Head-to-head matchups mean a little more in NL Central

Updated: May 18, 2009, 12:36 AM ET

Jeff Curry/US Presswire

Adam Wainwright, who pitches Saturday against Milwaukee, has been hit hard his past two starts.

I'm going to be keeping a close eye on the Brewers-Cardinals series this weekend. You've got two of the four teams (along with the Reds and Cubs) that find themselves fighting it out for the lead in the National League Central.

Over the past 10 games, these two clubs have been headed in opposite directions. The Brewers are playing very good baseball. They've won nine of their past 11, while the Cardinals have lost seven of their past 11 and have been hit by some significant injuries over the past couple of weeks. The Cards come into this series without two-thirds of their starting outfield; Rick Ankiel and Ryan Ludwick both are on the 15-day disabled list. Both these guys are important players, offensively and defensively. They hit around Albert Pujols in the St. Louis lineup and cover a lot of territory in the outfield.

The Brewers have been hot. They've been getting timely hitting and quality pitching when they most need it. Trevor Hoffman has returned and stabilized their bullpen, converting all eight of his save chances, including in a 5-3 win against the Marlins on Thursday. He has yet to allow an earned run this season.

The Brewers open the series with an advantage, as ace Yovani Gallardo will take the hill in Game 1. He has been outstanding this season and has looked like he is going to deliver on his potential as a quality No. 1 starter. He has limited his opponents to three or fewer runs in six of his seven starts while going 4-1 with a 3.09 ERA. Plus, he has shown himself to be a real threat with the bat, hitting two home runs already this season. Gallardo proved his toughness in 2008 when he came back after significant knee surgery to effectively pitch on one good leg down the stretch for Milwaukee.

Gallardo is matched up against Kyle Lohse, who has been one of the more pleasant surprises for the Cardinals over the past two seasons. Lohse is coming off a couple of shaky starts -- he complained of back soreness after his most recent outing -- and needs to get back on track by keeping the ball down in the strike zone and changing speeds against a powerful Brewers batting order.

On Saturday, Jeff Suppan will square off against Adam Wainwright. Suppan has had success pitching against his former team and is 4-0 with a 1.93 ERA against the Cardinals since joining the Brewers before the 2007 season. The key for Suppan is to locate his fastball and work ahead in the count so he can use his secondary pitches. He doesn't have much room for error -- even without Ankiel and Ludwick in the lineup, if he makes mistakes, the Cardinals will punish him.

Wainwright has not been as effective as you would like, but after watching video of his last start with teammate Chris Carpenter, he believes he's identified some mechanical changes he can make to get things straightened out. His arm slot wasn't right, but he feels the problem might be solved. It will be interesting to see how he does Saturday.

In Sunday's matchup, the Brewers will send Manny Parra to the mound to take on Todd Wellemeyer. Parra has been something of an enigma so far. He has phenomenal stuff. The type of stuff, in fact, that often pushes pitchers to the front end of the rotation. But he has not been able to win consistently at the major league level.

Wellemeyer has been bit by the long ball lately, which is a problem for any pitcher, but especially if you are facing the Brewers and forced to deal with the likes of Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun. Wellemeyer has to try to find a way to get through the first few innings of a game, which he also has struggled with this season. If he can use his changeup effectively, he might have a chance to neutralize that powerful Brewers lineup.

The NL Central is shaping up as a great race, with four teams within half a game of each other. With the division so bunched at the top, head-to-head matchups become that much more important because they are double victories for the winning team. Something else to watch in this series is the managers. Tony La Russa is facing Ken Macha, who still is learning the National League. This will be Macha's first taste of La Russa style baseball. La Russa is one of the most creative and intelligent managers in the game and tries to affect every game he manages. This series won't determine the Central race, but, in the end, head-to-head matchups in this division probably will.

Past Baseball Tonight Clubhouses: May 13 | May 12 | May 11 | May 10 | May 7 | May 6

TOUCH 'EM ALL

Touch 'Em AllWho went deep? Keep track of all the home runs hit each day on "Baseball Tonight" and on the Baseball Tonight Clubhouse page.

For more, check out the Home Run Tracker page.

Home Run Tracker
NAME HR OPPPITCHER SITUATION
B. Hall, Mil4FlaJohnsonBot 2: 2-1, 0 Outs. 1 on.
R. Gload, Fla1MilBushTop 5: 0-0, 0 Outs. None on.
P. Fielder, Mil8FlaBadenhopBot 5: 2-2, 2 Outs. None on.
J. Loney, LA2PhiHamelsTop 7: 1-1, 0 Outs. None on.
A. Gonzalez, SD14ChCDempsterTop 4: 3-1, 0 Outs. None on.

The complete list of Thursday's homers

ON DECK: WEEKEND WATCH

Dodgers at Marlins

The Dodgers still are trying to figure out how to exist without Manny Ramirez. The Marlins are just trying to figure out how to be a little consistent; Florida seems to answer any string of wins with a long losing streak. The Marlins already have four losing streaks of at least three games.

Indians at Rays

A pair of teams with big expectations but either shaky (Rays) or disastrous (Indians) starts to the season continue a series in Tampa Bay. Matt Garza and Carl Pavano will pitch Saturday in the series' most intriguing pitching matchup.

Angels at Rangers

This is an interesting weekend for the Angels. They got Ervin Santana back Thursday and are scheduled to get John Lackey back Saturday as they try to reel in the Rangers, who lead the American League West.

For the rest of Friday's schedule, click here. To see what's on tap for Saturday, click here. And for Sunday's full slate of games, click here.

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SIMON SAYS

Simon Says ESPN researcher Mark Simon digs deep, looking for the night's best baseball numbers.

Thursday night, he looked at Hank Blalock, whose power seems to have returned after going missing the past three seasons. Blalock homered Thursday and has 10 on the season. He hit 12, 10 and 16 the past three seasons. This year, he has teed off on righties.

ABs per HR vs. right-handers
2009 9
2008 29.2
2007 16.1
2006 33.0
2005 26.6
2004 15.9
2003 16.5

WEB GEMS

THURSDAY'S BEST AND WORST

BEST
Wandy RodriguezWandy Rodriguez continues to baffle opponents so far this season. On Thursday, he struck out 11 in a 5-3 win against the Rockies. Over his past two starts, both wins, Rodriguez has struck out 18 batters and has not issued a walk. He is 3-0 in his past four starts and his ERA rests at a comfortable 1.90, second-best in the NL.
WORST
David OrtizDavid Ortiz's lack of power this season has been well documented. How bad was he Thursday, though? Try 0-for-7 with three strikeouts and 12 -- yes, 12 -- runners left on base in a 5-4, 12-inning loss on the road to the Angels.

NUMBERS TO KNOW

Boston's David Ortiz, who, as noted above, went 0-for-7 on Thursday, has struggled mightily this season. He's chased more pitches out of the zone, and he hasn't been able to crush fastballs in the middle of the plate (his slugging percentage is down more than 400 points). Still, his overall batting average hasn't dropped off significantly on fastballs in the middle of the plate (.316 in 2008, .273 in 2009).

In 2007, he hit .571 versus the up-and-in fastball (those in the strike zone and those outside it). But in the past two seasons, he's hit less than .100.

Ortiz (2008 vs. 2009)
2008 2009
SLG overall .507 .317
SLG .559 .345
Chase pct. vs. fastball 17.0 28.0
SLG vs. fastball middle of plate .821 .385
BA vs. fastball in the strike zone .316 .273

-- ESPN Stats & Information

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