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Saturday, May 28, 2005
Updated: May 31, 6:26 PM ET
Plenty pitching in for Brewers

By Peter Gammons
Special to

May 28

When Ben Sheets returned to the Brewers rotation Memorial Day weekend, he joined a pitching staff that in the National League ranked:

• First in WHIP (1.26);

• First in lowest batting average against (.235);

• Second to the Mets in lowest OPS against (.709, lower than Wes Obermueller's .756 the last two years as a batter);

• Third in overall ERA behind Atlanta and Florida;

• First in bullpen ERA (2.81);

• and first in bullpen WHIP (1.23), batting average against (.215) and OPS (.657).

Just as we all predicted, in the name of Victor Santos. We thought, sure, we'd be scanning the WHIP list on May 28 and see Matt Wise (0.75), Derrick Turnbow (0.94), Julio Santana (0.69) and Chris Capuano (1.19) near the top. And the Brewers are in second place, in front of the Misfortune 500 Cubs.

Ben Sheets' return could make the Brewers' surprising pitching success even better.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, it's Memorial Day weekend and the Brewers next head out to play 16 of 22 games on the road, and they had this kind of run early last season. They have been the opposite of the Cubs, fortunate to have had to make only one roster move before Sheets' return all season; the Nationals made nine by themselves Thursday.

But if Sheets -- who may be a ways from being completely healthy -- pitches as he did last season the last 3½ months, the long-suffering Milwaukee fans might have something to cling to, if not their first winning season since the senior George Bush was president. "There are aspects that certainly surprise us," says Brewers general manager Doug Melvin. "Coming out of spring training we thought the bullpen was going to be a problem. Now we have the best bullpen ERA in the league. Sometimes things fall right."

Melvin does credit Ned Yost's handling of the bullpen as well as the work of pitching coach Mike Maddux and bullpen coach William Castro for nurturing the bullpen. "We always seem to get good results out of our relievers," says Melvin, "which says a lot for the way Castro does his job."

The competitive and astute Capuano, one of the many parts of the Richie Sexson deal, has taken himself from being considered a back-end starter to someone Melvin says "is clearly established as at least a number three." Remember, Sheets and Doug Davis last year had more combined quality starts than any duo on any team, and both Santos and the sinkerballing Obermueller have done their jobs.

What makes this team so compelling is that as it rises from the ashes of a woeful era, with new ownership infusing optimism in the community, the Brewers are sniffing respectability while awaiting the arrival of second baseman Rickie Weeks, first baseman Prince Fielder, and outfielders David Krynzel and Anthony Gwynn. Which allows Melvin to try to add another bat for this season as well as think about trading a couple of veteran players to get more young talent into the pool for 2006-2007. "Weeks (.318, 1.076 OPS at Nashville) is very close," says Melvin, which might make Junior Spivey available.

However, the feeling within the organization is that Fielder (.248) may need another year of Triple-A, which blocks any attempt Boston, Houston or anyone else might have of getting Lyle Overbay. "I don't believe in most cases you can get as much for a positional player during the season as you can in the offseason," says Melvin. "That's why we did the Sexson deal the way we did. Now, with pitching, especially frontline pitching, it's different. Sometimes there are so many contending clubs looking for pitching that they can make an advantageous deal."

Just as in late July if Barry Zito, Kip Wells, Kevin Millwood, Jason Jennings and Joel Pineiro are available.

Overbay, the ever-improving Brady Clark, Geoff Jenkins, Carlos Lee and Weeks give them a projectable lineup for the near future, then when Fielder, Krynzel, Gwynn, et al are ready, they will be better if the pitching develops.

The Brewers are in a division that with the Cubs and Astros beaten up-and-down, affords them an opportunity in the NL Central. "We're a ways away from being a real good team," says Melvin, "but we're trying to get better, slowly but surely."

Forget the WHIPS, etc. Think about where the Brewers were before Melvin and then Yost, Maddux and this staff arrived, and where they were on the day Sheets returned on Memorial Day weekend.

Much-needed relief for Giants

The Giants know that Jerome Williams can go to Chicago and be a solid starting pitcher, and now that David Aardsma has had the opportunity to start for two months in Double-A Norwich he might be back on track to the big leagues. But they also know that while they have hung around without Barry Bonds, Armando Benitez and, until this week, a healthy Jason Schmidt, they were not going to survive without helping a bullpen that Felipe Alou had to tax; they led the majors in mid-inning changes and one-batter appearances.

"We like what Tyler Walker has done as closer and believe he can continue to do the job," says Giants assistant general manager Ned Colletti. "But we had to get help in front of him. [LaTroy] Hawkins has got the stuff, he's never had the good fortune to work in a pitcher's park and we think it will benefit him to get out of Chicago. When we get Benitez back, then we could be very strong."

