The Milwaukee Brewers’ two-month tailspin has seen them go from the team with the NL’s best record to one struggling to stay in the playoff race. They hope the return of Ben Sheets can finally snap them out of their prolonged slump.
Sheets will make his first start in nearly seven weeks as Milwaukee looks to even its three-game series with the NL Central-leading Chicago Cubs on Wednesday night.
The ace right-hander hasn’t pitched since July 14, when he lasted a season-low 3 1-3 innings in the Brewers’ 2-1 win over Colorado. Two days later, Sheets (10-4, 3.39 ERA) was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a sprained right middle finger and blister problems.
“He was fine,” Brewers manager Ned Yost said of Sheets’ throwing session prior to Milwaukee’s 5-3 loss in the series opener. “It provides a little stability for your club. Having your No. 1 guy back out there helps.”
Since making 102 starts from 2002-04, the oft-injured Sheets has been on the DL five times, starting just 58 games. He is 1-1 with a 4.76 ERA in three starts against the Cubs this season.
On June 28, Milwaukee had the best record in the NL at 46-32 and a 7 1/2-game lead over second-place Chicago. Since then, the Brewers have gone 19-34 and dropped into third, 2 1/2 games behind the Cubs (67-63).
The Brewers’ pitching staff has posted a 5.40 ERA during the team’s slump. Relievers have blown nine of 21 save opportunities in that 53-game stretch.
Milwaukee has lost a major league-high 14 games this season in which it’s held a three-run lead. However, 12 of those defeats have come since June 28, including one on Tuesday.
Corey Hart’s sacrifice fly and two-run single gave the Brewers a 3-0 lead through five innings, but the bullpen again was unable to protect it. Scott Linebrink was charged with three runs in a four-run seventh that eventually sent Milwaukee to its fifth loss in a row.
“It’s tough for all of us. It just seems like every time we get late into a ball game, maybe we start to press,” said Milwaukee’s J.J. Hardy, who had three hits. “I don’t know what it is.”
While the Brewers are getting their ace back, the Cubs will counter with their own in Carlos Zambrano (14-10, 3.95).
He will be looking for more offensive help as he tries to avoid going winless in August. In four starts this month, the right-hander is 0-3 with a 7.04 ERA, but Chicago has provided him with just four runs of support.
Wildness also has plagued Zambrano, issuing 16 walks in 23 innings.
Against San Francisco on Thursday, Zambrano gave up four runs and six hits while walking four over 5 1-3 innings of a 4-1 loss. It was his first start that counted—he pitched three innings in a game that was rained out on Aug. 19— since signing a five-year, $91.5 million contract extension.
“I think I’ll win one after I signed this contract,” he said. “I don’t think it’ll be loss, loss, loss until I retire. I think at some point I’ll win one game and I’ll work on it.”
Zambrano is 2-0 with a 3.32 ERA in three starts against the Brewers this season, but did not get a decision when they visited Wrigley Field in April. The Cubs have lost his last three starts against them at Wrigley as he’s gone 0-1 with a 6.75 ERA.
Jacque Jones tied the game Tuesday with a two-run double and scored the go-ahead run for the Cubs, who now hold a two-game lead over second-place St. Louis.
“It’s important to win the first game and put yourself in a good position,” Chicago manager Lou Piniella said, adding that Jones “has had some big hits for us and he’s done a nice job in the outfield.”
Jones is batting .357 (35-for-98) this month to raise his batting average 31 points to .273.
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