Times have certainly changed for the Brewers this season. Last year, Milwaukee was one of the surprise teams of the early season, as it raced out to an initial 8½-game lead in the National League Central. Though the Brewers eventually finished second, two games behind the Cubs with a 83-79 record, expectations were high for 2008. This year, the Brewers were one of the biggest disappointments of the season’s initial third, though they have picked up the pace in recent days. Milwaukee is 31-28, but seven games behind the Cubs.

That has left many Brewers’ fans disgruntled, waiting as they have been since 1982 for another post-season appearance. Manager Ned Yost has come under fire, and a Madison, Wisconsin-based political blog erroneously reported late last month that Brewers management had decided to fire him and promote bench coach Ted Simmons.

“We’re all frustrated by the way this season has gone so far for the most part,” Yost said. “I know we’re a better team than our record shows, and I know the guys in our clubhouse feel the same way. The frustrating part for us is that we’ve been going about our business the right way, playing the game like it’s supposed to be played but we just haven’t always gotten the results. It hasn’t been a case of guys not putting forth the effort and coasting. It’s tough when you bust your butt every single day and don’t have as much to show for it as you think you should.”

However, things are starting to get better for the Brewers. A run of eight wins in their last nine games has put them above .500. The Brewers have struggled at times with run prevention, giving up 4.6 runs a game to rank a mediocre 16th in the major leagues. Ironically, it appeared the Brewers were one of the few team with an excess of starting pitching when spring training began, as they had eight pitchers being considered for the rotation. However, that depth has been depleted, as left-hander Chris Capuano required the second reconstructive elbow surgery of his career, righty Yovani Gallardo suffered a season-ending knee injury last month while avoiding a baseline collision, and right-hander Claudio Vargas was released in spring training and subsequently signed by the Mets.

“You don’t like to make excuses in this game but Gallardo is really special and we miss him,” said Brewers catcher Jason Kendall, who is in his 13th major league season. “I’ve caught a lot of young pitchers over the years and I’ve never caught someone with the kind of poise he has. He never gets rattled and he has great stuff, too. This kid is going to win a Cy Young some year, I’m sure of it.”

Ben Sheets (2.6 SNLVAR) and Jeff Suppan (1.7) are the only two starting pitchers comfortably above replacement level. Furthermore, Eric Gagne has been a bust as the closer after being signed to a one-year, $10 million contract as a free agent, and is now on the DL with shoulder tendonitis. His WXRL is -0.592, and the Brewers have consequently upgraded in turning to Salomon Torres as the closer (1.502 WXRL) in Gagne’s absence.

Meanwhile, the Brewers offense is just 20th in the majors with an average of 4.3 runs a game. Left fielder Ryan Braun (.293) and first baseman Prince Fielder (.285) are the only Brewers with an EqA over .280. While Braun, Fielder, second baseman Rickie Weeks, shortstop J.J. Hardy, and right fielder Corey Hart have established themselves as major league regulars, it is important to remember than none are older than the 26-year-old Hart.

“I think people lose sight of the fact that we’re still a young team,” Kendall said. “These guys are still learning what it takes to be consistent in the major leagues. We still have some ups and downs that all teams do.”

The Brewers, though, are convinced that the ups will outnumber the downs by the time the season is over. They believe the recent hot streak is the beginning of a strong final four months. “This thing is bound to turn around, there’s no way that it can’t,” Yost said. “We have too much talent on this team and too good a work ethic. You have to be patient in this game. It’s hard sometimes but we’ve got to be patient and our patience is starting to be rewarded. You’re seeing the team we all thought we could be when the season began.”

White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen put the onus on general manager Ken Williams to add some offense to the roster following a rough weekend in Tampa Bay that led to his post-game tirade on Sunday. Williams responded by standing pat. It turns out the cooler head prevailed, as the White Sox, with the same players who managed only nine runs and went 5-for-35 with runners in scoring position in losing three of four to the Rays, downed the Royals 9-5 on Tuesday night in the first game following Guillen’s rant.

Chicago’s players insist they did not take things personally when Guillen said to reporters, “just be ready because I expect movement Tuesday. I expect Kenny Williams to do something Tuesday, and if we don’t do something Tuesday, there are going to be a lot of lineup changes. It can be [hitting coach] Greg Walker. It can be the players. It can be anybody. I’m sick and tired of watching this thing for a year and a half.”

As center fielder Nick Swisher noted, “Ozzie is one of those guys, he loves this team, he cares so much about this team that he wants us to do well. Hey, it might have been that nice kick in the pants we needed.”

Yet, there is a feeling that Williams might finally be losing patience with Guillen–who is under contract through 2012–and his outspokenness. Williams, who was not in St. Petersburg, was none too pleased when Guillen’s remarks were relayed to him. “It’s just not a good idea to throw your boss under the bus, especially when that boss has had your back as much as I have had his,” Williams told the Chicago Tribune. “I expect this team, if the leadership remains positive and the players stick together and continue to play hard, it will be a fun summer. The offense will begin to produce when collectively they say the hell with all the theories, stay loose, pick the pitch you want to hit and hit it hard. It will be nice to see them lighten up and have some fun.”

