By Tim Gutowski Published May 16, 2006 at 5:02 AM

That collective groan you heard last week was Brewers fans reacting to Ben Sheets' shoulder tendinitis landing him on the disabled list. Suddenly, a team that was talking proudly about its pitching depth during spring training found itself working with just three of its top six starters.

Worse yet, the team's ace was among the walking wounded. Or was he?

While Sheets is universally acclaimed as Milwaukee's "ace," his recent string of injuries has hampered his and the team's development. And whether or not one considers Sheets the ace, Chris Capuano has been the most reliable Milwaukee starter since April, 2005.

Capuano has followed up his breakthrough 18-win campaign with a solid opening to this season (4-3, 2.83). He has eight quality starts (at least six innings with three or fewer earned runs allowed) in eight tries and is among the league leaders with 49 strikeouts in 54 innings. Neither stat should be a surprise. In his National League-leading 35 starts last year, Capuano registered 17 quality outings and fanned 176 in 219 innings. Plus, he earned victories in seven of his 18 "non-quality" starts, a testament to both good luck and the determination that has fueled Capuano's success.

But the most impressive thing about Capuano is his steady improvement since arriving in Milwaukee. He fought injuries and started just 17 games in 2004 before nearly becoming the first Brewers pitcher to win 20 games since Teddy Higuera did in 1986. And, his numbers this year have improved across the board over '05.

To wit: after giving up 31 homers in 219 IP last year, Capuano has allowed just four in 54 innings this year (a pace that would give him 16 in 216 innings this season). Shoddy control (91 walks and 12 hit batsmen) plagued Capuano in '05, resulting in a 1.93 strikeout-to-walk ratio (despite an impressive 176 strikeouts). This year, he's walked just 13 and hit one, which corresponds to a 3.77 K/BB mark.

Opponents' batting average? Down from .256 to .214. Slugging? Down from .433 to .333. And his WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) is a tidy 1.04 after finishing at 1.38 in '05.

That's all well and good, you say, but he's still no Sheets. Well, he's not as explosive as Sheets, the man who holds the franchise record for strikeouts in a season (264 in 2004). And Capuano hasn't put together a statistically dominant year like Sheets did in '04: 2.70 ERA, 264 Ks and a 0.98 WHIP.

But if you momentarily forget about Sheets' ace-like persona (and his huge contract) and compare the pair's career numbers, the idea of Capuano as Brewers ace doesn't seem as far-fetched. Sheets is 56-65 with a 3.89 ERA and 1.22 WHIP for his career; Capuano is 30-27, 4.11 and 1.33. Sheets gets the slight nod in all but winning percentage.

Ace or not, Capuano has been the better pitcher over the last 13 months. Yes, that period coincides with Sheets' injury problems, including the bizarre inner-ear disorder that plagued him last spring. But the time period also plots Capuano's evolution from faceless member of the Richie Sexson trade to the team's most reliable starter.

Is Capuano the Brewers ace? Until Sheets can stay healthy for a full season, yes. And he may be the team's best starter even when Sheets is healthy. While Sheets is capable of featuring no-hit stuff on any given night, Capuano's consistency, approach, pick-off move, and ability to put the ball in play offensively oftentimes give the team a better chance of winning when he's on the mound.

There are several recent parallels to the Sheets-Capuano comparison. Roger Clemens was the ace of the Yankees staff in the early part of the decade, but Andy Pettitte was the team's best pitcher. Likewise, Mark Prior and/or Kerry Wood get most of the newsprint in Chicago, but Carlos Zambrano has been the team's most consistent starter since 2004.

Of course, the true arbiter of this question is the lineup card in Game 1 of a playoff series. If both guys are healthy and on equal rest, would Sheets or Capuano start Game 1 of the NLDS?

Before you blurt out "Sheets!", you should know that it's a trick question. Because unless Sheets returns to true ace status, making the question moot, the Brewers don't have a realistic chance of making the playoffs.

For now, I'm happy with Capuano serving as Ace 1A. And if Sheets isn't able to find his stride soon, perhaps a more definitive promotion awaits the winning lefty.

Sports shots columnist Tim Gutowski was born in a hospital in West Allis and his sporting heart never really left. He grew up in a tiny town 30 miles west of the city named Genesee and was in attendance at County Stadium the day the Brewers clinched the 1981 second-half AL East crown. I bet you can't say that.

Though Tim moved away from Wisconsin (to Iowa and eventually the suburbs of Chicago) as a 10-year-old, he eventually found his way back to Milwaukee. He remembers fondly the pre-Web days of listenting to static-filled Brewers games on AM 620 and crying after repeated Bears' victories over the Packers.