CHICAGO — Having played a three-game interleague series against the Minnesota Twins, the Milwaukee Brewers were not among the NL Central Division teams facing each other during the season's opening weekend.
While the Brewers dropped two of three to the Twins, the defending division champion Chicago Cubs played against the Pittsburgh Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals got underway against the Reds in Cincinnati.
Monday's series opener against the Cubs marked the first divisional matchup of the season for the Brewers, who will see plenty more of their rivals in the coming weeks.
After finishing up in Chicago, the Brewers will head to St. Louis for three games in four days against the Cardinals. When they return to Milwaukee on Monday, the Cubs will be waiting for another three-game set. A return trip to Chicago is set for April 23-25.
"There's one team in your division that you're going to play a ton early," Counsell said. "It's the Cubs this year. They're a good team, they're a rival. They're a team that the games matter."
The teams then won't meet again until June 28-30 and the Brewers won't visit Chicago again until a four-game series Aug. 9-12. The season series wraps up with three games in Milwaukee on Sept. 17-19.
The front-loaded nature of the schedule means if the Brewers and Cubs find themselves in a battle for the division title or a wild card berth, there fewer chances to make up ground or create some separation down the stretch. Without those chances at the end of the season, the Brewers have to balance the significance of winning these games now while keeping in mind there are still 156 games remaining when they leave Chicago Wednesday night.
"(These games) count the same as the ones in September, so they're gonna be important games," Counsell said. "And we'll treat them as such."
The nine meetings with the Cubs are just part of a challenging stretch of opponents to open the season. Including their three games against the Twins, 23 of the Brewers' 26 April games will come against teams that made the postseason in 2020.
Along with the Cubs and Twins, who won the AL Central last season, the Brewers will play three against the Cardinals, three at San Diego, three against the Marlins and two against the defending World Series champion Dodgers.
"It's no cakewalk," first baseman Keston Hiura said. "Every guy on those teams can do some damage, so it's something where you definitely want to have your 'A' game at all times and be able to focus at all times. These games at the beginning of the year are going to matter just as much as the games at the end of the year, so to be able to start off with these type of teams is definitely a good test for us."
Only the Pirates, who visit Milwaukee April 16-18, finished with a losing record last season. But they split their season series with the Brewers in 2020 and went 14-5 against Milwaukee in 2019.
Patience is a virtue
Hiura got off the team bus in Chicago still looking for his first hit of the season after going 0-for-11 with six strikeouts against the Twins.
"It’s really, really early in the season," Hiura said. "There’s probably a lot of adrenaline running through (you) in the first series, especially with fans back in the stands. Definitely something that you wish you could have performed better, but there’s a lot of baseball to be played."
He came close to changing the Brewers' fortune Sunday. With two on, nobody out and the Brewers trailing 2-1 in the fifth, Hiura's grounder down the third-base line went foul by inches. Instead of at least a tying RBI, Hiura struck out and the Brewers left the bases loaded.
"Baseball is a game that’s measured by inches," Hiura said. "Those are the ones that can make a big impact in the game. I’m looking to get another opportunity like that tonight and in these upcoming games, being able to produce in those."
Right-hander Freddy Peralta puts his new changeup to the test Tuesday night when the Brewers continue their series with the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Peralta beat out Josh Lindblom for the final spot in the rotation by striking out 23 batters with just three walks over 13⅔ spring training innings. Hard-throwing right-hander Adbert Alzolay, who added a slider to complement his 95 mph fastball this spring, starts for Chicago.