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BenFred: Clash between Cardinals and Brewers will finally get attention it deserves, thanks to watered-down National League Central

BenFred: Clash between Cardinals and Brewers will finally get attention it deserves, thanks to watered-down National League Central

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Cardinals, Brewers play second game of home stand

St. Louis Cardinals Harrison Bader runs down the first baseline after hitting into a double play in the first inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Busch Stadium on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021. Photo by Robert Cohen,

Scott Boras, the super agent everybody loves to hate, made a sharp observation during his takedown of baseball’s tanking trend at this week’s general manager’s meetings.

Seventeen at most, Boras answered when asked how many of MLB’s clubs he thinks are truly trying to win in 2022. How many in the National League Central, he was then asked, according to NBC Sports Chicago’s Gordon Wittenmyer. “I think you know the answer to that,” Boras answered.

It’s two. Cardinals. Brewers. A clash that too often has been overlooked has found the center stage. Others are in various stages of bowing out.

The Reds have gone from towering over poor Jake Woodford, to missing the playoffs and attempting to justify a shrinking payroll. Flexing Nick Castellanos is a free agent. The Reds’ rising was fake news.

The Cubs are rebooting after last season’s trade-deadline selloff. Some are old enough to remember when the Cubs were confident enough to install a Jostens shop right next door to Wrigley Field, as if the championship rings were going to keep rolling into the North Side. Whoops. Catcher Willson Contreras’ head is still spinning from seeing so many teammates depart.

The Pirates? They’re still waiting on owner Bob Nutting to find his buried treasure.

This is, of course, a shame. But whining about it won’t change much. The trend will continue unless owners and players work together to alter a system that incentivizes trying to lose more than trying to win, whether it’s creating a salary floor or some other solution. We’ll see if things improve during this round of negotiations over the next collective bargaining agreement. Don’t hold your breath.

There is a silver lining to be found, though. The Cardinals have their team motto for 2022. Beat the Brewers. It’s that simple. Just don’t expect it to be easy.

The Cubs’ unsustainable peak and the Reds’ moves that flashed then fizzled have caused the Brewers to get overlooked more than they should here in Cardinal Nation. If that has not stopped by now, it should.

The Cardinals get tired of me mentioning it’s been 10 years since they last won a World Series championship. Let’s focus on the last five years instead. It really puts the Brewers’ NL Central climb into focus.

• Since 2017 the Brewers rank second in the NL in regular-season wins (395), trailing only the powerhouse Dodgers (451). The Cardinals (382) are tied with the Braves for third. Milwaukee has averaged 2.6 more wins per season than the Cardinals during this span, which includes the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

• The Brewers hold a 44-42 edge in head-to-head regular-season games played against the Cardinals since 2017, even after the Cardinals took the 2021 regular-season series 11 games to eight.

• The Brewers have the edge over the Cardinals in winning percentage against NL Central opponents over the past five years. The Brewers check in at .554. The Cardinals are at .538.

• The Brewers have a franchise-record four consecutive postseason appearances to the Cardinals’ three in the past five seasons, and they have two first-place NL Central finishes (2018, 2021) to the Cardinals’ one (2019). The Brewers are 7-10 in those four postseason trips, with just one postseason series won. The Cardinals are 4-9 in their three most recent trips, with just one postseason series won. The Cardinals beat the Braves in a 2019 division series before getting bounced by the eventual World Series champion Nationals, and have won just one postseason game since, in a wild-card series loss to the Padres in 2020. The Brewers beat the Rockies in a 2018 division series before losing to the Dodgers in that postseason’s NLCS. They lost a wild-card game in 2019 (Nationals), a wild-card series in 2020 (Dodgers) and a division series in 2021 (Braves). Something should jump out there. The Brewers have been knocked from the playoffs by the NL champion for four consecutive seasons, and the last three went on to win the World Series. You tell me which recent postseason sample size is more impressive.

• The Brewers are managed by Craig Counsell, who is once again a finalist for NL manager of the year. The Cardinals have switched gears from former manager of the year winner and current finalist Mike Shildt, to first-year major league manager Oli Marmol. Forget age. It’s irrelevant. But Counsell has a 529-win head start on Marmol in terms of major league managerial experience.

• Brewers baseball operations leader David Stearns is being pursued by the mess that is the Mets for good reason. He’s built a real, sustainable threat to the Cardinals. His decisions since he was hired entering the 2016 season have not always worked — Christian Yelich’s slide comes to mind — but he’s been smart in offseasons and aggressive during seasons to improve team needs that come up on the fly. Trading closer Josh Hader, if that happens, won’t change that. As long as the Brewers keep Stearns, they will be a factor in this division. If that wasn’t clear before, it will be in the Central’s two-team race in 2022.

Sports columnists Ben Frederickson and Jeff Gordon weigh in on the ongoing negotiations between MLB owners and players.

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