By Drew Olson Special to Published Sep 27, 2008 at 7:53 PM

In the biggest game of his baseball life, Ben Sheets swaggered onto the mound and dared hitters to find an answer for his blazing fastball, knee-buckling curve and unmitigated mound moxie.

With every easy out, the right-hander's confidence shot up until he felt almost invincible. His arm was strong. His stuff was brilliant. His future seemed boundless.

It was September 27, 2000.

Sheets, then a 22-year-old Brewers minor-league prospect pitching for the U.S. Olympic team in the Sydney Olympics, limited Cuba to three hits that night en route to a 4-0 shutout victory and a gold medal.

Saturday afternoon, eight years to the day after his golden performance (give or take a few hours for the hemispheric time difference), Sheets took the mound on an even bigger stage for a professional matchup with post-season implications.

The Brewers, playing before a sellout crowd of 45,288 in their 161st game of the season, needed a victory over the rival Chicago Cubs to maintain a one-game lead over New York in the race for the National League wild-card berth.

The Cubs won, 7-3.

"It was obviously a little bit different, wasn't it?" Sheets said, comparing the two results. 

Though he didn't have a hand in the eighth-inning comeback that fell short or the three-run, ninth-inning meltdown by closer Salomon Torres, Sheets laid the groundwork for defeat.

Unlike the tournament in Sydney, when he was brimming with health, strength and confidence, Sheets was swimming in doubt and uncertainty when the game began. His sore right elbow, which had bothered him for weeks, removed any trace of swagger from his stride.

The Cubs did the rest.

In his first inning of work, Sheets gave up a one-out single to Ronny Cedeno and a two-out homer to Daryle Ward.

In the second inning, he retired the first two batters before giving up a single to his former catcher, Henry Blanco, and a ground-rule double to his counterpart, Cubs pitcher Ted Lilly.

Sheets retired Kosuke Fukodome to end the threat, but the radar gun and the swings taken by the Cubs indicated that he wasn't going to last much longer.

"I felt pretty good at the beginning, not great," he said after the game. "But, that didn't last long. I think the third inning, they jumped on me pretty good."

Chicago's third inning began with a throwing error by Bill Hall a wild pitch, a flyout sandwiched between two walks and a two-run single by Mike Fontenot -- who likely will go down as the last hitter that Sheets faces as a member of the Brewers.

With one out in the third inning -- and the scoreboard reading Chicago 4, Milwaukee 0 -- Sheets walked to the dugout amid a smattering of boos and cheers of appreciation for eight seasons sprinkled with solid outings and frustrating injuries.

If the Brewers are to extend their season, it likely will be without Sheets.

"That's it. That's all I had," Sheets said after the game. "I got a broke arm; I got a broke arm. It's not really broke, but it's all I had for the year. Things definitely don't look like they're on my side."

Despite the dicey condition of his elbow, Sheets said he felt confident going into the start.

"I thought I could make some pitches and maybe get us in five or six quality innings," he said. "You don't know unless you go out and try. On other days, I didn't think I was going to feel as good and got through the game.

"There's always that chance that everything lines up right and you have a quality start."

Brewers' interim manager Dale Sveum was optimistic, too.

"He said everything was fine in the bullpen," Sveum said referring to Sheets. "There were no signs of any problems. He wasn't stretching too much or showing any signs of that. Obviously, there wasn't much coming out and the location wasn't too good, either.

"He got 91, 92, 93 (mph) but there were some 87s mixed in there, too. I don't know if he was trying to hold back and pace himself, change speeds or what. The curveball was actually pretty good, but the location on the fastball wasn't there."

Asked if he regretted taking the start, Sheets answered with a question of his own.

"I put us down, 4-0, in the third inning, -- why would I do that?" he said. "But, I resolved in my mind that I could go out there and get us through five or six quality innings."

Sheets, who is eligible for free agency this winter, will be a spectator when the Brewers try to wrap up a playoff berth Sunday at Miller Park or Monday at Shea Stadium. If they do get into the postseason for the first time since 1982, he will almost certainly end up on the disabled list in order to be replaced by another pitcher.

The ending seems inevitable and also appears incomplete and almost inappropriate.

Sheets gave Brewers fans a lot of thrills -- the gold medal game and his appearance at County Stadium's closing ceremony; a number of opening day starts; the 18-strikeout game against Atlanta; a dominant 2004 season; four all-star appearances, including a start this year in New York.

For all of the good things Sheets brought to the table, many will focus on the quirky injuries (inner-ear infections, lats, pecs, etc.) and consider his tenure a disappointment.

Sheets, and the rest of the Brewers, aren't pondering their historical legacies right now. They're too consumed with the present, which is one game against the Cubs.

"It seems weird that you play that many games and it comes down to that," Sheets said. "You talk about them games in April and May, you realize it, but I don't think you really realize the full impact of those games.

"They all matter. If we would have won one or two more earlier in the year we wouldn't be right here. But, we're happy to be in this position, with an opportunity to control our own destiny.

Drew Olson Special to

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 Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.