May Days (cont.)
The first day of a series is always the busiest. By 12:15 p.m. on Tuesday -- six hours and 55 minutes before the first pitch -- every Milwaukee coach was in the visitors' clubhouse at Dolphin Stadium. Manager Ned Yost sat at a locker with bench coach Ted Simmons, reflecting one more time on the final at bat in Houston and whether the Brewers should have pitched around Pence. Using laptops, pitching coach Mike Maddux reviewed video with Gagné and worked on the closer's release point, and batting coach Jim Skaalen studied Marlins lefthander Scott Olsen, the opposing starter that night. Skaalen had already written down every pitch that Olsen had ever thrown to Brewers hitters, looking for trends and tendencies. For instance, he noticed that Olsen always started Weeks with a fastball away. "I have to make sure I remind Rickie about that before the game," Skaalen said.
Skaalen also had an important message for all of his hitters: Relax. "Coming out of spring training, they were trying to do too much," the coach said. "They all wanted to get on the pace they had last year, and they started overswinging. I want to tell them, 'Quit the expectations. Stay under control. Stay soft. Just see the stinkin' ball.' "
When Cameron, a 14-year veteran who had just returned from his suspension, walked into the clubhouse, he was greeted by a stuffed parrot hanging from his locker with a bandage over one eye, a cigarette dangling from its mouth and a miniature Padres hat on its head. Cameron, who played for San Diego last season, blurted out, "What the hell is that?" The stuffed parrot responded, "What the hell is that?" Cameron looked at the parrot sideways. It was repeating every word he said. The Padres, who were in Florida right before the Brewers, had left the parrot so Cameron would have someone to keep him company on the rest of the trip. "I don't think I want it," Cameron said.
After stashing the parrot in Fielder's locker, Cameron pulled out a black case containing five pairs of Oakley sunglasses, each one designed for different sun conditions -- dark shades for bright days, lighter shades for overcast days. Given the glaring South Florida sun, Cameron settled on the darkest ones. Tony Migliaccio oversees all of the players' equipment, from sunglasses to stirrups. When Fielder felt as though his jersey was constricting his swing a few weeks ago, Migliaccio ordered one with wider sleeves. When Braun got a few hits with a new bat from Louisville Slugger, Migliaccio ordered a half dozen.
The new bats were of no help that night, however. Milwaukee mustered only two hits and was shut out 3-0. As much pressure as the young players were under to produce, there was substantially more pressure on Yost to lead. He was ejected in the third inning for arguing a called third strike and watched the rest of the game on a small television in the visiting manager's office. Every time he wanted to plan a pitching change, he sent a clubhouse attendant to fetch Maddux in the dugout. Maddux then hustled back to the clubhouse between innings to talk strategy. "The umpires think they're kicking you out of the game," Yost said, "but they're not. They're just sending you to the locker room."
The Brewers woke up on Wednesday a .500 ball club, in fourth place in the NL Central, five games behind the division-leading Cardinals. Pitching was not the reason. The defense, a serious liability in '07, had been surprisingly solid. But the offense, considered the strength of the team, was misfiring. The team's batting average, down to .241, ranked 26th in the majors. "It's beyond frustrating," Braun said. "I'm sick of saying, 'It's early,' and 'We'll be all right.' You can only say that for so long. It's time for us to swing the bats."
Jeff Suppan had seen much worse. The 33-year-old righthander pitched for the Cardinals in 2006 when they endured two eight-game losing streaks but still won the World Series. Milwaukee signed him after that season to bolster its starting rotation and provide a young team with some veteran perspective. Riding to the ballpark on Wednesday in a rented SUV, he scrolled through his BlackBerry to check the previous day's sales at his restaurant, Soup's Sports Grill, in Woodland Hills, Calif. Suppan, who started working in the restaurant business as a 14-year-old dishwasher, opened his new place in November. "When I was coming up, my mom and dad couldn't get the games on TV, so they'd call whatever stadium I was pitching in and ask to be put on hold so they could listen to the radio broadcast over the phone," Suppan said. "I wanted to create a place where you could see any game you want."
Watching the Brewers up close for the past two years, Suppan has noticed a slight change. Last season the young hitters feasted on fastballs over the meat of the plate, he said. This season they are being pitched more judiciously. The hitters acknowledge that their willingness to take pitches could determine how far the team goes.
The Brewers gathered at 5 p.m. for an unplanned meeting, common during losing streaks. Yost reminded his players that this was no time to panic, that they needed to settle down and stick together. Milwaukee's starting pitcher that night was Dave Bush, who had been sent to Triple A Nashville on April 27 and recalled five days later after Gallardo injured his knee. While in the minors Bush went to Borders and picked up some light reading for the road -- The Brothers Karamazov, the 824-page tome written by Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky in 1879. As teammates watched American Pie 2 in the clubhouse, Bush sat at his locker, with Dostoyevsky. "I get some weird looks sometimes," Bush said, "but this helps me get away from it all."
Bush, alas, gave up six runs, and Milwaukee lost its fifth straight game, 6-2.
After the game Skaalen was back watching video in the corner of the clubhouse, joined by Braun, Cameron and Hall. "After a win nobody comes by much," said Joe Crawford, who is in charge of the team's video, "but after a loss they're lined up." When the three hitters looked closely, they saw themselves reaching for pitches outside the strike zone and swinging so violently that they sometimes lost their balance in the batter's box. It was another quiet clubhouse, another quiet bus ride to the hotel.
Yost was already thinking about mixing things up. He devised a lineup for the next day that included three new starters -- Kapler in rightfield, Rivera catching and Joe Dillon at first. Fielder, Hart and Jason Kendall were given the day off. Yost wasn't the only one in search of a makeover. Fielder had a barber come to the clubhouse and shave his Afro in an obvious attempt at a fresh start. "There are teams where people can get on each other's nerves at the end of a long trip," said Kendall, in his first year as a Brewer, "but this clubhouse isn't like that. It reminds me more of the A's."
Kendall has been in the majors for 13 seasons, including three in Oakland. Like the A's, the Brewers are stocked with young players who came up through the minors together and therefore tend to stick together during rough patches. Even when the game is at its most excruciating, they are able to find joy in it.
Take, for example, the Candy Man. As Milwaukee's least-tenured relief pitcher, Mitch Stetter is responsible for filling a duffel bag every day with Red Bulls, Blow Pops, candy bars and packs of bubblegum. Then he hauls the load out to the bullpen so the veteran relievers have something to munch on during the game. Stetter's goal is to keep the cleanest candy bag in the majors. He is meticulous about disposing of empty wrappers. "I know a lot of guys don't like this job," the 27-year-old Stetter said, "but I take pride in it."
The sugar rush wore off just in time for the Brewers to drop the series finale 7-2. It had been a week since they'd won a game. It had been four days since they'd led in a game. They finished the trip 2-7, with six consecutive losses. Every team goes through a slump at some point in the season. The best ones minimize it. Whether this was an anomaly for the Brewers or a harbinger was yet to be seen.
In the clubhouse afterward, players slowly started to chatter -- about families, homes, familiar beds. The last bus left Dolphin Stadium at 11:30 p.m., bound for the airport. The team plane was due to land in Milwaukee at 3 a.m. Nine hours later the coaches would be at Miller Park reading scouting reports and watching video. The Cardinals were in town.
"When it's ready to turn around, it will turn around," Yost said of the team's slump. "And it will turn around in a hurry."