By Tim Gutowski Published Apr 19, 2005 at 5:14 AM

{image1} Perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to the 2005 Milwaukee Brewers was scoring 19 runs in its first two games. Enthusiasm for the team was high, and hopes for an improved offense looked realistic as the Crew pounded nemesis Pittsburgh in the first week.

Since then, however, the Brewers have tallied 6, 0, 5, 6, 2, 6, 0, 3 and 2 runs, or an average of 3.33/game. That downward trend bottomed out this weekend with a one-for-20 performance against St. Louis with runners in scoring position, a stat that dogged the Brewers last year like ethics violations do Tom DeLay.

Slow starts aren't always reason for worry; the Yankees started 4-8, after all. But sometimes, slow starts are continuations of ugly trends from the previous season. Is that the case with the new and "improved" Brewers offense?

Well, let's see. Hitting with runners in scoring position was a major sore spot for the Crew in '04. They batted just .221 in those situations, the worst in MLB ... by 18 points! By comparison, Brewers opponents hit .265 with RISP and Boston led MLB at .295.

To drive home this weakness further, the team's top four batting averages with RISP in 2004 all belonged to pitchers and a September call-up: Wes Obermueller (.625), Chris Capuano (.333), Dave Krynzel (.300) and Brooks Kieschnick (.286).

Due to small sample size (Capuano had six ABs with RISP last year), that's obviously an unfair stat. But it's telling nonetheless. The best position player who played regularly was Brady Clark (.283). Mainstays Geoff Jenkins (.247), Scott Podsednik (.209) and Craig Counsell (.200) were basically flailing when it mattered most.

Hitting with RISP can be a flighty stat. Podsednik (.381) and Jenkins (.306) were both clutch hitters in 2003. Sometimes, balls just don't fall in. And Yost is already preaching patience in this regard. But the team is currently (through Sunday) at .189 with RISP. When balls start finding grass, I'll stop worrying. Until then, it's more of the same.

What else? How about on-base percentage, never a strength for the free-swinging Brewers. Last year the Brewers finished with a .321 OBP; this year they're at .315, which ranks 20th amid the 30 MLB teams. A .232 team batting average doesn't help this number, but only Lyle Overbay is consistently drawing walks (11). As a result, his OBP is .440 and he's also hitting the balls he puts into play hard -- he has three doubles and two homers among his 10 hits. Brady Clark (.462) and Damian Miller (.459) also have exemplary OBPs, but that's about it.

How about strikeouts? We know the Brewers tend to fan quite a bit. So far, they've whiffed 79 times as a team, or about 7.2 times/game. Last year they whiffed 8.1 times/game, so there's slight improvement here. Trading contact-hitting Clark for Podsednik (105 Ks last year) atop the order and losing Craig Counsell (88) for J.J. Hardy (no Ks thus far) at short have both helped. But guys like Junior Spivey (17, which tops MLB), Jenkins (10) and Russell Branyan (10 in 29 ABs) are still serial whiffers. Unlike RISP numbers, strikeouts cannot be rationalized away -- there's no bad luck involved, just bad hitting.

Good news? There's some. The aforementioned Clark is hitting .378 and leads the team in hits, runs, OBP and total bases. Miller is also off to a hot start, batting .375 with a .459 OBP. (Though it should be pointed out Miller has never hit better than .275 as a full-time player.) Overbay is at just .263 but seems to be seeing the ball well. He should be above .300 shortly.

But if the Crew is going to display the sort of offense that Yost and Doug Melvin talked about all spring, the big guys are going to have to get it done. Carlos Lee had his moments in the first week and is expected to get on track eventually. The bigger questions involve Jenkins, Branyan and Spivey.

Hitting behind Lee, Jenkins is vital to the lineup's overall quality. His struggles (a paltry .195 with two RBI) look reminiscent of his troublesome 2004. Branyan blasted a couple of dingers in the home opener but has historically been inconsistent.

Spivey was hailed as the linchpin of the lineup in March, with Yost often pointing to the team's swoon after he was hurt last year as proof of his value. That logic felt spurious, considering 90 percent of the team tanked over the second half. While capable of great things offensively, Spivey can't be an effective No. 2 hitter while leading the league in strikeouts. His extra-base power almost makes him a better fit for the No. 6 slot, but there are no viable No. 2s to replace him. In other words, he needs to start putting the ball in play.

I understand that it's very early. And some of the overall numbers aren't as bad as the Cardinals sweep would suggest. But while the Crew's offense might not be as bad as it was this weekend, I'm not ready to believe it's as good as Yost says it is, either. Luckily, he's got 150 more games to prove he's right.

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.