Cards/Brewers ESPN Preview



by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

The St. Louis Cardinals are the odds-on favorite to win the NL Central this year. They're always a contender under Tony LaRussa. They look to have the best team once again so far through the opening days of the 2010 season.

Milwaukee is a popular darkhorse choice to make a run at the top. They finished 11 games behind the Cardinals last year with a young team that has a chance to get better. Though, it has to be pointed out that a key role was played by their OLDEST player, ace reliever Trevor Hoffman.

The 42-year old Hoffman is coming off a strong bounce-back season in 2009. Many thought he was washed up after a poor 2008 in San Diego. You can see how things were trending in Hoffman's final years with the Padres.

2006: 2.14 ERA...46 saves
2007: 2.98 ERA...42 saves
2008: 3.77 ERA...30 saves

Hoffman allowed 8 home runs in 2008, which is what he allowed in 2006-07 combined. Given that he was 40 years old in 2008...and that his ERA was up near no-man's land for ace could see why there was skepticism. Remember also that he was pitching for the Padres, who play their home games in a pitching paradise. His numbers would likely have been worse over all three of those seasons in another locale.

A small market team like Milwaukee has to get creative when putting together a roster. They took a flyer on Hoffman last year, hoping he still had some magic left. The Brewers were rewarded:

2009: 1.83 ERA, 37 saves

Hoffman allowed only 2 home runs last season. Maybe a change of scenery was all that was needed. Or, maybe the desperation that kicks into an aging player saved Hoffman's career.

Can he do it again?

Well, if you're following the sport, you know that Hoffman had a blow-up Friday Night in the first game of this series. Just when he was needed MOST to perform, against the team Milwaukee HAS to beat if they want to win this division, Hoffman blew a 9th inning lead. And, he did that against the lower part of the St. Louis order (Pujols and Holliday had must batted in the 8th).

Rasmus walked
Molina flied out to right
Freese flied out to center
Stavinoha hit a two-out, two-run homer, on a 1-2 count!
Lopez doubled
Schumaker grounded out

Suddenly a 4-3 lead (one strike away from a win) had turned into a 5-4 deficit, and soon after a 5-4 loss for the shellshocked Brewers. And, a guy who had only allowed 2 home runs in 2009 had suddenly tossed a gopher ball to somebody named Stavinoha! More line Stavin-Oh-No!

Earlier in the week, Hoffman had allowed a run in the 9th with a 7-4 lead over Colorado, again against the lower part of the order. He allowed a triple to start off the inning, but would ultimately only allow that one runner to reach home.

Through his first three appearances:
ERA: 9.00
WHIP: 1.67
Batters have hit for the cycle, with a homer, triple, double, and single

And, all that's with Hoffman managing to avoid the star hitters of Colorado and St. Louis for the most part.

Even with two saves in three attempts, IT'S A SHAKY START!



On Sunday night, baseball is back in prime-time and the Network is ready with a strong move on this game. The Cardinals and Brewers is a great matchup between one team that's a traditional power in the NL Central and another that's hoping to get there. There's great individual talent on the field, from Albert Pujols to Prince Fielder, and from Matt Holliday to Ryan Braun. But our MLB experts know the strengths and weaknesses of every player in the lineup, even the ones that aren't stars. They can tell you whether Colby Rasmus or Rickie Weeks is in a spot they're likely to excel in. Or whether tonight is a night where the difference will be made by Brendan Ryan or Casey McGahee. We have those answers and we'll get the money tonight!

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Milwaukee has no shot to catch St. Louis from behind if the ace reliever role is going to be causing Maalox moments. We don't mean to set off any alarm bells just from a few appearances. It's easy to overreact to what happens in the first week of a baseball season. A couple of bad innings in June and people forget quickly. There are several factors that have put Hoffman on our radar for right now though:

*He may have been pitching on borrowed time anyway
*Milwaukee has little margin for error this year
*Big blows are often the red flag that tells you a pitcher doesn't have it
*Hoffman suffered big blows to softer parts of the lineup
*You have to win your big rivalry home games!

As you watch tonight's game on ESPN between the Cardinals and Brewers, do a position-by-position rundown for each team. It really doesn't take dramatic differences to turn an 80-win team into a 90-win team. Just a little bit of something here and there that adds up over a 162-game schedule. St. Louis isn't a juggernaut. They're Albert Pujols and a supporting cast. Maybe Holliday will find his prior Colorado form and be a second offensive superstar. Maybe not.

Note that:

*Milwaukee's star is Prince Fielder, but they don't pick up anything at first base in a head-to-head comparison with Pujols.

*Milwaukee's Ryan Braun is a very popular star in left field. That's where Holliday plays for the Cardinals.

The Brewers HAVE to pick up ground at the other positions...and ace reliever is certainly at the top of that list.

Note that the Brewers leave Milwaukee late tonight for a 9-game road trip that starts Monday afternoon at Wrigley Field. The Chicago Cubs are the other common choice as a top contender for the Cards in this division. The Brewers and Cubs will play six times over the next 12 games after tonight...possibly letting everyone know who will be chasing St. Louis, and who won't be.

Hoffman doesn't have much time to find his regular season form! Neither do the Brewers as a team.

Enjoy the game tonight. Sundays will be a mix of baseball and NBA playoff action from this point forward...with the playoffs probably taking center stage over the next month, but baseball holding fort all through the summer.

Is JIM HURLEY posting a selection in the Cards/Brewers game tonight? You have to sign up to find out! We don't post our official selections here in the NOTEBOOK. That information is for paying clients. To become one, call 1-800-323-4453. You can also purchase game day selections and packages here at the website with your credit card.

Among games of interest today in addition to the prime time TV matchup:

*NY Yankees at Tampa Bay (Burnett vs. Shields)
*Minnesota at CWS (Blackburn vs. Beurhle)
*Philadelphia at Houston (Halladay vs. Oswalt)
*Atlanta at San Francisco (Lincecum in action)

A lot of staff aces are getting their second starts of the season, making the card ripe for solid handicapping. Let's not forget about the NBA!

*Orlando at Cleveland on ABC (probable playoff preview)
*Portland at the LA Lakers on ABC (possible First Round preview)
*Chicago at Toronto (the battle for 8th in the East!)

All that and the final round of the Masters? What a great day to be a sports fan!

And, what a great WEEK to be a sports fan.

*Monday in the bases will see opening day at the new Minnesota Twins stadium. The Boston Red Sox will help christen Target Field.

*Tuesday is the 2010 home opener for the New York Yankees, as the LA Angels come to town in a ALCS rematch.

*Tuesday-Wednesday mark the final nights of the NBA regular season, with playoff positioning possibly set to be decided by everyone's season finales!

*The weekend brings the NBA playoffs, in one could very well be one of the most exciting postseason runs we've seen in years.



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