday.com

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BenFred: Brewers remind Cards (and Cubs) who’s the NL Central favorite – STLtoday.com

The Brewers, it turns out, are not planning on fading fast.

That was the top takeaway, for me, from the Cardinals’ season-opening series loss in Milwaukee.

The Cardinals did not play poorly. The Brewers were just better. A season will determine if what was true for one series holds, but a meaningless sample size this was not. It was a reminder of the division’s new pecking order, in case the Cardinals forgot. 

Manager Mike Shildt said he did not know which team was better after four games, but his team lost three of those games. Cardinals third baseman Matt Carpenter said the difference was Christian Yelich, but at last check the National League MVP does indeed play for the defending National League Central champion Brewers.

That the Brewers took three of four from the Cardinals out of the gate is even scarier for the Cardinals when you remember it happened without two of Milwaukee’s best relievers: Corey Knebel and Jeremy Jeffress. Knebel (Tommy John surgery) is out for the season, we learned this week. Jeffress (right shoulder weakness) will be back at some point, though his effectiveness is TBD.

Everyone always worries about the Brewers pitching — except the Brewers. What we tend to overlook is a deep, dynamic lineup that can do serious damage at a moment’s notice. This spring, I decided I would not worry about the Brewers pitching. That’s why I picked them to win the division. That was before Knebel and Jeffress went down, of course, which forced me to . . .  worry about the Brewers pitching. Dumb pick, I had decided by opening day. It doesn’t seem so dumb now.

Yes, it was just one series. Only four games. First week of the season, and all of that stuff. But if the NL Central turns out to be as competitive and close as we think it will be, there is no such thing as a meaningless weekend when any combination of Cardinals, Cubs and Brewers meet.

The Brewers are out front. Again.

Some other thoughts from the series . . .

• New hitting coach Jeff Albert’s philosophy, we were told, revolved around putting more balls in play. That sounded like a blast of fresh air in a home-run-or-strikeout era. So far, we are seeing a lot of swings that hit nothing but air. The Cardinals have 47 strikeouts in their first 139 at-bats. The Tigers (50 strikeouts) are the only team with more strikeouts in as many games (four).

• For the three people out there who have not made up their mind on the fate of Dexter Fowler, here is a suggestion: Forget about his batting average. Focus on his on-base percentage. Yes, Fowler has one hit in 10 at-bats. He’s hitting .100. Bad, right? Sure. If you are sweating his average. For a player whose best asset is his ability to get on base, there is a better metric: OBP. Fowler’s on-base percentage reads .357. That’s right around his career average of .360. That’s also currently fourth-best on the team.

But he struck out four times! Yes, he did. He also walked four times. And don’t forget two of those four strikeouts came against Josh Hader, who struck out seven of the nine Cardinals he faced in this series. If striking out against Hader means a Cardinal should not play, the Cardinals would not be able to field a team. Cardinals who have more strikeouts than Fowler: Paul Goldschmidt (7), Paul DeJong (6), Marcell Ozuna (5).

• Can we all make a pledge right now? If the Cardinals walk Christian Yelich every time they face him the rest of the season — as long as that walk does not mean surrendering a run — then we will all be good with it and not second-guess the decision? Sign me up. Yelich, who is slashing an absurd .306/.438/.806 against the Cardinals since the start of last season, has 15 extra-base hits against the Redbirds since opening day 2018. No other player has more than 10. 

• Combined, the Cardinals’ first four starters averaged a hair under 5 innings per start. Michael Wacha was the only Redbird to hand in a quality start. That puts a lot of stress on a seven-man bullpen if it continues to trend in that direction. 

• A play that was not pulled off, for good reason, in the bottom of Sunday’s fourth inning offered a reminder of how Paul Goldschmidt’s defense is quietly making the Cardinals a more competitive team. Jesus Aguilar’s grounder was a do-or-die play for Paul DeJong. The shortstop’s rushed throw pulled Goldschmidt up the line and off the bag. Goldschmidt blocked the ball, knowing it meant sacrificing the out. Last season, that ball winds up in the dugout, and Aguilar is standing on second base. These little things add up over the course of a season.

Another thing that stands out watching Goldschmidt, other than his headline-generating power, is how he just absolutely grinds the most out of each at-bat. He’s averaging a team-high 5.17 pitches per plate appearance headed into Pittsburgh.

• Speaking of defense, it’s wild to remember that Marcell Ozuna once won a Gold Glove with the Marlins. There were some plays not made in Milwaukee that made you wonder if Ozuna could use a defensive replacement late in games. And if you swap in Tyler O’Neill, you might actually get a home run.

• This felt like a postseason series, didn’t it? Get used to it. Games against the Brewers and Cubs are going to have that vibe all season long, and the ones played now are just as crucial as the ones that will come with the postseason (or not) right around the corner.

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