Friday September 26th, 2008

Ryan Braun, the Brewers' wunderkind of a No. 3 hitter, is as particular as they come. Before he feels fully comfortable in the batters' box, an elaborate routine must play out. It is not always the same, but tends to include scooping up dirt with his hands; wiping them on his pants; un-Velcroing each batting glove, then re-Velcroing it; adjusting his helmet; tugging at the front shoulder of his jersey, then the back shoulder; adjusting his pants near the cup and waist; waving his bat so it points out toward the pitcher, and then finally cocking it into a waggling, ready position. This is generally repeated between each pitch.

Imagine, then, how much a slugger so concerned with the most minute details of his readiness could be affected by a significant injury -- an intercostal strain in his back, suffered on Aug. 9 -- that Braun calls "the most frustrating thing I've ever been through as a baseball player." Since it happened, he has not looked like the Ryan Braun that set the league on fire as a rookie in 2007. Up until Thursday, he was hitting .207 with one home run and five RBIs in September, and a large part of the most frustrating thing ever endured by Brewers fans -- the team's epic collapse, losing 15 of their first 19 games this month to fall out of the wild-card lead -- was due to his lack of production in the middle of the lineup. Braun, said manager Dale Sveum, "feels the weight on his shoulders, and hasn't been coming through much."

On Thursday night at Miller Park, time was running out on Braun -- four games left in the season, in a dead heat for the NL wild card with the Mets, and 0-for his first four at-bats against the Pirates -- when he found a pitch that allowed him to time warp to the pre-strain days. It was a hanging 2-2 slider from Jesse Chavez, with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the 10th, and the score tied 1-1. Braun squared it up and deposited it into the left-field bleachers, where it caromed off the hands of a fan wearing a Braun jersey. Of the injury, which has yet to come close to abating, Braun said, "I didn't feel it at all on that pitch."

That numbness may be a welcome side-effect of euphoria, which has been in abundance the past three days in Milwaukee, where the Brewers completed a sweep of the Pirates in the penultimate home series of the season and are closing in on their first playoff appearance since 1982. They mobbed Braun at home plate, just as they did on Tuesday night with Prince Fielder after his walk-off home run, but could not get a gift from the division champion Cubs, who blew a 6-3 lead against the Mets and left the wild-card race even for the second consecutive day.

Braun, from his position in the field, admitted to keeping tabs on goings-on in New York. "Between pitches, I'm looking into Fridays" -- the restaurant at Miller Park, beyond the left-field fence -- "to watch the Mets game on TV," he said. What he would have seen in the bottom of the ninth at Shea, amid the torrential rains of a Nor'easter, was Jose Reyes scoring on a walk-off single to put pressure on the Brewers to stay even. Braun's first grand slam of his career, and Milwaukee's first grand slam of the season, was the clout that did it.

Yet one has to wonder, amid the heat of this playoff race, what we learned about this Brewers club. Under Sveum, the manager who was promoted when Ned Yost was fired with just 12 games left in the season, have they truly regained their footing? Or were the past three days merely a tease before yet another collapse against the Cubs? The Pirates have been Milwaukee's favorite whipping boys; they finished 14-1 against the Bucs this season. It's worth remembering, as Lou's boys come to town Friday, that they've beaten the Brewers eight of 13 times in 2008.

1. Ben Sheets is highly unlikely to make another regular-season start.

In the clubhouse prior to batting practice, Sheets, who was being considered for a start Saturday but has been battling an inflamed elbow, said: "If my arm lets me, I'll go out there. I'm not going to go out there and blow my elbow out. [You] never know, you might. [What if I] pitch Saturday and then we get into the playoffs and I don't pitch in October? That's the question."

The semi-answer we received, in regard to his status, came after he cut off his bullpen session at 20 pitches ("three minutes," he said) prior to the game. "It wasn't hurting," said Sheets, "but it wasn't doing anything else."

Given that Sveum likely needs to make a decision soon about his Saturday starter, it looks as if Dave Bush -- whom his manager says has "a rubber arm," but is 0-1 with a 4.97 ERA in September -- will go on three day's rest in Sheets' place. Sheets, who will be a free agent after the season, engaged in a lengthy debate with writers about the merits of going one good inning and then pulling out, versus not starting at all. He somewhat vacillated on the topic, saying that "it's one less inning the bullpen has to throw" but also that he wouldn't start if he knew in advance he only had one inning in the tank.

"If he can only go one inning that means he's got nothing going out there," Sveum said of Sheets, "and I don't want to be five runs down the first inning."

At best, look to see Sheets, who is 13-8 this season with a 2.98 ERA, considered for a Game 1 or 2 start in the NLDS. The Brewers could use him there, since CC Sabathia, if he starts Sunday on three days' rest, would be unavailable until Game 3 at the earliest.

2. Yovani Gallardo is healthy enough to pitch in the playoffs.

Gallardo, the future ace of the Brewers' staff, gingerly walked out to the mound Thursday for his first start since suffering an ACL tear on May 1 against the Cubs. He only lasted four innings -- he was on a pitch count and threw 67 -- but struck out seven and allowed just one earned run, on a homer by Steven Pearce.

Gallardo's velocity, despite the layoff, was impressive: To the final hitter he faced in the fourth, Ronny Paulino, Gallardo threw five fastballs, all between 90-92 miles per hour. The last fastball he threw prior to his outing -- to Cubs catcher Geovany Soto, on May 1 -- was clocked at 90. If the Brewers win the wild card, Gallardo would be the prime candidate to start Game 1, and they'd likely be willing to stretch his outing into the 80-pitch range.

3. Eric Gagne, who threw one inning of scoreless relief on Thursday, and has had nine-straight scoreless appearances, is one magnanimous dude.

Earlier in the day, he purchased 5,000 tickets to the game and gave them away free to fans on the Brewers' Web site. They were snatched up in 20 minutes, upping the attendance to 40,102. It was shocking that Gagne, of all players, would be the one making such a gesture, given that he's been subjected to more boos than any other Brewer this season, after signing a $10 million free-agent deal and bombing in the early months. "It's nothing personal; I've [booed] a lot of Montreal players, on the Canadians," he said. "They remember what I've done before. I had a 9.00 ERA, I think. ... They don't boo personalities, they just want to win."

Gagne didn't receive massive applause -- as he should have -- when he entered the game in the seventh, but a few of the freebie sections rose to their feet and wildly waved their rally towels. For a player who's been operating in a "guilty until proven innocent" situation -- fans generally booing his entrances, and then cheering his successes after the fact -- this was at least a nice change of pace.

4. That the Cubs weren't going all-out to help their NL Central brethren make it to October.

Lou Piniella took the concept of resting one's starters to an extreme Thursday in New York, trotting out a lineup sans Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Soto. The final two relievers he used in a tight battle with the Mets were not Carlos Marmol and Kerry Wood but rather Bob Howry and Kevin Hart, whose ERAs are now 5.17 and 7.01, respectively. You wonder whether Sweet Lou will be as kind to the Brewers over the weekend at Miller Park, where the Cubs have swept their past two series -- against the Brewers in July and Houston (relocated due to Hurricane Ike) earlier this month. Piniella may not need much more than Ryan Dempster to beat Milwaukee on Friday, though: He's 4-0 with a 2.52 ERA against the Crew this season, while Jeff Suppan is 1-1 with a 9.00 ERA. Even without a full-strength Cubs lineup, it could get ugly.

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