Opening Day deductions are truly a fool’s errand.
Last season, Ryan Braun played first base during the Brewers' 2-1 extra-inning victory in San Diego. Domingo Santana started in right field and went 2-5. Chase Anderson pitched six scoreless innings. Ji-Man Choi scored the winning run off the bench in the 12th.
Of course, with hindsight, the things that looked so important to start 2018 ended up being minor footnotes in an otherwise thrilling season. Braun only soaked up 109 innings at first. Santana split his at-bats evenly between Triple-A and the big leagues, and was traded to Seattle this winter. Anderson pitched to a 4.09 ERA over his final 29 outings and ultimately missed the postseason roster. Choi played in just 12 games for Milwaukee and now plies his trade in Tampa. Things change quickly in baseball, particularly for a team like the Brewers that embraces roster fluidity.
Still, this season opener feels different, as the Brewers return nearly every key contributor from last season’s division-winning squad, while adding one of the bigger free agents on the market. The Brewers will have to adjust to being the hunted, though the organization does still feel like it has something to prove.
"This is not last year’s team," manager Craig Counsell said before Thursday’s win. "This team … (is) doing everything for the first time. This is the first Opening Day for this group of guys. We’re going to take a different path. We’re going to have different challenges. We’re going to have different heroes. It’s a brand new experience every year, I really believe that."
So yes, drawing conclusions from the first glimpse of a seven-month war of attrition is admittedly a dangerous gambit, and even more so after Counsell – and general manager David Stearns for that matter – emphasized the changing nature of a new season.
But here we are anyways, with 10 takeaways from the Brewers’ Opening Day victory.
1. Cain is coming for that Gold Glove
Despite his continued excellence in the field – he ranks fourth among all outfielders in defensive runs saved since 2010 (112) – Lorenzo Cain has never won a Gold Glove award, most recently losing out to Atlanta’s Ender Inciarte in 2018. Well, he looks primed to add to his trophy shelf in 2019, as the charismatic centerfielder clinched the Brewers’ season-opening win by gliding over 100 feet to pick Jose Martinez’ game-tying blast off the wall right in front of the St. Louis bullpen.
The Brewers’ pitching staff does have legitimate holes, but the front office has done a nice job assuaging those concerns by surrounding the mound with a bevy of elite defensive players, including Travis Shaw, Yasmani Grandal, Christian Yelich and, of course, Cain.
2. Can Chacin break the Opening Day Curse?
With Jhoulys Chacin toeing the rubber to open the season, the Brewers have now used six different Opening Day starters in the last six seasons. That top-of-the-rotation instability is bad enough in itself, but the curse is truly built on the absolute calamity each starter has become immediately after earning that Opening Day nod. In the season prior to their season-opening start, the Brewers’ last five Opening Day pitchers have combined for a 4.21 ERA. But in the season when they actually make the Opening Day start, that number jumps to 4.52, with some truly notable implosions along the way, including Kyle Lohse’s disastrous 2015, Junior Guerra’s injury during his 2017 appearance and Anderson’s aforementioned disappointment in 2018.
The 31-year-old Chacin, who has now made three Opening Day starts for three different teams, pitched well on Thursday – the two-pitch, two-home run sequence in the second inning aside. But the big righthander will be a free agent after this season, meaning Milwaukee may have to find a seventh Opening Day starter for 2020, regardless of how Chacin pitches this summer.
3. Rollie and Robin still got it
If Chacin does indeed hit a rough patch this season, and the Brewers need to pick up some starting pitching depth, they might need to look no further than Miller Park’s back wall. Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers and Robin Yount – whose numbers have both been retired by the franchise – simultaneously tossed perfect strikes to open the 2019 campaign.
Sign ‘em up!
4. Early season schedule
The schedule gods are certainly throwing everything they’ve got at the Brewers out of the gate. Milwaukee starts the season with 10 straight divisional games, has a week-long stop in Los Angeles for meetings with the Angels and Dodgers, and still has nine more matchups with the Cardinals before the calendar flips to May. The Brewers are slated to play 31 games in 34 days by April 30; all 31 come against teams with legitimate playoff aspirations.
You can’t win the division in April (just ask the 2014 Brewers), but you can certainly lose it. Milwaukee is off to the right start with its 5-4 win, though they really just need to try and keep their head above water until the schedule eases up in June and July.
5. The 2018 NL Central Pennant is a nice look on Miller Park’s left field bleachers
That is all.
6. Fans change their tune on Grandal
Last October, Grandal’s postseason struggles in the field and at the dish earned him a chorus of jeers from the Milwaukee faithful. But flash forward five months and Grandal now has fans prattling on about his value as both a pitch-framer and a lineup-lengthener. The fans are absolutely right – Grandal has been one of the best catchers in the game three years running – but it’s amusing to see how quickly things change
For his part, Grandal went 0-3 at the dish on Thursday, but he did not go unnoticed defensively. Grandal alertly hopped out of his stance to throw out the speedy Harrison Bader on a bunt attempt in the seventh inning, and also stole a couple strikes at the bottom of the zone to punch out Paul Goldschmidt in each of his first two plate appearances. In his pregame press conference, Counsell discussed Grandal’s pitch-framing talents and specifically referenced his ability to earn calls low in the zone.
7. Measuring ovations
As the reigning NL MVP, Christian Yelich deservedly received the day’s loudest cheer, but boy, do Brewers fans still enjoy themselves some Eric Thames. Thames batted just .219 last season, yet still received a hero’s welcome as a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning.
8. Welcome to Tater City, home of the Brewers
The Brewers finished second in the National League in home runs last season, and after adding Grandal and a full season of Mike Moustakas to the lineup, they seem poised to go after the 2019 crown. Moustakas, Yelich and Chacin (!) all took Cardinals starter Miles Mikolas deep on Thursday.
Of course, the Brewers might also be victim to some long balls in 2019. Kolten Wong and Harrison Bader’s second-inning home runs off Chacin certainly were not wall-scrapers. (The typically light-hitting Wong poked a second home run in the seventh off Junior Guerra, as well.)
9. I’m pro-DH, but …
This Brewers team is hell-bent on changing my mind. As someone who grew up rooting for an American League club, being pro-designated hitter is one of the few takes I truly believe in. I cannot stand watching pitchers flail aimlessly with the bat, but I will admit to enjoying a pitcher who can crank dingers. Chacin popped a pair of hits on Thursday, including a 405-foot shot that proved to be the difference in the game. And we all remember what Saturday’s starter Brandon Woodruff can do with the bat.
10. Strong crowds continue
Milwaukee is not unique in selling out its home openers – a tidy 45,304 were in attendance on Thursday – but it’s still refreshing to see last year’s positive momentum carry over into the stands in 2019. Cardinals fans traditionally have an outsize presence at Miller Park, but the Brewers faithful was largely able to keep the pockets of red at bay on Thursday.
Milwaukee finished 10th in baseball in average home attendance last year and could climb even higher in 2019 with a new gaggle of fans climbing aboard the hottest bandwagon in the sport. In his Opening Day press conference, owner Mark Attanasio said the organization retained 98 percent of last season’s season-ticket holders. The Brewers have now won nine straight regular-season games and 15 of their last 19 overall (including the postseason).
When Brian's not writing about sports, he is probably prattling on about Marquette hoops, digging through statistics, or re-binging his favorite television series. Any conversation that begins with a quote from "The Office" or "West Wing" is a surefire way to grab his attention.