Bruised Brew Crew

May 23, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

Cleveland -- Deacon Jones was talking with Milwaukee Brewers trainer John Adam in the visiting dugout at Jacobs Field before last Monday's game against the Cleveland Indians when Adam politely excused himself.

"He said he'd be back in five minutes, and it took him an hour," Jones, the Orioles' advance scout, recalled the next morning. "He said it was like a M*A*S*H unit in the training room."

Such is life these days for the Brewers, who find themselves last in the American League's new Central Division and leading major-league baseball in only one category: disabled players.

It's not just the numbers that have handcuffed manager Phil Garner, who has used six different leadoff hitters and more than a dozen lineups. It's the players involved.

Start with veteran outfielder B. J. Surhoff, out since April 20 with a lower abdominal strain. Then came shortstop Pat Listach, whose once burgeoning career again has been sidetracked by injury, this time tendinitis in the left knee April 23. And yet the Brewers managed a 13-9 start.

But that was before right-hander Bill Wegman, who like Listach spent time on the disabled list last season, joined his teammates on the DL with a lower abdominal strain May 4. Still, the Brewers were a respectable 17-14 and, even more surprisingly, in first place.

Then came the coup de brace, so to speak. A torn left hamstring for third baseman Kevin Seitzer on May 10 and a strained right elbow for center fielder Darryl Hamilton the following day.

The Brewers, in the midst of a stretch that included 20 of 25 games on the road, caved in.

Eleven straight defeats.

Sixteen losses in 19 games.

Last place.

"You take six guys -- six of the better players -- off anybody's team and see how they do," said Garner, whose 17-25 Brewers will open a nine-game homestand tonight, starting with three games against the Orioles at County Stadium. "You take those kinds of guys off the Yankees and they don't have a 10-game winning streak."

Truth is, the Brewers were picked to finish last long before the first significant muscle pull. The retirement of probable first-ballot Hall of Famer Robin Yount after last season -- and the free-agent departures of Paul Molitor and Chris Bosio before the 1993 season without finding adequate replacements -- did not lend itself to bold predictions.

But the move from perhaps baseball's toughest division, the AL East, to a newly created one that has proved to be less fierce, was thought to be a positive step for the Brewers, who at 69-93 finished a distant last in their final season in the East. No longer were they going to have to compete with the big-money teams from Toronto, New York and, this year, Baltimore.

"It seemed like some of those teams would spend money during the off-season to get what they needed, and then late in the season if they wanted a certain player," said left fielder and designated hitter Greg Vaughn. "I thought that we definitely had a chance to win this division, then we started having the injuries. But once we get everybody back, we'll get into a groove."

As devastating as the injuries have been -- including one to Vaughn, who pulled a rib cage muscle the first week of the regular season and missed 20 games -- the Brewers have more than their share of problems. Their No. 1 starter, right-hander Cal Eldred, has gotten off to a poor start, having been pounded for four or more first-inning runs three times. Vaughn, who recently sat out four more games with tonsillitis, needed a 2-for-4 Sunday to raise his batting average to .212.

There's more. Their bullpen has blown more save tries (six) than it has converted (five). Their defense, which made 131 errors last season and tied for next to last in the league in fielding percentage, is nearly as bad this year. Their offense, with the first third of the batting order sidelined, is last in home runs and runs.

"Sometimes you try to do too much, and it messes you up," Eldred said. "We've just got to find that comfort zone and get on a roll."

Somehow, Garner tries to turn this mess into a masterpiece, searching for the proverbial silver lining in this dark cloud. "It's not the end of the road," Garner said, his feistiness trying to mask the frustration. "I look at this as opportunity. How do you think Listach got his opportunity? He didn't get it until Billy Spiers got hurt [in 1992]. And then he took his job."

Garner points to former Blue Jays benchwarmer Turner Ward, who was picked up off waivers last November and has started every game for the Brewers. The 29-year-old outfielder has responded with solid numbers (.292 batting average, with five home runs and a team-high 26 RBIs) in a sea of mediocrity.

Then there's center fielder Alex Diaz, who has become Yount's interim successor in light of Hamilton's injury. This is his second chance: After bouncing around the minor leagues for seven years and three organizations, Diaz got his first opportunity last year after Yount hurt his knee and Hamilton hurt his thumb on successive days.

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