Sheets strong, but not strong enough
Right-hander suffers tough loss in second start
MILWAUKEE -- Ben Sheets was back on the mound at Miller Park on Friday night and it was as if nothing had changed.
Pitching at home for the first time since he tore a back muscle last August, Sheets pitched a seven-inning gem and reached double-digits in strikeouts for the 11th time in his career. Unfortunately, Gabe Gross' leadoff home run was all the support the Brewers could muster.
Cincinnati right-hander Bronson Arroyo surely had something to do with that, shutting down Milwaukee's inconsistent offense over eight stellar innings and sending the Brewers to a 3-1 loss in front of 29,825 fans.
The loss was Milwaukee's ninth in its last 12 games and dropped the Brewers under .500 (8-9) for the first time this season. When it was over, players and coaches were left looking at the big picture.
"The main thing is to have [Sheets] healthy for the whole season," said Geoff Jenkins, who snapped an 0-for-11 slump with a double in the eighth inning. "That's a big plus for our team."
"It's huge to have him throwing like that," said catcher Chad Moeller. "We need to find a way to end up on the right side of the score. There's nothing to really point at, we're just not winning. We're playing good baseball."
Sheets himself brushed off the "same old Brewers" pessimism.
"We're not the same old team," the right-hander said defiantly. "We're better."
As far as pitching performances go, it doesn't get much better than Sheets' (0-2) outing on Friday. He limited the Reds to two runs on six hits in seven innings. He walked none and struck out 10.
But with Sheets at the 97-pitch mark and the tying run in scoring position in the bottom of the seventh, manager Ned Yost had no choice but to replace Sheets with pinch-hitter Jeff Cirillo, who became Arroyo's eighth strikeout victim.
"We're looking for positives," Yost said. "We're not going through a great streak right now, but you're battling to get out of it and that's a positive. Benny had a very, very good night."
It was the kind of night Sheets had been having a lot before the injury last year. Pitching against the Atlanta Braves here at Miller Park, Sheets was one out away from his fifth nine-inning performance in six starts when he felt a pop behind his right shoulder on a curveball to Chipper Jones.
That was the end of Sheets' 2005 season, but he was on track for a fifth consecutive Opening Day start in 2006 before suffering a setback in March. He finally made it back to Miller Park on Friday night and touched 96 mph on his fastball while exhibiting much better command of the pitch than in his season debut on Sunday at New York. Sheets' signature curveball was again sharp, though one particularly good curveball cost him a run.
In the fourth inning, Felipe Lopez struck out on a curve in the dirt, but reached first base when Sheets' wild pitch bounced off Moeller. Lopez stole second base, moved to third on a groundout and scored on Rich Aurilia's game-tying single.
The Reds took a 2-1 lead with more small ball in the fifth. With Brandon Phillips at second base with two outs following a double, Ryan Freel bounced an infield single to the left of third baseman Corey Koskie. Phillips never stopped running as Koskie threw late to first base, and beat Prince Fielder's throw to the plate.
"They won the game on speed tonight," Yost said.
The Reds also won with Arroyo, who mixed speeds and arm angles through eight sharp innings and held the Brewers to one run on six hits. The right-hander was nearly acquired by the Brewers at the Winter Meetings in a trade with the Red Sox.
"It was a tough one," Sheets said. "Everything was going pretty well tonight. My location, my breaking ball was good. I've been feeling good, but the loss still stinks."
"Ben Sheets is outstanding," Reds manager Jerry Narron said. "You watch him or somebody like [Chris] Carpenter or Roy Oswalt, even though you're on the other side, you appreciate what they can do."
The Brewers had scored seven or more runs in four straight games and five of their last six, but had only one win to show for it. On Friday -- a night when four runs would have done it -- they went 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position.
"That's kind of been our albatross," Gross said. "For whatever reason, we haven't come up with the big hit."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.