CHICAGO -- Ryan Braun knew right away.
As he stood at his position in the bottom of the first inning Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, the Brewers third baseman could tell that Ben Sheets was back.
Not just back on the mound, but back.
"Normally, it kind of takes him an inning or two to get going," Braun said of Sheets, who returned to the mound for the first time since spraining his right middle finger on July 15.
"Today, right from the get-go, he was pumped up and he threw really well. I saw him hit 95 (on the stadium radar gun) in the first inning and it was encouraging."
With many frustrated fans were ready to scour the basement for nails for the Brewers' coffin, Sheets turned in six solid innings and sparked the Brewers to a 6-1 victory in what amounted to a must-win game for the visitors.
"It's huge to get our ace back," Braun said. "We got our swagger back."
The Brewers trail the first-place Cubs by 1 ½ games in the National League Central and have a chance to cut that deficit again in the series finale tonight. Sheets, who allowed one run and six hits in an 86-pitch effort, set the tone. The offense contributed some big hits and the recently porous bullpen chipped in three scoreless innings.
"It's a bit of a boost for us, there is no doubt about that," manager Ned Yost said. "It just settles down a pitching staff when your ace is out there doing what he's supposed to be doing. It was a big start for us, it was obvious. It was a big night."
Sheets, who said he was 100 percent recovered from the finger sprain and a blister that cropped up during a simulated game last week in Arizona, was asked to describe his emotions during his six-week layoff.
"You can't really describe it," he said. "It's kind of an empty feeling. You wait, especially here, seven years to be a part of it. To not be part of that August was tough. But, there is a month left. I can do something about that month. I've got six starts left. That's what I'm going to try to make count."
If rookie Manny Parra doesn't contain the Cubs in the finale, Sheets' outing could be forgotten quickly. The Brewers, however, feel better about their prospects now that Sheets' name is listed among the probable starters for Monday night and every fifth day the rest of the way.
"It's tough to lose a guy like Ben," Prince Fielder said. "We were able to stay in it for the most part while he was gone. Now, hopefully, he's going to be all right and he'll be able to pitch like he did tonight."
Though many fans have written off their chances and are wrestling with visions of 16th straight non-winning seasons, the Brewers haven't given up yet.
"We never felt like we were on bad footing, as bad as things had gotten," Yost said. "We just try to steady in our approach and steady in our mental mindset.
"The ship feels like it's sinking, but our guys are in the boat, pushing the water out. It doesn't feel like that to them. We know we still have a month left. We know that we're right there and there is a lot of baseball left to be played."
Said Braun: "There is still a month left. We can easily turn it around and start playing as well as we were for a majority of the season."
Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at OnMilwaukee.com. Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.