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PHOENIX (AP) — Thanks to some aggressive acquisitions
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by the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds Luis Tiant Jersey , the NL Central got a lot tougher on paper this offseason.Lorenzo Cain and the Milwaukee Brewers think they’re up to the task of repeating as champions.“Competition is through the roof. It’s gonna be a complete division,” Cain said. “We won the division last year, but there are a lot of people waiting to take that from us. We gotta go out and compete, but we’ll be ready to go.”Cain was a big part of the Brewers’ late-season run to 96 wins and the NL Championship Series, which they lost to the Dodgers in seven games.Cain and Christian Yelich came aboard in the offseason a year ago, Cain as a free agent and Yelich in a trade with Miami. Yelich was the NL MVP with 36 homers and a 1.000 OPS, but Cain also contributed with great defense in center field plus career highs of 30 stolen bases and a .395 on-base percentage.“(David) Stearns has done a good job adding pieces to this team,” Cain said of the Milwaukee general manager. “For one, to give them a run like we did last year, that last month of the season was incredible. We expect more of the same. We have to bring the same mindset.”This offseason, Milwaukee’s division rivals were the ones stocking up. The Cardinals added Paul Goldschmidt, and the Reds picked up Yasiel Puig, Sonny Gray and Tanner Roark. Add in the Chicago Cubs — who lost Game 163 to the Brewers for the division title last year — and a competitive Pittsburgh Pirates club, and the NL Central is shaping up to be baseball’s deepest division.The Brewers couldn’t match the haul of Yelich and Cain from a year ago, but they did sign catcher Yasmani Grandal. They also brought back Mike Moustakas, who will play second base for the first time in his career with Travis Shaw switching back to third.Cain remains in center, where he remains one of the best in the game. He’ll be 33 next month, but Cain still feels like he has a lot left.“I still feel great,” he said, adding that he’s “still getting my legs underneath me.”Cain returned to his original organization last year after seven years in Kansas City. The highlight was 2015 http://www.redsoxproshops.com/authentic-dustin-pedroia-jersey , when he hit a career-high 16 homers, stole 28 bases, made the All-Star team and helped the Royals win the World Series.His only personal goal now? “Being healthy the entire season. I don’t really set goals like hitting .300, things like that.“We want to get back to the playoffs and go from there.”NOTES: Yelich hit his third homer of the spring training. He also doubled to raise his Cactus League average to .500 (12 for 24). … Jhoulys Chacin said the assignment of starting opening day is “awesome.” The 31-year-old was expected to get the nod for the Brewers’ game March 28 against St. Louis, and manager Craig Counsell made it official on Thursday. “It’s exciting, and an honor for me,” said Chacin, who is starting his third opener, having started for Colorado in 2013 and San Diego in 2017. Elsa/Getty ImagesA former major league pitcher watched Games 1 and 2 and came away with one overwhelming thought about the Los Angeles Dodgers' chance at making this World Series interesting."They have to get lucky and win a game early," the former pitcher said Thursday. "It's hard for them to play from behind, because of a lot of their hitters can't catch up to the Red Sox bullpen."In other words, forget everything you thought you knew when October began. Forget some of what you thought you knew when this week began.The bullpen isn't the fatal flaw in the formula that the Red Sox used to win 108 games. No, the reworked bullpen is the strength that has the Sox on the way to winning the four games that matter most ones that could bring them another World Series title.If this is a race, you could say the Red Sox are at two wins and the Dodgers haven't left the starting blocks. Or you could say that the Red Sox are moving at 100 mph and the Dodgers are caught in an L.A. traffic jam.Or you could just look at these numbers: So far in these playoffs, according to research byBaseball Savant, Cody Bellinger (0-for-6), Yasiel Puig (0-for-5), Manny Machado (0-for-4), Matt Kemp (0-for-4), Kike Hernandez (0-for-4) Tony Conigliaro Jersey , Yasmani Grandal (0-for-3) and David Freese (0-for-1) are a combined 0-for-27 when an at-bat ends with a pitch at 97 mph or faster. Add in Justin Turner (1-for-6) and Max Muncy (1-for-5), and you've got nine Dodgers hitters who are a combined 2-for-38 this month when facing high velocity.Before you cry "small sample size," it's not like this is just an October issue. Including the regular season and playoffs, Bellinger is 4-for-28 when facing 97 and above. Turner is 4-for-21, and Chris Taylor is 1-for-14.Taylor, Grandal, Hernandez, Bellinger, Turner, Joc Pederson and Brian Dozier have batted a combined .137 against 97 and above, since the start of the 2018 season. The overall major league average this season was .224.The Dodgers overcame some hard-throwing relievers to beat the Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Brewers, but the Red Sox are throwing heat like they haven't seen (or hit). According to Baseball Savant, which uses numbers from MLB.com's Statcast, three of the top six pitchers ranked by average fastball velocity in the 2018 playoffs are Red Sox right-handers Nathan Eovaldi (98.9 mph), Joe Kelly (98.9) and Craig Kimbrel (97.9).You want triple digits? Baseball Savantsays there have been 46 pitches thrown at 100 mph or higher this month. Eovaldi