Commentary

No shortage of drama in NLCS

Recent friction between Cardinals and Brewers could cause series to heat up fast

Updated: October 9, 2011, 9:39 AM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

MILWAUKEE -- Perhaps the worst-kept secret among baseball fans in the Midwest is the bubbling cauldron of dislike between the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals. The bitter NL Central rivals split 18 head-to-head games this year and had a series of well-documented dustups -- or "drama" as Ryan Braun calls it.

But on the day before Game 1 of National League Championship Series, you expected everyone to be on their best behavior. You figured the coaches and players would downplay the animosity between these two teams, drop the word "respect" as much as "the" and insist that everything that happened in the past would stay in the past.

And you'd be wrong.

Welcome to the NLCS, where the two teams vying for a trip to the World Series throw not only baseballs at each other but also chewing tobacco. Where one player referred to the greatest hitter in the game as "she." Where managers have complained about cheating and mind games. And where the dislike doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon.

[+] EnlargeZack Greinke
AP Photo/David J. PhillipZack Greinke lobbed a few shots at the Cardinals before Game 1, mostly at St. Louis ace Chris Carpenter.

"We don't like each other," said Brewers outfielder Corey Hart.

"There's a definite dislike," agreed Cardinals outfielder Lance Berkman.

Although the TV networks might be a bit bummed about a final four without the Yankees, Red Sox or Phillies, this series won't be short on drama. The fun has already begun, thanks to Game 1 starter Zack Greinke firing the latest shot between the two teams. On the eve of the biggest start of his life, there was Greinke sitting at the front of a media interview room telling reporters that his teammates despise Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter, fresh off his mastery of Philadelphia on Friday night.

"They think his presence, his attitude out there sometimes is like a phony attitude," the tell-it-like-it-is Greinke said. "And then he yells at people. He just stares people down and stuff. And most pitchers don't do that. When guys do, I guess some hitters get mad."

When Cardinals manager Tony La Russa later met the media, a reporter read Greinke's comments to the manager and asked him to respond.

"I'm very disappointed," La Russa said. "I just praised him a little bit ago. I always thought he was a high character, classy guy."

La Russa went on.

"Our attitude is we look at ourselves and we grade ourselves," he said. "I think the Brewers should take care of their players and their comments and not be concerned about other players and comments. I'm disappointed. If you knew him, none of that stuff is true. He doesn't give bull----. He doesn't take it. That's the way it's supposed to be."

Of course, it was La Russa who offered his opinion on Milwaukee's Nyjer Morgan after a Sept. 7 dustup with Carpenter, saying "I hope he gets a clue. And he's probably going to get upset that I give advice, but if it's the truth, it's the truth. He can be the player he is without instigating."

The La Russa-led Cardinals have long been the class of the NL Central. Their on-field success has made them one of the most disliked teams in the league. Even Berkman, the longtime Houston Astro, admitted, "I looked at the Cardinals as the Darth Vader of the NL Central. A foe to be vanquished."

The emergence of the Brewers as a challenger to the Cardinals has stoked the rivalry between these two. At the heart of the issue is a clash of styles. The Brewers are new school. They play with a high level of exuberance and energy. They make their "beast mode" hand gesture every time a player reaches base. They have fun and play with swagger. It's a style a teenager would appreciate.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, are old school. There are no antics. No screaming and yelling. No hand gestures. If you hit one of their guys, they're going to hit one of your guys. They play the game with a style that grandparents like.

Put it together and you have oil and water.

"If a guy is making a flamingo dance at me after he strikes me out, that's akin to hitting a home run and backpedaling to first base," Berkman said. "Just act like you've done it before.

"When I first came into the big leagues, nobody cared what their walk-up song was. Until this year I had never picked a walk-up song. It's just stuff like that. Everybody resists change. I'm sure the guys from the '70s say the same thing about us. It's just … sometimes the demonstrations that happen on the field by them are rankling."

Milwaukee's Jerry Hairston Jr. said the expressiveness is the only way the Brewers know how to play.

"I know we can be exuberant, but we tried toning it down and we lost 3-4 games in a row," he said. "We can't play like that. We have to have fun. We have to play with a lot of energy. We really mean no disrespect to anybody. We just have to play that way to be loose and to win."

[+] EnlargeBrewers and Cardinals fight
Jeff Curry/US PresswireNyjer Morgan and the Cardinals don't get along. After this Sept. 7 "exchange," he referred to Albert Pujols as "she" on Twitter.

So what are the chances that the bad blood might spill over during the series?

"If everybody behaves themselves and we just play baseball, we'll be fine," Berkman said.

Is that likely?

"As far as I'm concerned it is," he said. "I can only control me. I'm not doing anything to incite any ill will from the other side. I'll tell you that."

It won't take much. Tempers flew between the two teams in August when Milwaukee's Takashi Saito hit Albert Pujols in the wrist and St. Louis closer Jason Motte retaliated by plunking Braun. After the game, an agitated La Russa defended the move, saying the pitch that hit Pujols was "scary" because it struck the same wrist the first baseman fractured earlier in the season. He referred to Milwaukee fans as "idiots" after one yelled that he wished La Russa's shingles would return.

The 67-year-old manager battled the disease for two months earlier this season, missing six games.

"That's what all these idiots up there -- not idiots, fans -- are yelling," La Russa said at the time. "I don't want to even hear about Braun getting a little pop in the back when we almost lose [Pujols] in several ways."

La Russa also complained to Major League Baseball that the Brewers scoreboard lighting seemed brighter when Milwaukee was batting. He criticized Milwaukee for stealing signs and chirped that LaTroy Hawkins was quick-pitching.

The bad blood carried over to the last game the two teams played, when Morgan threw his chewing tobacco toward Carpenter after striking out. That prompted Pujols to walk in from first base and say a few choice words to Morgan.

Afterward, Morgan took his frustrations to Twitter, referring to Pujols as "Alberta" and "she" while making a crack about St. Louis' slim postseason chances.

"Where still n 1st and I hope those crying birds injoy watching tha Crew in tha Playoffs!!!" Morgan wrote. "Alberta couldn't see Plush if she had her gloves on!!! Wat was she thinking running afta Plush!!! She never been n tha ring!!!"

Now the Cardinals get the chance for the last laugh. On Saturday, Morgan refused to apologize for his tweets, going as far as to suggest the Cardinals should thank him for providing some needed inspiration.

"I'm glad I was able to fuel their fire," he said.

Hairston then did his best to save his teammate.

"He didn't say the Cardinals wouldn't be in the playoffs. He said they'd be watching us," he said. "Now they'll be watching us from across the dugout. They'll have a great view."

Braun saw all of this coming. When the Brewers left St. Louis on Sept. 7, the Cardinals were 7½ games behind Atlanta in the wild-card race with 19 games to play. They were all but finished. Yet the Brewers left fielder said he knew his team was going to St. Louis again before the year was over.

"They're a good team, and I knew they'd find a way in and we'd match up with them again," he said.

They did. And here they are. The battle is about to begin.

"Anytime you play a team with that sort of friction, it makes for excitement," Hart said. "With that extra intense little thing between us, trust me, this is going to be fun."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn.com. Follow Wayne on Twitter @espnWD.