By Drew Olson Special to Published Jun 03, 2006 at 5:30 AM
To call it captivating or dramatic would be a reach, but the single most significant athletic endeavor Friday at Miller Park took place before the public gates opened.

Hours before his teammates took the field for what would degenerate into a demoralizing 10-4 loss to Washington, injured Brewers right-hander Ben Sheets ventured into the outfield to play catch with head athletic trainer Roger Caplinger. For roughly 10 minutes, Sheets and Caplinger exchanged throws at a distance of about 180 feet. In many rehab scenarios, successful completion of two or three such sessions would constitute good news and pave the way for a 25-pitch, fastballs-only engagement in the bullpen.

At that's point, it's anybody's guess when -- or even if -- that will happen for Sheets this season.

"I'm really not close," Sheets said. "I was just stretching my arm out. I wasn't really getting on top of the ball at all."

The Brewers, for reasons we will discuss later, really aren't saying much about the $38.5 million right-hander with shoulder tenditinis. Nobody in the organization has publicly questioned why strength tests and a recent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exam revealed no structural problems in Sheets' shoulder, yet he still feels pain. Nobody has raised the issue of whether Sheets' approach to conditioning has been a catalyst in the kinetic chain of problems to befall him (lower back surgery, torn lat muscle, shoulder tendinitis). Nobody has raised the possibility that Sheets' problem could be as much psychological as physical, and that he is simply too frightened to "let it loose."

Basically the team is in a position where it has to believe Sheets is hurt, simply because he tells them he is and there nothing in his past to indicate that he would lie about his condition.

Sheets, who has earned a reputation as an intense competitor, has neither questioned the treatment of his injury nor screamed for a second opinion. Outside of the occasional "it still don't feel right" and "I need to get stronger," Sheets isn't saying much of anything.

Not verbally, anyway.

When things are going well for Sheets, as they did for most of his first four big-league seasons, his ebullience can border on hyperactivity. He'll bound from locker to locker, yelling at TV highlights, crowing to teammates about his prowess in the latest NASCAR pool or peppering reporters and clubhouse attendants with bold predictions about his beloved New Orleans Saints.  The shoulder injury this spring, along with the torn latissimus muscle that preceded it by eight months, has clearly dampened Sheets' spirit and it's not doing much for the morale his owner, general manager, manager, pitching coach or fans, either.

Friday marked the one-month anniversary of Sheets' most recent start -- an abbreviated outing against Houston when he threw 60 pitches and was tagged for seven runs and nine hits in 2 1/3 innings -- and it was far from a happy occasion. Dana Eveland started the game, gave up five runs in four-plus innings and was shipped to Class AAA Nashville before he had time to strip off his Negro League-replica uniform. (Chris Mabeus will join Eveland, while rookie lefty Zach Jackson and hard-throwing right-hander Allan Simpson will join the Brewers Saturday).

Sheets and Tomo Ohka, who also played catch in the outfield Friday as he makes his way back from a partial rotator cuff tear, have combined to miss nine starts. The Brewers have lost eight of those nine games, primarily because replacement starters Eveland, Ben Hendrickson and Jorge De La Rosa  have combined to allow 57 hits and 45 earned runs in 34 2/3 innings -- a gruesome 11.70 ERA. Friday was typical: by the time Eveland ventured into the third inning, pitching coach Mike Maddux was wearing a path between the dugout and the mound and bullpen catcher Marcus Hanel was working up a sweat catching warmup pitches from Joe Winklesas and Jeremi Gonzalez.

They might not win every time out, but Sheets and Ohka can generally be counted on to eat up innings. Their replacements haven't exactly displayed voracious appetites, and that condition impacts the utilization of the bullpen and, less directly, the performance of both the offense and defense. Brewers manager Ned Yost, who hates excuses almost as much as losing, conceded that missing two solid starters is a big loss.

"Every five days, those guys were giving us 13 or 14 innings," Yost said before the game Friday. "Now, we're getting five or six. That's a lot of innings to have to pick up, but it's not just our club. Everybody goes through these types of deals."

When asked about Sheets' progress -- or lack thereof -- Yost generally responds with a variation of "Benny will be ready when he's ready," or some similar statement. Both Yost and his boss, general manager Doug Melvin seem a tad reluctant to discuss specifics about Sheets these days and that is understandable. Yost damaged his credibility when he tried to blame Sheets' bad outing against the Astros on an upper respiratory virus. On May 16, Melvin surprised a luncheon crowd by predicting that Sheets would be out a month. That turned out to be overly optimistic.

Frustrated fans are now squawking for Melvin to pull the trigger on a trade that will provide some pitching help but there are at least two major obstacles standing in his way. First, virtually every big-league team, including the Brewers, is preparing for next week's amateur draft. Trades simply aren't a priority at this point. Second, just about every GM in the game is looking for pitching. Melvin may be desperate, but he's also too smart to overpay for a pitcher who might help for three months at the expense of a player who can contribute for three or more years.

Melvin knows that getting Sheets and / or Ohka back on the mound this season will be like making a trade -- without giving anything up in return. The question is whether it's time to adjust his blueprint for the season.

Brewers owner Mark Attanasio, who signed Sheets to a franchise-record $38.5 million deal, is no doubt learning to accept that injuries as part of the business. The ineptitude of the replacements, however, can't look any better from California than it does from Cudahy. Attanasio didn't amass his fortune by waiting for things to happen. The Brewers have waited a month for Sheets to show signs of improvement and he has not. That could change tomorrow. It could change next week. If it doesn't change soon, the Brewers may reach a point where somebody has to decide "enough is enough," book a date for arthroscopic surgery and start focusing on 2007 rather than 2006.

When it comes to shoulder injuries, the standard protocol is to try to strengthen the area with a combination of rest, exercise and anti-inflammatory medication. Surgery is always a last resort, but it is one the Brewers and their fans may have to prepare for sooner rather than later.
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.