April is an important month for major league baseball teams in relatively small markets, like the Milwaukee Brewers. Come out strong and fans will get excited, buy tickets and stay engaged for most of the summer. Falter early and people will start counting the days until the Packers start training camp.
Two weeks into the season, the 2008 Brewers are 8-5, and clear contenders in the National League's Central Division. And they're doing it with Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, two of their brightest lights in 2007, hitting in the low .200s.
Fielder's lack of production, in particular, is startling. The face of the franchise last season belted 50 homeruns - tops in the NL - and batted in 119 runs. Heading into Wednesday night's game, he has yet to take one deep and managed only 10 hits in 45 at bats. That has caused some to question Fielder's off-season decision to become a vegetarian, though the 270-pound Fielder claims he feels as strong as ever.
So who's picking up the slack? Would you believe a 32-year-old journeyman and a 33-year-old catcher?
The story so far of the young baseball season, and not just in Milwaukee, is Gabe Kapler. A year ago, Kapler was managing the Greenville Drive, a single-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Prior to that, he had played for four teams in nine seasons, plus a stint with Tokyo's Yomiuri Giants in 2006. After picking him up as a free agent in the off-season, the Brewers hoped to use Kapler as a fill-in in the outfield. Then center fielder Tony Gwynn went on the disabled list with a strained hamstring, and Kapler's bat exploded. On Sunday, he went 3-4 with two doubles and a homerun against the New York Mets. In his first 26 at-bats, he hit .448, with four homers and 11 RBIs.
Perhaps an even more unlikely emergence is that of catcher Jason Kendall. A .298 career hitter, Kendall dipped to .242 with the Oakland A's and Chicago Cubs last season and was acquired by the Brewers much more for his skills as a catcher than for his abilities at the plate. Manager Ned Yost slotted Kendall as the ninth hitter in the batting order, a spot normally reserved for weak-hitting pitchers.
"I don't care one iota about his offensive performance," Yost said of Kendall last week in a story on MLB.com. "Whatever he gives us offensively is gravy. What I care about most, and what I love about Jason Kendall, is his passion to work those pitchers and to be defensive-minded."
Well, a .375 batting average with five doubles in 40 at-bats is a decent helping of gravy. But where did this renewed production come from? Is it due, as some have speculated, to the Lasik eye surgery he underwent in the off-season?
We decided to ask an expert: Dr. Sarah Nehls, a cornea specialist and refractive surgeon for UW Health.
"I do have patients who go from 20/20 vision in their corrective lenses and improve to 20/15," says Nehls. "For someone who plays professional sports, it actually could make a difference."
One clear advantage is that the Lasik surgery allowed Kendall to ditch his contact lenses, which can work against a player over the course of a game, particularly in a windy setting like Chicago's Wrigley Field.
"Soft contact lenses get dry when you're out in the wind, in direct sunlight," says Nehls. "That dryness changes your blink rate."
Much of Milwaukee's success in 2007 was attributed to a winning record against its fellow teams in the NL Central, baseball's weakest division. But so far this season, the Brewers are 5-1 against teams outside the Central, including two convincing wins on the road against the New York Mets. Saturday's game in particular was impressive, as Milwaukee patiently battled Mets ace Johann Santana, and Ben Sheets shut down New York's potent lineup, retiring 18 straight batters.
Closer Eric Gagne, perhaps learning his lesson after shaking off a Kendall sign and giving up a homer to blow a save earlier in the week to Cincinnati, retired all three hitters in the ninth. The bespectacled Gagne is searching for redemption in Milwaukee after pitching horribly in Boston last year and being implicated in Major League Baseball's steroids investigation. If he and Kendall continue their resurgence, and Fielder and Braun find their bats, this could be the year Milwaukee finally reaches the playoffs.