The Battle for NL Central and Free Agent Supremacy

By Geoff Ratliff

Yesterday marked the beginning of the 2011 National League Championship series pitting the Milwaukee Brewers against the St. Louis Cardinals. In our rivalry piece earlier in the year, we discussed how this battle between these two NL Central teams had the potential to blossom into something truly special, much like the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens annual tilts in the NFL. Like their NFL doppelgängers, the Brewers and Cardinals beef is now taking on a higher significance since the playoff match up has upped the stakes, and true to the script, there is some legitimate bad blood between the two teams.

There were a number of incidents throughout the 2011 regular season that escalated the level of animosity between Milwaukee and St. Louis, and Zack Greinke’s latest comments regarding the perceived antics of Cardinals starting pitcher Chris Carpenter on the eve of their playoff match up only fueled the fire. This is not just a match up of division rivals, this is a battle of contrasting styles. Greinke’s comments came with more than a hint of irony, not because he is the last guy in the Brewers’ clubhouse that you’d expect to make such a comment, but its the Brewers that are known for their over the top celebrations and histrionics. They are the young, brash, upstart team, trying to establish themselves as the new kings of the hill. Meanwhile, the Cardinals are a veteran-led squad with the most storied tradition of winning in the National League, and second only to the Yankees in World Championships.

The teams’ contrasts were perhaps best illustrated in the way they celebrated their respective Divisional Series victories. The Brewers emotional leader Nyjer Morgan aka “Tony Plush” delivered the game winning hit, leading to this over the top display , while the Cardinals victory – easily the upset of the postseason by knocking off the Phillies in a game 5, on the road, against their staff ace – was celebrated as if they had been their before, not surprising since they still have a number of players left from the 2006 World Series winning team and a handful more that have been close enough to the pinnacle that they appreciate how rare this opportunity is. The Brewers openly buck baseball tradition, showing up opponents with their repeated “Beast Mode” celebrations, while Tony LaRussa’s bunch are a gang of gritty gamers, where even a superstar like Albert Pujols plays as if he’s playing for his next contract. Oh, about that…

Perhaps the biggest and most overlooked element to this Brewers versus Cardinals match up, is the battle between the two biggest pending free agents in the coming off-season: “Prince” Albert versus Prince Fielder. While this series has the potential to launch this rivalry into the stratosphere, it is a very real possibility that neither of these All-Stars will be wearing their current uniforms next season, dealing significant blows to the emerging dynasty that the Brewers are building, and the sustained competitiveness of the Cardinals. Even the approach that these two players have taken to dealing with speculation surrounding their pending free agency is different. Fielder all but stated publicly that this season will be his last with the Brew Crew, while Pujols has been tight-lipped on the subject.

Most people expect that the Cardinals will resign the man who is well on his way to supplanting Stan Musial as the greatest player to ever don the red and white, but that scenario is far from certain. Neither team would be devoid of star power if both first basemen depart – Milwaukee still has it’s best player, Ryan Braun, in place while the Cardinals still have the quartet of Carpenter, Matt Holliday, a revived Lance Berkman, and a (hopefully) healthy Adam Wainwright going into the 2012 season – but there’s no question that the losses would hurt both teams on the field and in the stands.

Regardless of how this ends, both teams have given us some memorable postseason baseball to talk about thus far, and I have no doubts that their current series will be full of great moments. Here’s to hoping that the business of baseball doesn’t detract from a wonderful journey on the way to the Fall Classic.

Follow Geoff on Twitter @snglemarriedguy

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