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Outlook: Gallardo to build upon success in '11

The stakes will be a good bit lower, but the intensity level likely won't be. When the Cardinals and Brewers play on Friday -- their first meeting since last year's hard-fought National League Championship Series -- they won't be playing for a pennant, but they will be setting the stage for what should be an entertaining NL Central race.

Miller Park will be festooned with bunting, and all the usual pageantry will be on display. This one doesn't need any of it, though. A race that figures to be one of baseball's most wide-open gets rolling early. The game begins a stretch of 27 straight divisional games for the defending World Series champion Cards, including six head-to-head April meetings with the Brewers.

Milwaukee, of course, won the division last year, a fact that seems a bit forgotten in some of the coverage of the 2012 NL Central. The Brewers lost star slugger Prince Fielder since October, but other than that, the club returns basically intact -- and the addition of Aramis Ramirez should help paper over some of the lost production from Fielder. So while the consensus seems to be that the Central will be a Cardinals-Reds battle, it would be unwise to write off the reigning division winners.

"The Central is a much tougher division than people give it credit for," said Cardinals star Lance Berkman. "I clearly feel like we should be the favorites to win the division, but I think Milwaukee is going to be awfully good again. ... I think the Brewers are going to be a lot tougher than people give them credit for."

Besides, it's not like the Cardinals aren't doing without some mainstays as well. Albert Pujols joined Fielder in leaving the division for greener pastures, and St. Louis will not have the services of Chris Carpenter for an indeterminate amount of time as he recovers from a nerve condition. There are plenty of new faces on both sides of this rivalry, but the essence remains intact.

These are two very familiar clubs, playing for the same prize. And oh by the way, they're not each other's biggest fans, either. The rivalry has been heated at various times over the past several years, and never more so than during the 2011 regular season. So what better way to get things going early in 2012 than to face each other?

"It's a good way to get the blood flowing again," said Milwaukee outfielder Nyjer Morgan. "It makes for another good season. It's a great rivalry."

The expected fireworks didn't really materialize during last fall's playoff series, but this is still a rivalry with some legitimate animosity. Add in the fact that the teams faced each other 18 times in a 2 1/2-month span at the end of 2011, and you get some tension.

"For some reason, every time we face each other, you've got some pretty exciting games," said Brewers starter Yovani Gallardo. "Both teams play hard. It's going to be a little bit weird, knowing we finished against them and we start off against them, but I'm looking forward to it. I don't think [the rivalry] will change. They ended up winning the World Series, and it's because they played hard just like us."

Gallardo faces another young Mexican-born starter on Friday, St. Louis lefty Jaime Garcia. They've gone against each other once before, but each team is definitely familiar with the opposing pitcher.

Garcia has had regular-season success against the Brewers, with a 3.27 ERA in eight career appearances, but he scuffled somewhat in his first of two NLCS starts. Gallardo has seen little but frustration against the Redbirds in his career, with a 1-7 record and 5.66 ERA in the regular season and a subpar showing last October as well.

One curious twist to this game: While it's the Brewers' season opener, it's not the Cards' first game. The Redbirds opened their season with a 4-1 win over the Marlins on Wednesday. And though baseball teams are plenty used to traveling, St. Louis has had a good bit of darting around recently. The Cardinals played an exhibition in Springfield, Mo., on Monday, flew back to Florida after the game, played the Marlins in Miami on Wednesday, then head back north to Milwaukee.

It's not the way they would have drawn it up, but it's what they've got to work with. And given that it's the Brewers on the other side of the field, it's a certainty that they'll be ready.

"At the end of the day I just want to win the ballgame," said St. Louis closer Jason Motte. "They lost Prince, but they still have a really good ballclub. I feel like the Central always turns out to be a tough division. It's usually pretty tight. I'm looking forward to another battle this year." Comments