Oh, Sheets: St. Louis at Milwaukee

With the St. Louis Cardinals heading into town for a brief two-game series, fans of the Milwaukee Brewers steel themselves for another Ben Sheets injury report.

Three weeks into April, the standings in the National League Central are as eerily separated as a high school cafeteria: on one side "winners," on the other, "losers." Members of each clique have a nearly identical profile in terms of records, and the differentiation between the two groups is a stark five games in the standings.

The losers (Pirates, Reds, Astros) huddle indifferently, imperfections clearly on display, trying to avoid direct eye contact while they try desperately and privately to get their act together. Meanwhile the other side of the room is over-loud with the raucous battle-cries, as the would-be achievers (Cubs, Cards and Brewers) get ready to face off against each other for the right to represent their district against the rest of the National League.

However, a sudden hush has enveloped one of the teams on the winners' side, as not-so-shocking news was revealed: Ben Sheets left his last start early, clutching his arm in pain. The Brewers' ace pitcher is in many ways emblematic of the team's hopes for contention – eminently talented, but quite unavoidably fragile.

In more ways, Sheets is a figurehead of the franchise. He was the first high draft pick to go right for this organization in many, many years. As a minor leaguer, he was an Olympic hero for Tommy Lasorda's underdog Team USA. And, in a sign of renewed commitment to the fans, he was the first to earn a long-term contract from the new Selig-free ownership. Moreover, Sheets has one of the only above-average arms in the Milwaukee stable. (Yovani Gallardo has another, and ironically the only other might belong to the man Gallardo is replacing in the rotation, young southpaw Manny Parra).

So far on the year, Sheets has been every bit the ace that this team needs while its more-heralded offensive stars search for the fabled sweetness of their swings. He has allowed only three runs in four starts, posting a microscopic 0.98 ERA. According to his ERA+, Sheets has been a staggering 420% better than a league-average starter. The rest of his staff, meanwhile, is trying to chin up to that league-average bar, without much success.

Meanwhile the team's unexpected offensive struggles in the early going have positioned this team as the most vulnerable of the Central's winning triumvirate. Witness the run differentials of the three contenders:

Team

Record

Runs Scored

Runs Allowed

Differential

Cubs

12-6

111

86

+25

Cards

12-7

87

68

+19

Brewers

11-7

87

74

+13

In fact, I'll borrow my favorite hockey stat - the +/- rating – and adopt it for this purpose, to demonstrate why Sheets' ouchie is so worrisome for the team, should it prove to be long-term:

> Run differential when Sheets is pitching for the Brewers: +14
> Run differential when anyone else is pitching for the Brewers: -1

Granted, the uber-talented Gallardo has only made one start, and he filled in capably during Sheets' long absence last season. However, that is but one grain of salt in a bland, potato-y stew of throwers like Dave Bush, Carlos Villanueva, old friend Jeff Suppan, and the ice cold carcass of Eric Gagne. The only effective pitching this team has seen aside from Sheets has come in its middle relief, giving manager Ned Yost an itchy trigger finger come the start of the fifth inning.

The next scheduled start for the Brewers' ace would come immediately after the Cardinals' two-game series, if he makes it. Nothing has been decided, but right now he and the team are "cautiously optimistic." But given how important his health is to the success of this team over this long season, you can bet that there will be more caution than optimism in the training room.

Meanwhile, one of the reasons that the Cards, Brewers, and Cubs all have such neatly identical records is that they haven't had to play many games against each other yet: Milwaukee has faced off against each team only once, winning three and losing three alike. For the Cardinals, this two-game set kicks off a run of five consecutive series against division foes.

These head-to-head matchups will only gain in intensity and importance as the season grows out of its adolescence. The Cards hope they can use these coming weeks to solidify their place as the "big brother" (as columnist Bernie Miklasz puts it) in the pecking order. The Brewers meanwhile can do nothing but put on a brave face, hope for the best from their medical reports, and swing for the fences in support of starters two through five.



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