The Milwaukee Brewers may be coming off their first ever National League Central crown, but they might not be considered the favorites to repeat as division champs following the offseason exit of Prince Fielder.
The Brewers will look to make a statement this afternoon in the first of three straight against the St. Louis Cardinals, who have already begun their World Series defense with a victory.
Milwaukee used a franchise-record 96 wins last season to win the NL Central by six games over St. Louis, which made it to the playoffs as a wild card. The Brewers and Cardinals both recorded five-game series victories over the Diamondbacks and Phillies, respectively, in the National League Division Series before meeting in the next round.
After the clubs split 18 regular-season meetings, many of those heated affairs, the Cardinals got past the Brewers in six games en route to their second World Series title in six years.
Not long after St. Louis knocked off the Texas Rangers in the Fall Classic, news broke that NL MVP Ryan Braun had tested positive for a performance enhancing drug and was hit with a 50-game suspension. However, disaster was avoided for the Milwaukee outfielder when the positive test was overturned due to the handler of the test sample did not follow protocol.
As if Braun wouldn't already be entering 2012 with a chip on his shoulder, Milwaukee's first MVP since Robin Yount in 1989 won't have his long-time partner Fielder in the lineup with him after the bulky first baseman joined Detroit as a free agent.
Milwaukee signed third baseman Aramis Ramirez to help fill the void left by Fielder, while Mat Gamel takes over at first base.
The strength of the Brewers figures to be their starting rotation, a unit that is led by a pair of talented righties in Yovani Gallardo and former American League Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke. Manager Ron Roenicke opted to go with Gallardo over Greinke this afternoon, giving his 26-year-old his third straight Opening Day start.
Gallardo will become the fourth pitcher in Brewers history to make at least three starts on Opening Day, but will have to shake off some career-long struggles against the Cardinals to make it a successful one. He is 1-7 with a 5.66 earned run average in 11 career starts against St. Louis and that does not include his postseason loss to the club last year in which he allowed four runs over five innings on eight hits and five walks.
The Mexican-born hurler is coming off a banner year, having gone 17-10 with 3.52 ERA in a career-high 33 starts last season while reaching at least 200 strikeouts for a third season in a row.
Gallardo takes on a Cardinals team that opened up defense of their 11th championship with a 4-1 win over the new-look Miami Marlins on Wednesday. St. Louis was without manager Tony La Russa and three-time NL MVP Albert Pujols, but it was starter Kyle Lohse who stole the show.
Lohse carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning before allowing just one run and two hits without a walk in 7 1/3 frames of work to take the victory. Lohse was only getting the start because Chris Carpenter opened the season on the disabled list with a right shoulder injury.
"I'm not hugely superstitious," Lohse said of his no-hit bid. "I was talking to guys on the bench. They might have been trying to avoid me, but I wasn't going to let them."
Mike Matheny won his debut as Cardinals manager after taking over for the retired La Russa, while reigning World Series MVP David Freese carried the offense with a two-run single in the first inning. St. Louis' lineup was minus Pujols, who signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim as a free agent this past winter.
Offseason addition Carlos Beltran had two hits and scored a run, while Rafael Furcal went 3-for-5 with an RBI.
Matheny will hand the ball today to Jaime Garcia, who is entering his third full season the major leagues. The lefty has won 13 games in each of his first two, but saw his season ERA lift from 2.70 in 28 starts in 2010 to 3.56 in 32 outings last year.
Garcia, 25, is 3-2 with a 3.27 ERA in eight career appearances versus the Brewers and faced them twice in last season's NLCS. He was touched for six runs over four innings of a loss in the series opener before giving up a run over 4 2/3 frames of a no-decision five days later.
The Cardinals will open up a span of 27 straight games against NL Central foes with this series and won't play outside the division again until May 7 in Arizona.