Despite ranking just 19th in the majors with an average of 4.4 runs scored a game, the White Sox lead the AL Central with a 31-26 record. That’s because the team is second in the majors in fewest runs allowed, at 3.73.

Manny Ramirez never seems to be fazed by anything, which made his admission that he felt pressure to become the 24th player in major league history to hit 500 home runs rather surprising. Yet that’s exactly what the Red Sox left fielder said after connecting against the OriolesChad Bradford last Saturday at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Ramirez went two weeks before hitting No. 499 on May 27 at Seattle. Then the homers came in a bunch, as he hit No. 500 last Saturday, No. 501 the next day, and No. 501 on Monday.

“As soon as I hit it I knew it was gone, so I was happy to move on,” Ramirez said. “It feels great, especially with me trying so hard the past three weeks to get it done. It finally came and I’m happy and I’m proud of myself [and] all the things I have accomplished. So now I can go and have fun.”

The Red Sox are hoping Ramirez has a lot of fun, because they need him to carry the offense in the absence of designated hitter David Ortiz, who figures to be sidelined at least a month with a partial tear of the sheath in his left wrist. There is even thought Ortiz might wind up needing season-ending surgery. Ramirez has moved from left field to fill Ortiz’s DH spot. Ramirez leads Red Sox regulars with a .303 EqA, while Ortiz has a .286 mark.

“He’s a big part of the team,” Ramirez said of Ortiz. “We’ll have to keep battling without David. Let’s wait for him and pray that he’ll get better soon.”

Next up to join the 500 home run club is Tigers designated hitter Gary Sheffield, but his chances are much less certain. Sheffield is 17 homers short, has hit only three in 163 plate appearances this season, and is on the disabled list with a strained oblique muscle in his left side.

Mike Lieberthal is not going to the Hall of Fame and will not have his number retired, but the catcher did have some good years, and he got his wish Sunday when he had the chance to retire with the Phillies during a pre-game ceremony at Citizens Bank Park. He was signed to a one-day minor league contract.

Lieberthal spent the first 13 years of his major league career with the Phillies, from 1994-2006, before serving as the backup catcher with the Dodgers last season. His 1,139 games caught is a Phillies’ record, and he was selected to two All-Star Games and won the NL Gold Glove in 1999 during his time in Philadelphia.

“I know I finished with the Dodgers, but it’s definitely an honor to come back,” Lieberthal said. “I was still a Phillie at heart when I was in LA. I watched pretty much every game that was on TV, and I still do. The Phillies are definitely deep in my heart.”

Lieberthal was an extremely popular player during his time in Philadelphia. He was also active in the community, involving himself with local charities benefiting sick children. “Mike played here for a long time, and for me, it went beyond that. It was a real friendship,” Phillies president Dave Montgomery told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “In many ways, Mike was the face of the franchise for a number of years because of the continuity he brought. He always played hard. He cared about the community. This seemed like the right thing to do.”

American League rumors and rumblings: The Yankees are in the market for a set-up reliever now that Joba Chamberlain has been moved to the starting rotation and Kyle Farnsworth has proven to be anything but reliable, and they have their sights set on a couple of left-handers, the RockiesBrian Fuentes and the PiratesDamaso Marte. … The White Sox plan to give Cuban rookie Alexei Ramirez the bulk of the playing time at second base with Juan Uribe moving into a utility role. … The Orioles are expected to have “Baltimore” on their road uniforms next season for the first time since 1972. … One scout on Orioles catcher Ramon Hernandez: “He’s gone from one of the game’s best catchers to one of the worst. He can’t hit and he can’t throw. He looks finished to me.”

National League rumors and rumblings: The Reds are contemplating moving shortstop Jeff Keppinger to third base when he recovers from his broken kneecap and putting third baseman Edwin Encarnacion on the trading block. … The Rockies will make a strong bid to try to sign left fielder Matt Holliday, eligible for free agency after the 2009 season, to a contract extension before thinking about placing him on the trade market. … Bill Hall wants the Brewers to trade him now that he has gone from the everyday third baseman to a platoon partner with Russell Branyan at the hot corner. … Padres right-hander Mark Prior vows to pitch again even though he will now miss a second straight season with a second shoulder surgery. … Former major league infielder Jose Vizcaino, now a special assistant with the Dodgers, is considering making a comeback in 2009 after last playing in 2006 with the Cardinals. … Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was hoping to get a deal similar to the six-year, $55 million contract third baseman David Wright signed with the Mets in 2006, but that is not going to happen now that he has injured his left shoulder. … One scout who has been following the Cubs recently: “They are playing with so much confidence and you can just see that they feel like they are going to win every time they take the field. It’s amazing how much Lou Piniella has changed the mindset there in the two years he’s been their manager.”

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