Eight years ago, on April 6, 2001, Milwaukee ace Jeff D’Amico took the mound as the Brewers’ opening day starter, firing a first-pitch strike at 7:17 p.m., and officially opening the long-awaited Miller Park.

Since then, four-time All-Star Ben Sheets has been the opening-day starter for the Brewers in all but one season, with the only exception being Doug Davis’ opening day start in 2006.

When the Brewers open their season this afternoon, things will look a little different.

For the first time (minus Davis’ start in 2006) since 2001, the name on the back of the opening day starter’s jersey will be something other than “Sheets.”

With oft-injured Sheets’ decision to turn down the Brewers’ offer and his subsequent surgery, the door has been opened for a new pitcher to take over the role of staff ace.

Enter former NLCS MVP Jeff Suppan to fill that role.

While many consider 23-year-old Yovani Gallardo to be the Brewers’ true ace, manager Ken Macha has opted not to put such pressure on his young hurler by putting the veteran Suppan in the No. 1 slot in his rotation, with Gallardo behind him as the No. 2 starter.

Of course, a new opening-day starter isn’t the only major change in the Milwaukee clubhouse today. For the first time since that same 2001 season, the manager penciling in Suppan’s name will be someone other than Ned Yost.

Yost’s mid-September firing in 2008 has led to the arrival of Macha, who nearly took the job after the 2001 season before choosing to take the same position with the Oakland Athletics.

Still more significant will be the changes at Miller Park when the Brewers return home to face the Chicago Cubs this weekend.

For the first time since opening the ballpark, the Brew Crew earned a banner to hang in the outfield, after earning Milwaukee’s first postseason appearance since the magical 1982 season that saw the Brewers come within one game of a World Series victory.

While the absence of Sheets and Yost makes for a strange opening to the 2009 season for the Brewers, the bigger absence will be that of Carsten Charles (CC) Sabathia. After almost single-handedly leading the Brewers to the promised land down the stretch, the former Cy Young winner turned down an offer from the Brew Crew to become the highest-paid pitcher in the MLB with the New York Yankees.

With Sabathia turning in the retro pinstripes of the Brewers to wear potentially the most pinstripes in Yankee history, the Brewers are left with a gaping hole in their rotation. To Macha’s credit, he understands Sabathia’s shoes, as well as Sheets’, are far too large for any one Brewer to fill, let alone one with just 21 starts in his big league career.

So, what should Macha and the Brewers do to fill the hole left by CC and Sheets?

First, they have to remember they can’t rely on a near-complete game on every fifth (or fourth) day from Sabathia. Because of this, the Brewers’ starters need to pitch much more efficiently and much deeper into games across the board in 2009.

This is most important in regard to left-handed pitcher Manny Parra. The 26-year-old southpaw reached the six-inning mark just 12 times last season in 29 starts. With 157 2/3 innings pitched over those 29 starts last season, Parra averaged just over 5 1/3 innings per start. That leaves 3 2/3 innings per Parra start to be cleaned up by the bullpen.

Regardless of the strength of the bullpen, 3 2/3 innings is far more than they should have to pitch on a regular basis. And with the Brewers’ bullpen not exactly ranking among the MLB elite, the Crew cannot afford another similar season by Parra.

If the Brewers’ starters can get through the sixth inning on a regular basis in 2009, they will go a long way towards making up for the loss of Sabathia and Sheets.

Furthermore, if Gallardo pitches like the staff ace many consider him to be, the season outlook may not be so bleak in Milwaukee after all.

And if the offense (read: Rickie Weeks) finds a way to reach its potential in 2009, the Brewers’ could be poised for a breakout season at the plate, even after finishing sixth or higher in the National League in total bases, runs batted in, home runs, triples and doubles in 2008.

With the bats of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder — who combined for 71 home runs and 208 RBI last season — along with J.J. Hardy and Corey Hart, the Brewers have to feel confident about their ability to beat any team, taking some pressure off the pitching staff.

Still, when Suppan toes the rubber in San Francisco this afternoon, Milwaukee fans will be hard-pressed to forget the loss of the two All-Stars that led them to the playoffs for the first time in 26 years.

Jordan is a junior majoring in journalism and political science. Think the Brewers’ pitching staff is better than it looks on paper? Jordan can be reached at [email protected]