has thrown 22 of them. Kelly has thrown nine. And while Kimbrel hasn't hit 100 this October, he has thrown seven pitches clocked at 99 mph (and he topped 100 mph twice in September).Is it any surprise that, through two games, those three have retired all 18 Dodgers they've faced?Nathan EovaldiElsa/Getty ImagesPerhaps the bigger question is why so few of us warned you this was coming, and why so many of us why Red Sox general manager Dave Dombrowski didn't do more to fix such an obvious flaw in his otherwise great team.The truth is Dombrowski and his front office did try very hard to trade for bullpen help. According to Bleacher Report sources, the Sox nearly completed a July deadline deal with the Washington Nationals for reliever Kelvin Herrera before the Nationals decided against a sell-off (and before Herrera tore a ligament in his left foot in August). Even as Dombrowski was strengthening other parts of his team by dealing for a second baseman (Ian Kinsler) http://www.redsoxproshops.com/authentic-dustin-pedroia-jersey , a first baseman (Steve Pearce) and a starting pitcher (Eovaldi), the Red Sox looked everywhere for a reliever who would be a clear improvement on what they already had.They didn't find one. Or maybe they did.Acquiring Eovaldi from the Tampa Bay Rays on July 25 gave the Red Sox more depth in their rotation. It allowed manager Alex Cora the leeway to use starter Rick Porcello for key relief appearances against the New York Yankees and Houston Astros. It allowed Cora to use Eovaldi for four key outs in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against the Astros.Eovaldi pitched the eighth inning in Games 1 and 2 against the Dodgers, the team that drafted him in 2008 and brought him to the big leagues in 2011, only to trade him to the Miami Marlins a year later. Even though he's still listed as the tentative Game 4 starter, Cora won't rule out using Eovaldi in relief again in Game 3 Friday night and choosing someone else for Game 4."You never know," Cora said in his postgame press conference Wednesday. "Like I've been saying all along, we're all-in every day. If we feel there's a chance to close the door with them, we'll use him. The way it's mapped out, it's Rick in Game 3 and maybe Nate Game 4. But Nate might come in in the eighth again. If we have a chance to be up [three games to none] with him on the mound and Craig [Kimbrel], we'll do it. And then we'll figure out Game 4."Cora went on to talk about how you do things differently in the playoffs than you would from April through September, and that Eovaldi out of the pen is part of that."He's been amazing for us," Cora said.Whether it was fixing a pitch-tipping flaw or simply regaining confidence, Craig Kimbrel again looked like a lights-out closer in Games 1 and 2.Maddie Meyer/Getty ImagesHe has been amazing, but it wouldn't have mattered if the rest of the bullpen hadn't come together. Even as the Red Sox won night after night in the regular season, Cora had struggled to figure out who he trusted in front of Kimbrel at the end of games. At the end of September, Kelly seemed somewhat out of favor, with Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier getting bigger innings.Barnes and Brasier have continued to pitch, but Kelly has become more and more important as October has gone on. After pitching just once in four games against the Yankees, he has appeared in five of the last seven games the Red Sox have played, usually with the lead on the line."He's been lights-out Steve Pearce Jersey ," Cora said. "Breaking balls for strikes, good fastball, good changeup. Presence on the mound. I'm happy for him. At one point he went from being the guy in the seventh, eighth inning to just a guy in the bullpen. And now he's back to the equation. When Joey is throwing strikes with all his pitches, he might be one of the toughest relievers in the big leagues because his stuff is that good."No one has ever questioned Kimbrel's stuff, but he gave up runs in each of his first four appearances this postseason. He couldn't consistently throw strikes, and when he did, they were too often low strikes rather than the up-in-the-zone fastballs that normally eat hitters alive.It's been widely reported that former Red Sox (and Dodgers) closer Eric Gagne noticed Kimbrel was tipping his pitches and that he and the Sox corrected it before Game 5 of the ALCS. That may well have made the difference, or it may be that correcting an apparent flaw gave Kimbrel the confidence he'd been lacking earlier in the month.The Dodgers looked like a team craving heat, but not in the form of 100 mph fastballs.Rob Carr/Getty ImagesEither way, the Kimbrel who appeared against the Dodgers looked like a different guy than the one who struggled against the Yankees and Astros. His body language was again that of a closer who didn't plan to give you a chance, rather than one who was just hoping to get through an inning.Body language tells a lot. In the cold at Fenway Park, every view of the Dodger dugout showed a bunch of guys who looked like they just wanted to go somewhere warm, while every look at the Red Sox showed a team that didn't mind if the game went on forever.A forecast for game time Friday in Los Angeles says it will be 77 degrees, which should make the Dodgers feel more comfortable.Unfortunately for them, the forecast for the late innings will be the same as it was for Games 1 and 2: 100 mph, blowing right by them. They'd better figure out a way to deal with it, or they won't need to worry about the temperature back in Boston for a Game 6.Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.
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