Sheets laughs along with his teammates. He is as relaxed as he'd be if he'd bought a ticket to the game, a major departure from the days when he got so nervous before each start that he would throw up. The vomiting began when he was a junior at Northeast Louisiana. "I knew if we didn't win the day I pitched, there was a good chance we'd lose the series or get swept," he says. "And I knew scouts were watching and that every day they could change their minds. One bad game and you'd hear things like, 'He's dropping [in the draft].' "
Often during the season Sheets could keep down only one meal a day. He lost 30 pounds as a junior, his final year in college, withering to 175 pounds by the time the Brewers drafted him. He kept on losing his lunch through Rookie and Class A ball that season, and Double A the next.
"I felt like I was under pressure to stand out," Sheets says of those early days in the minors. "They expect more out of you, especially being a Number 1 pick. I stopped throwing up when I got to Triple A [on June 12 last year]. Older guys are there, and you don't feel like anybody's counting on you to go seven, eight strong innings every time. Then when you're a rookie, it's the same. People don't expect much out of you."
An hour before game time pitching coach Bob Apodaca gives Sheets an abbreviated version of the scouting reports on Houston's hitters. "I don't want to overload him with information," Apodaca says. "I'd rather he pitch to his strengths. He's had the advantage of watching two games here.
"I'll talk to him on the way in from the bullpen to make sure he's relaxed," the coach continues. "He's human. He's going to be pumped up, so you want to make sure he doesn't try to do more than he's capable of doing. When you get excited, you tend to rush, and when you rush, you open up your front side too soon, and when you fly open like that, you tend to elevate the ball in the zone. That's where you're going to get hurt. What I'll be watching most in those first couple of innings is his tempo."
A former pitcher and pitching coach with the New York Mets, Apodaca smiles broadly when asked what he sees in Sheets. "Ben is like that beautiful new shirt you're dying to wear to the prom," he says. "You take it out of the wrapper, and it's not quite ready to wear. There are a few wrinkles that need to be ironed out. He's not even close to being what he's going to be."
Already Sheets is thrust into the role of stopper. The Brewers are 0-3, having been outscored 20-9. Sheets is following Jamey Wright, Haynes and Paul Rigdon in the rotation, with Jeff D'Amico coming after him. They're all righthanded and all between 22 and 28 years old, and so far none has won more than 38 games in the big leagues.
The bad start to the season has the Milwaukee manager, Davey Lopes, in a foul mood even during batting practice. He spots his second baseman, Ron Belliard, playfully yapping with Astros pitcher Jose Lima near second base. Lopes yells from near the batting cage, "Take him out to f———dinner! He can't f———help you!" The message is clear: no fraternizing on the ball field.
Lopes is old school, with the strut and feistiness of a bantam. A scouting report on him would note that he is short on patience and long on attitude. Born to an Irish mother and Cape Verdean father in East Providence, R.I., Davey was one of 12 children. He grew to be only 5'9" and attended Wash-bum University in Topeka, Kans. He was 27 when he finally made it to the big leagues, in 1972, as a second baseman with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He stuck around for 16 seasons, stole a total of 557 bases for four clubs, and played in four All-Star Games and four World Series.
Lopes paid his dues as a coach, spending 12 years with three organizations until, at 54, he landed his first managerial job. Brewers general manager Dean Taylor announced the hiring on Nov. 4, 1999, at a news conference in Milwaukee attended by team president Wendy Selig-Prieb. Lopes learned quickly that he wasn't in moneyed L.A. anymore. After the news conference several Brewers officials took him to Wendy's for dinner—not Selig-Prieb's house, but the fast-food joint. Lopes stepped up to the counter in his spiffy suit and ordered a value meal. Welcome to Milwaukee.