The Brewers began play today with a 72-55 record, the second-best in the National League and good enough to keep them atop the wildcard chase. So, there's plenty to feel good about with this team as September approaches.
However, Tuesday night's 5-2 defeat to Houston was the latest in a lengthening list of baffling, frustrating outcomes that could derail Milwaukee's quest for the postseason unless it reverses some disturbing trends and finds answers to a few important questions.
At least these are the ones that this scribe continued to scratch his bald head about afterward.
Why can't Big Ben make big pitches?
The talk for much of the season, at least by television announcers Brian Anderson and Bill Schroeder, was about how Ben Sheets was a leading contender for Cy Young Award recognition. Well, that talk has faded quickly for the right-hander, partly because of his performance and partly because of the team's sad offensive numbers behind him—we'll get to that point in a minute.
Sheets was 10-3 with a 2.85 earned-run average at the All-Star break—and started the Midsummer Classic for the NL--but has gone 1-4 with a 4.00 ERA since. Not atrocious, just not what the Brewers are paying for and should be getting from their co-ace in the heat of a pennant race.Obviously, pitching in so many tight ball games and feeling like he has to make perfect pitches has taken its toll. Sheets isn't going to win or be on the top of his game every time out.
But it's how and why he's losing key situational battles—such as two-strike and two-out scenarios--and games that matters. Tuesday was the latest and a classic example. He and manager Ned Yost said that Sheets simply made two bad pitches. But that's the point. What were those pitches?
He gave up a two-run triple to Michael Bourn in the third on a hanging curveball. A hanging curveball to a guy hitting .226 and not able to get around on his fastball? Then he grooved a two-strike changeup or off-speed pitch to Geoff Blum for a three-run homer with two outs in the sixth that decided the contest.
Again, Sheets can't be expected to throw 95 mph every pitch for seven or eight innings, especially not against a good-hitting club like the Astros. The point is that he needs to throw 95 mph in tough spots such as he found himself in Tuesday night. If they hit him, they hit him. At least he would have gotten beaten by throwing his best pitch, not his second- or third-best offerings. That's been his problem throughout his career; he's never developed a quality third pitch that he can count on consistently.
Why can't the Brewers score more runs for Sheets?
Since he started the season 9-1, Milwaukee has scored a paltry eight runs in Sheets' six defeats and they've scored only 23 runs in his seven outings since the All-Star break. So, his troubles aren't all of his own making.
Maybe Milwaukee's hitters simply get too relaxed and confident that Sheets will stop the opposition and they won't have to score many runs and they don't bare down enough and produce the big hits. But they seem to score more than enough for CC Sabathia and most of the other pitchers.
Maybe there is no answer and it's just one of baseball's oddities, and unfortunately for Sheets, it's his turn to be the one not getting any offensive support.
Why haven't the Brewers brought up another lefty?
The numbers maybe don't raise eyebrows or concerns, but yours truly hasn't felt comfortable with this predicament all season long.
Brian Shouse is 4-1 with a 2.36 ERA for the season. Not bad, really. He had 0.93 ERAs in May and June but was rocked for a 5.63 showing in July. And although he hasn't given up an earned run in August, he doesn't appear as effective against lefties as he should or needs to be. His 75-80 mph offerings are just too enticing if they're not located perfectly. He has an ERA of 4.00 since the break and he's given up 16 hits to lefties this year, not exactly a comforting thought when that's his No. 1 job.
Young southpaw Mitch Stetter has been up twice, being sent down the first time because of his wildness and the second time in a numbers game with the roster. He'll no doubt be one of the September call-ups.
Although the acquisition of Ray Durham has given the Brewers batting and defensive options they didn't have before, it was as important or more so if Milwaukee had gotten a second left-hander in its bullpen. But general manager Doug Melvin couldn't pull that off before the trading deadline, and it could play a pivotal role during the final six weeks.
Why can't the Brewers hit with runners in scoring position?
This question has lingered since early in the year. Milwaukee sits 23rd in baseball with a .254 overall team batting average, and only four teams have struck out more times than Milwaukee's 951 whiffs. So, folks who keep saying that the Brewers have an explosive offense aren't seeing the whole picture.
Conversely, they're 18th in walks with 419, so it's easy to see why they're tied for 19th with a .325 on-base percentage, which pales in comparison to the Cubs' baseball-best .359.
That's a big part of why they aren't hitting in key situations. They don't get counts in their favor and/or don't take advantage of them when they do. Ryan Braun and Corey Hart lead the Crew with OBP's of .306, but the horrendous numbers otherwise tell the story: Prince Fielder .233, Jason Kendall .242, J.J. Hardy .214, Bill Hall .233, Rickie Weeks .233 and Mike Cameron .227. Sometimes statistics just don't lie.
The Brewers are third behind the White Sox (184) and Phillies (167) with their 166 homers, but they are too dependent on long balls to score and win games. As I've lamented before, the team is too right-handed—on the mound and at the plate. They have Durham, a switch hitter, Craig Counsell, the injured Russell Branyan and recently brought up Laynce Nix as a left-handed option.
However, they need one or two quality contact and/or line-drive hitters from that side of the plate to further balance the lineup and create mismatches and substitution issues for opposing skippers. They could also use a few contact hitters from the right side, for that matter. Maybe these young core players will continue to develop better eyes and disciplines at the plate, but the team and its fans need that process to take hold in a hurry.