Roenicke faces stiff test as sophomore skipper

Roenicke faces stiff test as sophomore skipper

MILWAUKEE -- In hindsight, Ron Roenicke's rookie season as Brewers manager was a piece of cake. The Brewers stayed mostly injury-free and rode a steady starting rotation and personality-packed offense to the National League Championship Series.

Roenicke's sophomore season has been dramatically different.

His wits have been tested and his nerves frayed by the Brewers' injury-fraught, slump-ridden start to 2012. It's included season-ending injuries to a starting pitcher, the starting first baseman and the starting shortstop. All-Star second baseman Rickie Weeks is in the worst slump of his life, forcing Roenicke to twice drop him in the batting order. Middle-relief roles remain undefined. The starters have been inconsistent. The offense has been worse.

The clubhouse leaders -- among them Prince Fielder, Mark Kotsay, Craig Counsell and LaTroy Hawkins -- have disappeared via free agency or retirement. So has the Brewers' home dominance. They were a big-league-best 57-24 at Miller Park in 2011, versus 11-13 at home this year after dropping two of three against the Giants.

Roenicke is facing the stiffest test of his brief tenure.

"I still feel that we're really good," he said, "and last year I knew when we came home that we were going to be good. Right now, we're not doing that, either. It's at a point where, yeah, I've been doing more thinking this year than last year, trying to figure out who to play, who to give a rest. ...

"There's a lot more going into it right now than there was last year."

Roenicke's chief concern is an offense that was already sputtering before first baseman Mat Gamel, the Brewers' young replacement for Prince Fielder, and veteran shortstop Alex Gonzalez were lost for the season to right ACL tears.

The Brewers rank 11th in the Majors with 191 runs scored, but it has been a season of extremes. They have scored eight or more runs 10 times and three or fewer runs 23 times, going 3-20 in those games.

Roenicke has seen offensive struggles before. In his last of 11 seasons as an Angels coach, that team ranked 12th among 14 American League teams with a .702 OPS and 13th with a .311 on-base percentage. The year before, the Angels had ranked third in both categories, with a .792 OPS and .350 OBP.

"We were really an off-and-on offensive team," Roenicke said. "Three years ago [in '09], it was fabulous, but the last year I was there, it was not good at all. I've been through it a lot. We always had good pitching, and I think we have good pitching here. We've been a little inconsistent, but I think we have good pitching here."

Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum mostly have been steady again this season. But veteran Randy Wolf has a 6.02 ERA, and fifth starter Chris Narveson is already lost for the year to a shoulder injury that required surgery. His replacement, Marco Estrada, left Wednesday's game with a right hip flexor strain, and it's uncertain how long he could be out.

"I'm counting on those guys to pitch well enough that we can hang in there, and then when the offense gets going -- hopefully -- with the good pitching, then we'll get on a roll again," Roenicke said. "We're just not going in that direction right now."

Without the sort of vocal clubhouse leadership provided by the likes of Kotsay and Counsell, Roenicke said more onus has fallen on him and his coaches to keep things loose.

"We replaced them with great guys that aren't so vocal," Corey Hart said of the departed personalities. "The dynamic has changed."

According to Hart, at least one thing has stayed the same, though. Despite the injuries, inconsistencies and offensive slumps, Roenicke has remained the eternal optimist. Hart said it's easy for players to get down on themselves when nothing seems to be going their way. But something as small as a quick pep talk from Roenicke typically changes that attitude.

"It helps when you've got a guy like him who stays positive, who understands that things will turn in the drop of a hat," he said. "And we've got a club that can win a lot of games if that turns."

Roenicke brought the same positivity to the clubhouse last season, when Milwaukee was 21-23 to start the year and couldn't buy a win on the road, Hart said. Eventually, the Brewers dug out of an early hole to win the division and the franchise's first playoff series in 29 years. It was then that Roenicke drew on his experience with the Angels to help his players battle through their struggles.

"Last year, everybody forgets we were a pretty bad team early on," Hart said. "So you go through those times."

Catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who has been one of the best hitters in the league in his second full year with the Brewers, said Roenicke is a welcoming positive voice. But at the same time, the backstop said his manager believes the responsibility falls on the players to pick themselves up.

"I think everybody here knows what they need to do," Lucroy said. "They don't need to be motivated by anybody. We wouldn't be here if we weren't internally motivated, no one would. There's nothing nobody can say to us that's going to make us hit or not make us hit or whatever."

Much like Hart, Lucroy said the key to finding offensive success and winning games is for this year's group of players -- some who have been with the team and some who are new -- to gel together. If and when that happens, Lucroy said the sky is the limit.

"It's just more of everybody getting comfortable and getting confident and getting it back," Lucroy said. "And I really feel sorry for the other teams when we do get it back."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy.Jeremy Warnemuends is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.