C’mon, how many of you really thought that Ben Sheets might become a productive starting pitcher again? And how many of you thought that the Atlanta Braves right-hander, well, would ever be an Atlanta Braves right-hander?
For a guy who was a four-time All-Star, Sheets’ lifetime record is not that special. It reflects the up-and-down nature of his career. The same player who won a gold medal in the 2000 Summer Olympics and was an All-Star in 2001, 2004, 2007, and 2008, has also had a variety of health issues, from a bulging disc in his back as long ago as 2004. He had elbow surgery in 2009 and missed the entire season. Then in 2010 he hurt the elbow again and that looked like it might keep him sidelined forever.
In 2010, Sheets was actually the opening day starter for the Oakland A’s and pitched in 20 games. That seems like a million years ago. Later that season he wrecked his elbow and finished 4-9 on the year. He missed all of last year and started this season in the minors while hoping for a Major League comeback opportunity.
After a long rehab Sheets finally made a start for the Mississippi Braves in early July and then abruptly moved to the majors and made a July 15 start for the big-league Braves. Sheets pretty much startled the baseball world by throwing six scoreless innings while permitting just two hits. It was quite the return.
At his finest in past years, Sheets showed signs of greatness. In 2004 he threw a so-a called “immaculate inning” when in facing three Houston batters he struck out each of them on three pitches. Nine strikes, three outs. That season he also struck out 18 men in a game against the Braves, the Milwaukee Brewers’ team record.
In seven different seasons the 6-foot-1, 220-pound fastballer has won at least 10 games. However, he has never won a great number in a single season. In 2007 he went 12-5 for the Brewers, his original team, and in 2008 he went 13-9. Still, after last week’s win, Sheets’ lifetime record is still only 91-92. He was due to pitch again for the Braves this Saturday.
Sheets is 34, which wouldn’t be thought of as too old, except that teams wonder if his arm is 54. After the severe injuries his elbow has absorbed Sheets has been mighty pleased to see that his fastball has lately been humming on radar readings at 91 or 92 mph. Eight years ago Sheets regularly threw between 96 and 98 mph. But how can he not be happy about being able to still throw in the 90s? Those kind of numbers imply that Sheets is healed and renewed.
If Sheets can keep up the kind of work he turned in against the Mets the Braves may have found themselves a bargain for the stretch run. It has been a long, hard road for Sheets and if he can pull this comeback off by again making himself valuable to a team, then he deserves our admiration, as well. It would have been easy enough for Sheets to call it a career by now, so this is all gravy, all second-chance, even third-chance stuff for him.
Clearly, Sheets still wants to pitch and the early returns indicate that he still can.