|Yovani Gallardo leads a struggling pitching staff that hopes to turn its fortunes around. (AP)|
Life After Prince Fielder?
You bet it's different for the Milwaukee Brewers.
For one thing, they took the doggone ice cream out of the players' lounge in the clubhouse this season.
"Prince's kids used to crush the ice cream," starter Randy Wolf said.
But Wolf doesn't think that the Brew Crew was stocking the chocolate chip cookie dough just for the Fielder kids. No, there's a different reason why this year's freezer is cold and empty.
"I know they're trying to be healthier," Wolf said, grinning.
Which gives Milwaukee's dieticians something in common with its ballclub. In the midst of what seems like their annual slow start, the Brewers are looking to get healthy on the field on multiple levels.
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Out of the gate to an 11-14 start, the Brewers lost first baseman Mat Gamel in Tuesday night's game to a knee injury that likely will cost him the season. Then, NL MVP Ryan Braun exited Wednesday's game in the sixth inning with a sore right Achilles tendon, an injury he says he suffered sliding while stealing second base Tuesday night.
It's not certain whether Braun will be in the lineup when the Brewers open this weekend's series in San Francisco, though neither he nor manager Ron Roenicke were thinking the soreness was anything to be concerned about.
The Brewers' sluggish start, now that might be a different story.
The Padres shut out Milwaukee over 18 consecutive innings Tuesday and Wednesday.
"We're not swinging well," Roenicke said. "But it's not like it's just been the last two games.
"Consistently, I think our offense should be very good. But we need to bear down if we're going to get this thing going. We need to get a lot better."
In the freezer and on the field, Life After Prince so far isn't nearly as delicious as it was a year ago when the Brewers won their first division title since 1982.
But here's the thing: They didn't exactly come racing out of the gate during last summer's Dream Season, either. After 25 games in 2011, they were 13-12.
So this year's Crew is only two games off of last year's pace.
General manager Doug Melvin and his staff regularly do monthly reviews, comparing and contrasting this year to last just to gauge where things are. And what the GM found Wednesday morning, with 24 games in the books, is that last year's team had scored 110 runs and this year's had scored 102.
What has been drastically off has been the pitching, and that has absolutely nothing to do with whether Prince is in Milwaukee, Detroit or on Pluto. The Brewers' 5.04 staff ERA is dead last in the NL. And their rotation ERA of 4.96 is 15th in the NL, trailed only by Colorado (5.14).
"We're pretty fortunate to be in the position we're in, considering," Melvin said of the Brewers' standing, tied for third at 5½ games behind the Cardinals. "But I do think our pitching will be better."
One indicator that things might even out down the line is this unbalanced statistic: Brewers pitchers have allowed a major-league high .344 batting average for balls in play (BABIP). Conversely, their hitters are slogging along with a .260 BABIP, which is tied with the Marlins for the NL's worst. Only Oakland (.250) has a lower BABIP.
The thinking is that, as the Brewers get a little deeper into the season, their pitchers and hitters each will get a little luckier.
No guarantees on that, but Yovani Gallardo (1-3, 5.79) can't keep going at this rate, can he? And Wolf (2-2, 6.84)? And while closer John Axford (4.70) and setup man Francisco Rodriguez (6.57) should be as good a one-two punch in the eighth and ninth innings as there is in the game, they've struggled early, too.
The NL's worst ERA?
"It's not going to be like that," Wolf insisted. "Just like I don't think Albert Pujols is going to finish the season with zero home runs. He'll be where he usually is.
"Pitching-wise, I know that will be a strength of our team."
Aramis Ramirez, signed to help fill in the cracks left by Fielder, is hitting only .207 with two homers and 10 RBI. Rickie Weeks is at .172, though his on-base percentage is .306. Everyone from catcher Jonathan Lucroy to outfielder Corey Hart references last year's sluggish start, career numbers and promises that the Brewers soon will find their rhythm.
A slow start is not atypical for Ramirez. Over his 15-year career, his numbers are lower in April (.452 slugging percentage) and May (.446) than for the rest of the year (it's over .500 in June, July and August, and .489 in September).
"We've been a late-blooming team with or without Prince," Hart said. "Anytime you have so many new faces, it takes awhile to mesh."
Even without Fielder, the Brewers have swatted more homers (32) than anybody else in the NL. So it's not as if there's a power outage.
"I think we have the potential to be a lot better than last year," Lucroy says. "We're just not showing it yet."
"It's certainly not the way we envisioned it," said Braun, hitting .283 with seven homers, 17 RBI. Braun is also hearing boos everywhere he goes in the aftermath of a controversial winter in which only winning a grievance saved him from a 50-game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug rules. "It's not the way we drew it up.
"At the same time, all of us for the most part have been around long enough to realize there's a lot of baseball left."
No question, Life After Prince is quieter. Though, at this point of the season, with a start similar to last year's, that's more in the clubhouse and in the dugout than on the field.
"Biggest thing we're trying to get past is, Prince was very vocal, Mark Kotsay was very vocal and Craig Counsell was very vocal," Hart said.
Kotsay now is playing for the Padres, and Counsell, retired, is wearing a suit while working as Melvin's right-hand man.
"We're trying to find a way to get the energy back," Hart said. "That's been an issue. Trying to find excitement, trying to get people talking.
"We're getting a little louder."
They pitch better, maybe that will become a dull roar, which will then turn into a full-fledged need for earplugs.
Who knows? Maybe if they start winning, they'll even get their ice cream back.