Brewers ready for early test vs. Cubs
Battle of potential division leaders begins on Opening Day
The Brewers will not get an opportunity to ease into the regular season. For openers, they face as charged an atmosphere as they will experience all year.
It's the Cubs versus the Brewers -- a matchup of last year's top two finishers in the National League Central -- when the regular season begins Monday at Wrigley Field. Milwaukee led the division for 133 days last season, but the Cubs finished on top, by two games.
"That's a big Opening Day -- as big as it gets," Brewers reliever Derrick Turnbow said. "We start off with [the Cubs] and end the season with them. If it's a close race, those are going to be some fun games. You couldn't ask for a better place than Wrigley Field to play Opening Day. It's going to be a playoff game right off the bat, a good test for us."
On paper, at least, these two teams are poised to contend for the division title. They played 15 times last season (Chicago had a 9-6 edge) and will square off 16 times in 2008, beginning with Monday's Ben Sheets vs. Carlos Zambrano matchup. The first six games are at Wrigley Field, and the Cubs do not visit Milwaukee until July 28-31, but they play two potentially crucial series in late September, first from Sept. 16-18 at Wrigley Field, and then Sept. 26-28 at Miller Park in the regular season finale.
"It's definitely a rivalry," Brewers shortstop J.J. Hardy said. "I don't know if it's like we want to go out and fight them every time we play them, but we definitely want to win."
Said left fielder Ryan Braun: "Opening Day and the opening series in itself is exciting, but you add Wrigley Field and the Cubs on top of it, and it's something I'm really looking forward to."
Braun and Hardy are part of a young Brewers core that returns intact, led by 50-homer man Prince Fielder. There are new faces, too, most of whom were brought in to bolster a defense that tied for the NL's fourth-highest error total (109) last season.
Up the middle, the Brewers replaced catcher Johnny Estrada with Jason Kendall, and they shifted Braun to left field and Bill Hall to third base to clear a spot for center fielder and three-time Gold Glover Mike Cameron. The Brewers will be without Cameron for the first 25 games while he serves a suspension, but defensive-minded Tony Gwynn, Jr. and Gabe Kapler (another new face) are candidates to fill in.
Other new faces stock the bullpen. Closer Francisco Cordero and relievers Scott Linebrink and Ray King exited via free agency, so Brewers general manager Doug Melvin restocked with new closer Eric Gagne and a bevy of experienced arms to support him, including David Riske, Salomon Torres and Guillermo Mota. Turnbow and left-hander Brian Shouse are the main bullpen holdovers.
"It's a very professional group of guys," Kendall, who finished last season with the Cubs, said of his new Brewers teammates. "That's rare in such a young group of guys. It's neat to see.
"[The most important thing] is staying healthy," Kendall added. "No. 2 is playing hard, letting your ability take over. These guys have the ability."
The way manager Ned Yost sees it, the Brewers will definitely hit, and it appears they have the depth needed to pitch. If that holds true, improving the defense might be the franchise's final hurdle.
"We can score runs. We can hit. We can hit with power. We can pitch. We've got a good bullpen. We need to play defense."
Their primary competition in the division apparently is on notice. The Cubs are not taking the Brewers lightly.
"Not with what they bring to the table offensively," Cubs infielder Mark DeRosa told the Chicago Tribune. "They also have a good pitching staff and signed Gagne. They have all the pieces to the puzzle. I don't think anybody is underestimating anyone in this division."
Most national observers have picked the Cubs as the team to beat in the NL Central, and some have picked retooled Cincinnati to finish second, ahead of Milwaukee.
Braun was not ready to call the Cubs the team to beat. And he was certainly not ready to call the first three games of '08 a "must-win" series.
"It is a good gauge of where you're at early on, but I think we all saw last year that it's a long season," Braun said. "You can't put too much emphasis on the first series. We want to obviously beat them, but it's only one series."
MIL: RHP Ben Sheets (12-5, 3.82 ERA in 2007)
Sheets has five career wins at Wrigley Field, most of any visiting ballpark. He's also 3-0 in five Opening Day assignments.
CHC: RHP Carlos Zambrano (18-13, 3.95 ERA in 2007)
Zambrano surrendered five runs on six hits and five walks in an Opening Day loss to the Reds last year, but beat the Brewers five days later.
The Brewers are 22-16-1 on Opening Day, including four straight wins. This is the 27th time in 39 seasons that Milwaukee has opened a season on the road. ... The Brewers are entering their 40th season as a franchise. They played in 1969 as the expansion Seattle Pilots before moving to Milwaukee days before the start of the 1970 season. ... Sheets is starting on Opening Day for the sixth time in the last seven seasons. He missed the opener in 2006, when Doug Davis took the assignment while Sheets worked back from a major back injury. ... For only the second time since 1998, outfielder Geoff Jenkins is not in Milwaukee's Opening Day lineup. Jenkins was a free agent following last season and signed with the Phillies. ... Fielder has a .381 average (8-for-21) against Zambrano, including five extra-base hits (four doubles and a home run). ... Among Brewers hitters, Hall has the most experience against Zambrano, and the results have not been good. Hall has a .152 average against the right-hander (5-for-33) with 16 strikeouts. Hall's four RBIs, though, are tops among Brewers hitters against Zambrano.
FSN Wisconsin HD
Wednesday: Brewers (RHP Jeff Suppan, 12-12, 4.62) at Cubs (LHP Ted Lilly, 15-8, 3.83), 1:20 p.m. CT
Thursday: Brewers (RHP Dave Bush, 12-10, 5.12) at Cubs (TBA), 1:20 p.m. CT
Friday: Brewers (RHP Carlos Villanueva, 8-5, 3.94) vs. Giants (RHP Kevin Correia, 4-7, 3.45), 1:05 p.m. CT (Brewers home opener)
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.