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Sveum teaching game's finer points

Sveum teaching game's finer points

MESA, Ariz. -- The game is "27 outs." The Brewers' young infielders -- Ryan Braun at third base, J.J. Hardy at shortstop, Rickie Weeks at second and Prince Fielder at first -- are one-by-one hit ground balls by bench coach Dale Sveum, the team's infield guru. The players must convert 27 imaginary outs in a row, and if one makes an error on, say, No. 26, it's back to the beginning.

"The first time we did it, he hit balls right at us and it only took three or four minutes because we got 27 straight," Hardy said. "But it's going to get tougher as we go along. Popups, grounders all over the place, situations where you have to throw to the right base. I don't think it's going to be that easy again."

That's the idea. Sveum, elevated from third base coach to the bench after Robin Yount elected to hang up his spikes, has quite a project in the Brewers infield. Fielder and Weeks showed dramatic improvement last season and Braun, the team's top prospect who is competing for a roster spot this spring, will be just as much a work in progress.

Sveum will serve as manager Ned Yost's right-hand man once the season begins, but for now, he is focused on the little things. Converting routine plays into outs. Turning double plays. Preventing opposing runners from taking extra bases.

"Say Ben Sheets is on the mound and we've lost two games in a row. You can't mess up a routine play," Sveum said. "If you do, now he needs to throw 30 more pitches in the inning and he's out by the fourth inning. If we're going to compete for a championship, we have to have our guys understanding the bigger picture.

"The smallest little things that don't show up in the box score, that don't show up as errors, matter," Sveum said. "We weren't seeing as many of those things as last season went along."

He hopes to see even fewer in 2007. Sveum has worked extensively with Braun at third base on not rushing his throws. Sveum and Weeks work extensively on throwing angles and fielding grounders on Weeks' backhand. Fielder has been limited lately by a quadriceps strain, but he and Sveum will work on increasing the big first baseman's lateral range.

"He gets to the point," Weeks said. "And instead of telling you one way to do things, he tells you three or four ways and he lets you have some input. He wants to let you do what feels comfortable, and that's important for a player."

Yost took a leap of confidence when he added Sveum to the staff following the team's promising 2005 season. Sveum came recommended by Yount, a Brewers legend who was also set to rejoin the organization as bench coach. Sveum and Yount, who were Brewers teammates from 1986-1991, are best friends.

Sveum already had been building a coaching resume. A 12-year Major League career ended in 1999, and by 2001, he was managing the Pirates Double-A affiliate. He spent 2004 and 2005 as the third base coach in Boston.

"I didn't even know this guy," said Yost, whose Brewers playing stint preceded Sveum's. "Robin said, 'Just trust me. I guarantee you, this will be the best coach you've ever had.' I said, 'All right.'"

Yost believes he made the right decision. When Yount stepped aside last winter, citing a desire to devote more time to his family, Sveum stepped in.

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Yount's absence has made this spring a little strange, Sveum said.

"He was my best friend, and it's never fun to see your best friend leave," he said. "It was pretty fun to go to work every day and your best friend is right there beside you, not to mention he is one the best baseball people you'll ever meet. Obviously, things aren't going to be the same without him, but we've filled those roles with good people."

Former Phillies manager Nick Leyva replaced Sveum at third base, Ed Sedar was hired as the first base coach and Jim Skaalen was elevated to hitting coach. They joined holdovers Mike Maddux (pitching coach) and Billy Castro (bullpen coach).

His new role will keep Sveum in the dugout for the first time. He had been coaching third base since his Double-A managing days.

"That is going to be really strange," he said. "But I'm looking forward to it. You always look forward to change in this game, because it can get monotonous."

The new gig is another boost to his resume. Sveum aspires to someday manage in the Majors, and as bench coach, he essentially will be the baseball equivalent of football's assistant head coach. His minions don't bet against another promotion.

"He is very, very, very smart," Hardy said. "I've only been in the game a few years, but he's up there as one of the smartest baseball guys I've ever met. I think he'd be a great manager, and I think he's going to get there some day."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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