One thing about Ben Sheets: He could always throw strikes. Even when he was battling a bad back in 2003, inner-ear infections that caused dizziness in 2005, and shoulder tendinitis in 2006, Sheets could locate and hit corners. His 116/11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2006 is the second-best ever for a pitcher with at least 100 innings. His 264/32 mark in 2004 is the sixth-best ratio for those with 200 innings.
So maybe it's no surprise that in his first major league start since July 19, 2010, Sheets threw strikes and walked just one batter in six innings in the Atlanta Braves' 6-1 win over the New York Mets on Sunday. Maybe what's surprising is that he threw six scoreless innings. Or, more likely, that he was even here at all.
When Sheets tore the flexor in his elbow while with the Oakland A's in 2010 -- after missing all of 2009 following elbow surgery -- he feared his career was over. "I just wanted them to fix me so I could play catch with my boy," he told the Atlanta Journal Constitution's Jeff Schultz. "Honestly, in my mind two years ago, I was done."
The Braves signed Sheets on July 1, as much out of desperation and frugal management as anything. Brandon Beachy, the team's best starter, had gone down for the season with a torn elbow ligament. Youngsters Mike Minor and Randall Delgado had been inconsistent. Jair Jurrjens, a 2011 All-Star, had only recently been recalled from Triple-A, where he'd been demoted after a terrible April. With top prospect Julio Teheran still in need of more time in the minors, the Braves signed Sheets after watching him throw a simulated game to former big league catcher Eddie Perez in front of scouts from five teams.
"I ain't telling you I'm throwing 100 [mph], but I'm just saying the ball's coming out of my hand really good," Sheets said when he signed. "Breaking ball's spinning. Eddie even told me my cutter/slider looked good. I know he's lying."
After just two starts in Double-A (he allowed seven runs in 10.2 innings), the Braves called Sheets up. Considering his elbow has been patched together with glue and thumbtacks, it was probably wise to get him into the rotation as soon as possible. Who knows how long the elbow will hold together.
Sheets' first pitch to Ruben Tejada was a 91-mph fastball. Maybe not the 96-to-98 heat he threw back at his peak, but fast enough for a guy who can paint the black. He struck out Tejada swinging on a 1-2, 79-mph curveball, his first of five strikeouts. He cranked his fastball up to 93 on four occasions. On his 88th and final pitch, he struck out David Wright swinging on a 91-mph fastball. In between, he mixed in curveballs, changeups and his cutter/slider. And threw them where he wanted.
Sheets' biggest out came when he retired Wright in the third inning after Daniel Murphy's two-out double put runners on second and third. Wright flew out to the warning track in right field on a 93-mph fastball. "It was a big moment, a big pitch," Sheets told MLB.com. "One big pitch, that can really turn things around."
Sheets watched the last three innings from the dugout, despite the stifling humidity in Atlanta. The Braves' six-run fifth off Johan Santana held up as they finished off the series sweep and won their seventh in a row.
Chipper Jones was impressed with his new teammate. "We are ecstatic. For him to come in and build on our winning streak -- seven-game winning streaks don't come along very often -- we keep the ball rolling," he said.
So while other teams contemplate the prices they'll have to pay to acquire Zack Greinke or Ryan Dempster or Matt Garza or maybe even Cole Hamels, it's possible Sheets could end up being one of the most important deadline acquisitions.
Though you can credit Atlanta's front office, it's also a sign of how the Braves operate on a tight budget. Liberty Media, which has owned the Braves since 2007, is unlikely to make a trade for a starting pitcher such as Greinke or Hamels. Instead of going for a big name that would increase payroll and require prospects, the Braves took a chance on a low-cost player who could pay big dividends.
Since Liberty took control of the Braves, payroll has been slashed from $102 million in 2008 to $93 million this year (including the $10 million being paid to Derek Lowe). Liberty chairman John Malone has said in the past that he doesn't consider the Braves a strategic asset, although Braves CEO Terry McGuirk said in January that Liberty doesn't intend to sell the team in the near future.
Still, the Braves are locked into 25-year television contracts that leave them at a disadvantage compared to big deals signed in recent seasons by clubs such as the Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers.
"Whenever old [TV] deals are up and new deals get realized, there are big jumps in value. I have predicted that, knew it was coming," McGuirk told the AJC. "And I think we have an undervalued local rights [deal]."
The Braves did acquire Michael Bourn from the Houston Astros at last year's deadline, although Houston picked up an undisclosed portion of Bourn's remaining salary. But that was an unusual salary addition for the Braves, who didn't have to give up any top prospects to get him. Acquiring Greinke, Hamels or even Dempster would require both a sizable financial commitment plus some quality kids from the farm.
So for now the Braves turn to Sheets.
It's just one start and, as Grantland writer Jonah Keri tweeted, let's see a start without the notoriously inconsistent C.B. Bucknor behind the plate. (Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen was ejected in the fifth for arguing balls and strikes.)
But it's a great comeback story, one you have to root for. Plus, it's easy to root for a pitcher who named one of his sons Seaver.
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