Ben Sheets has been a godsend for an Atlanta Braves team reeling from injuries and uncertainty in the starting rotation. The Braves needed help, and Sheets has provided it thanks to muscle memory, ingenuity and a joy for the game that's downright infectious.
The Braves have been great for Sheets as well. When a man thinks he has something left to give and he's not quite ready to take it to the house, there's nothing like a welcoming clubhouse and the energy of a pennant race to get the blood flowing.
Sheets, 34, has emerged as a major contributor since joining the Atlanta rotation in mid-July. He's 4-1 with a 1.41 ERA and carries a streak of five straight quality starts into Sunday night's game against the New York Mets at Citi Field. True, it's a small sample size. But on the midseason free-agent acquisition scale, he's been better than Roger Clemens of the 2007 Yankees (6-6, 4.18) and a lot more fun than the 2012 Roy Oswalt Experience in Texas.
The whole sequence of events is mind-boggling to Sheets. One day he was throwing batting practice and hitting ground balls to his son Seaver's youth league team. Not long afterward, he was standing on the mound facing David Wright in a Sunday matinee at Turner Field.
"It's pretty awesome,'' Sheets said. "I wake up and I'm like, 'What the heck am I doing here?' I almost feel like I'm a local fan who got a chance to come out and play. I'm just enjoying the ride and trying not to get in the way.''
Sheets' revival is equally entertaining to his Atlanta teammates, some of whom were in middle school when he made the first of four career All-Star appearances with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2001.
"Honestly, I don't know that anybody in this locker room knew he was even trying to make a comeback,'' pitcher Tim Hudson said. "We're really lucky. It was like making a great trade, but not having to give anybody up.''
The past six months have been a whirlwind for Sheets, who was convinced he had thrown his final major league pitch in July 2010. After going 4-9 with a 4.53 ERA for the Oakland Athletics and having his flexor tendon, ulnar collateral ligament and pronator tendon repaired, he had no intention of traveling the long, hard road necessary to compete again at the highest level.
But Sheets retained his enthusiasm for the game while coaching his baseball-crazed sons Seaver, age 10, and Miller, 5. He also received lots of support from Dr. Keith Meister, the surgeon who repaired his elbow and kept encouraging him to listen to his body and keep an open mind about his baseball future.
The first step back came in March, when Sheets went out to the backyard of his Monroe, La., home and threw what he called his first "serious'' pitch in 20 months. He has a basketball court with a big wall on one side and a radar gun attached to it, and it flashed 83 mph with that first fastball. But he was more concerned with his health than his velocity at the outset.
"I told myself, 'I'll go as hard as I can today, and if I ain't sore, I'm gonna get up tomorrow and get on a program,''' Sheets said.
When Sheets awoke the next day and his elbow felt fine, it was all systems go. Each night, he waited until the sun set and the heat abated before going outside and working up a sweat. Seaver helped him warm up, but for the most part it was just Sheets throwing the ball against that wall in solitude amid a chorus of "thumps.'' He would throw 40 baseballs, move back 30 feet and throw again and conclude each session by long tossing into a net.
When the gun readings crept into the upper 80s, Sheets' agents at Excel Sports Management began scheduling auditions for potential suitors. John Coppolella, Atlanta's director of professional scouting, sent scout Don Thomas to Monroe in May, and the Yankees and Angels also dropped in for a look.
In late June, Sheets came to Atlanta for a tournament as the coach of Seaver's travel team, and his agents set up a batting practice session at Georgia Tech. The Phillies, Cardinals, Royals and Rangers dispatched scouts, and Atlanta general manager Frank Wren drove over from Turner Field with Coppolella and assistant GM Bruce Manno.
After watching Sheets hit 92 on the gun, the Braves were sold. They signed him to a prorated deal that will pay him about $2.4 million if he reaches certain thresholds for starts and days on the roster and sent him to the Mississippi Braves in the Double-A Southern League. Two starts later, Sheets was back in The Show.
Wren deserves credit for a shrewd and cost-efficient move, but the Braves were fortunate to have so many stars align in their favor. All things being equal, Sheets preferred to pitch in the National League. Atlanta is a contending team and geographically convenient to his Louisiana home. As a fly ball pitcher, he stood to benefit from spacious Turner Field and Atlanta's strong defensive outfield. Sheets' agents, Casey Close and Victor Menocal, also represent Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, so they already had a productive working relationship with the Atlanta front office.
Sheets' velocity is down a notch or two from his 2004 peak, when he struck out 264 batters and whiffed 18 Braves in one start, but his fastball still has enough hop to keep hitters honest.
What makes him so effective is the fact he's got the power curveball and power fastball. You can't sit on one and have the ability to hit the other.
”-- Braves catcher Brian
McCann on Sheets
"What makes him so effective is the fact he's got the power curveball and power fastball,'' Braves catcher Brian McCann said. "You can't sit on one and have the ability to hit the other. His fastball jumps out of his hand, too. It's 90, but it may look 93 to a hitter because it gets on you real quick.''
Sheets maintains that his trademark curveball is every bit as tight as it was during his heyday. He also throws a combination slider-cutter that he added to his repertoire in Oakland two years ago. Sheets had been pounded in back-to-back starts against Tampa Bay and Toronto when he began throwing the pitch out of desperation in the middle of a game. He induced a few 400-foot fly ball outs with the slider over his next few starts, and catcher Kurt Suzuki jokingly referred to it as the "best worst pitch ever.''
Sometimes the slider goes straight. Sometimes it cuts, and sometimes it nosedives into the ground. Sheets jokingly refers to it as the "whirlybird.''
"Sometimes it's very good,'' he said. "Sometimes it's very bad. If I don't know where it's going, it has to be hard to hit.''
Sheets also throws a changeup about 5 percent of the time. The pitch has been the bane of his existence for much of his career.
"My curveball still breaks,'' he said, "and my changeup still sucks.''
They all look wonderful to the Braves, who've had their share of setbacks in the rotation this summer. Brandon Beachy was leading the National League in ERA when he blew out his elbow in June. Tommy Hanson is 12-5, but his velocity has slipped and now he's on the disabled list with a lower back strain. Jair Jurrjens has been injured or ineffective the entire season. At the moment, the Atlanta rotation consists of Hudson, Sheets, Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and Paul Maholm, who came over from the Cubs at the trade deadline after a deal for Ryan Dempster fell through.
Sheets has given the Braves a lift with both his pitching and his gregariousness. His teammates quickly noticed that he would finish his outings, briefly return to the clubhouse, then come back to the dugout to play cheerleader in the eighth and ninth innings.
"He brings energy every day, even when he's not pitching,'' McCann said.
He's also good for a few yuks. Sheets roams through the clubhouse wearing a gray T-shirt with a likeness of Braves conditioning coach Phil Falco on the front and the inscription "Be Honest With Yourself'' on the back, and he maintains a constant patter that some media observers say is reminiscent of Will Ferrell's Ricky Bobby character in "Talladega Nights.'' When Sheets isn't lampooning his changeup, chances are he's making fun of his pathetic hitting ability. He has an .077 career batting average and three extra-base hits in 444 major league at-bats.
"He's a lot different than I thought he would be,'' Hudson said. "He's definitely a talker. He fits in really well here. We have a locker room filled with some country boys-slash-rednecks. And he fills the bill.''
Hey, it beats manning the grill. Six months ago Ben Sheets was content to be a youth coach and retiree back home in the Bayou State. Now he's Atlanta's accidental savior.