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.