Even though they felt they gave up a lot, the Giants know that getting Hawkins on May 28 is far more significant than getting him on July 28. Cubs GM Jim Hendry knew that, and got two arms for his beleaguered staff. Not that the Cubs are running up the white flag. They are retooling, and Hendry was talking to teams about Mike Remlinger before the veteran left-hander hurt his finger in the dreaded chair.

Feeling a draft?

Before Arizona's player personnel director Mike Rizzo had to deal with the passing of his mother, there were rumors afloat that the Diamondbacks were going to pass on SS-OF Justin Upton and do a Scott Boras package -- signing unsigned Stephew Drew (who goes back into the draft Wednesday if he isn't signed) and making Wichita State RHP Mike Pelfrey the No. 1 pick on June 7. Not so. Rizzo has seen more than 90 Upton at-bats. He is taking him.

After Upton, Nebraska 3B Scott Gordon, Long Beach State SS Troy Tulowitzki and Virgina 3B Ryan Zimmerman, the first uncertain pick is the Brewers at No. 5, with Fullerton LHP Ricky Romero, Miami OF Ryan Braun and Asheville, N.C., OF Cameron Maybin possibilities. The big guesses are where the Boras guys slide -- whether Tennessee RHP Luke Hochevar goes to Colorado at 7, Pelfrey to the Mets at 9 and where St. John's closer Craig Hansen falls, such as to the Yankees at 16 or Boston. Then there's Drew, if he isn't signed. Or Jered Weaver. My favorite sleeper -- all-Ivy shooting guard Will Venable (who scored 21 against Duke), a 6-foot-3 Princeton outfielder and son of former major leaguer Max Venable. Venable can go make good money playing hoops in Europe, but will give baseball a try. Maybe the Rangers will take him so Chris Young and Venable can get one another the ball.

This and that

• Remember Ryan Anderson, the 6-foot-10 "Little Unit" and former No. 1 pick of the Mariners? The Brewers recently signed him out of an Arizona independent league, and he had a four-strikeout inning debut.

• Arizona keeps watching 1B Conor Jackson and OF Carlos Quentin, plucked out of the draft two years ago, mash at Tucson. Right now, there's no room for Jackson, but look for the Diamondbacks to take a look at Quentin in center field, especially since Shawn Green and Luis Gonzalez aren't going anywhere.

• Bob Melvin on Craig Counsell: "In many ways, he's our MVP. He does more things to help his team win than almost anyone I've ever seen. He gets on base, he gets huge hits, he always advances runners, he's a great defensive player … every team he plays for is better because of him."

• Reds players let it be known that their distaste for the Danny Graves release started with the fact that he was notified with a phone call, but more important, what set off his gesture was a fan who according to teammates yelled, "go back to Vietnam." That told players that the fans' racist behavior is acceptable.

• Yes, B.J. Ryan is a free agent at the end of the year, if you're looking at who might break the bank come November. How many better closers are there?

Keith Foulke took last Monday's off-day to go see Dr. Glen Fleisig and the staff at ASMI in Birmingham for an evaluation of his delivery. Because ASMI is in conjuncton with Dr. James Andrews, there were reports that Foulke was having shoulder problems. Foulke would not discuss it. "Every player has the right to privacy," said one Sox official. "Most of our pitchers go there at some point each year." Why not? Fleisig might be one of the best practicioners of pitching biomechanics in the world.

• From one NL scout: "Eric Gagne is 90-92 right now. Good. Great changeup. But not superhuman the way he was."

• From another: "Is Chris Hammond the only non-knuckleballer who throws in the sixties? Basically he throws all changeups, 61 to 65 mph." I found a scout who got one Hammond fastball at 81, the fastest reported.

• With the Devil Rays' stockpile of young outfielders, the Yankees checked in on Joey Gathright, but Sean Henn wasn't enough of an offer to get the lightning-fast outfielder.

• One AL scout: "Tom Gordon is back, which is good news for the Yankees. He's always maintained his velocity, but he's changed his slider into a hard cutter and begun throwing that great curveball again."

• When Mark Loretta went down, the Padres had calls from the Phillies about Placido Polanco and the Mets on Kaz Matsui. But because Loretta is expected to miss only 6-8 weeks, they were turned down. The Angels might have more interest in Polanco than Mike Sweeney.

• Sending Zach Day down to the minors to start gives the Nationals the opportunity to start him for teams interested in Day in a deal for a legitimate bat.

• It seems hard to believe, given the way the Yankees invent ways to steal wins from Pedro Martinez, but the last time someone blew a save for Pedro against the Yanks was Sept. 1, 2001. And in 2003-2005, including the postseason, the Yankees are 10-3 in games started against them by the great Martinez.