The Brewers, however, have an ulterior motive for sending him down: to get him to relax. Apodaca believes his fears about a young pitcher rushing on the mound have been confirmed. He orders the Indianapolis staff to have Sheets throw a higher percentage of changeups than he normally does. "It was like he had Wile E. Coyote's Acme springs in his left foot, and that was getting him into a rocking mode," Apodaca says. "We have to slow him down. I thought [his first] time out he was functioning on pure adrenaline. I talked to him after the [Truby home run] about recognizing the situation and controlling his emotions."
Like it or not, the time spent in the minors helped. Sheets won his first game hack with the Brewers, on April 28 against the Montreal Expos, with a pitching line similar to his second loss to Houston (6? innings, seven hits, four runs, two earned). He sparkled in his next start, beating the Braves in Atlanta with six shutout innings.
"He's more relaxed," says David Wilder, Brewers vice president for player personnel. "There was too much hype. The last game he pitched, he was in total control. He won the gold medal game, and people expected him to pitch like that right away."
The curveball is Sheets's best friend, so reliable that he rarely has to work on it between starts. In the big leagues, though, throwing it for strikes isn't enough. He must use it judiciously. Says Milwaukee outfielder Geoff Jenkins, "If anything, he was around the plate too much. You need to know when to go in there and when not to. That comes with experience."
On this day Sheets is matched against the Cubs' Kerry Wood in the first of what could be many duels between the two National League Central righthanders in the years to come. (Wood is only 13 months older than Sheets.) Wood carries a no-hitter into the fifth and strikes out 12 batters in seven innings, but Milwaukee scratches out a run in the fifth and three more in the sixth. Sheets throws a season-high seven innings and 104 pitches without permitting a run. But Lopes pushes him further. He leaves Sheets in the game to bat with one out and nobody on base in the bottom of the seventh. "I thought he still had enough to go back out for the eighth," Lopes says later. "He got over one hump by getting through the seventh. It was a good time to see about the eighth. That's the next hump."
The first batter Sheets faces in the eighth, centerfielder Damon Buford, crushes a hanging curve for a home run. Lopes lifts Sheets. The bullpen holds Chicago hitless to lock up a 4-1 win, after which Lopes can't contain his glee. "I don't deny a rivalry," he says about facing Chicago. "I don't like losing to the Cubs. I do not care for them, to be honest."
Sheets is his Cubs killer. The rookie will beat them three straight times in the first half of the season, often buckling the knees of Sammy Sosa (2 for 9) with his curveball. Today, eight of the 14 pitches he throws Sosa are curves. "Wow, he's very good," Sosa says. "He's been almost unhittable. He's going to win 15 to 20 games in the big leagues each year. I can't remember a righthander with a curveball like that. Maybe the guy from Minnesota, Brad Radke. I could compare Sheets to him."
Sheets does not normally watch videotape, but in the visitors' clubhouse of Veterans Stadium he is studying his most recent start, his fourth consecutive win, against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He replays his curveballs again and again, on the lookout for two danger signs. First, he wants to make sure he is not tipping his pitches. He found out from teammates in spring training that every time he threw his curveball, he would raise the index finger on his left hand, the finger that sticks out from the hole on the back of his glove. Minor league hitters might miss such a subtle giveaway. Major league hitters will not. Sheets solved that problem by ordering a glove with a leather sheath above the opening that he could slide his index finger into.