Not long ago – four years, to be exact – Ben Sheets was one of the top right-handed starting pitchers in the Major Leagues. After his career was derailed by a torn flexor tendon and then Tommy John surgery over a two-year period, the now 34-year-old veteran is mowing down batters again, this time in a different way.
A first round pick (1oth overall) by Milwaukee in 1999, Sheets was the winning pitcher in the Gold Medal game during the 2000 Olympics and started the All-Star Game for the National League in 2008, when his fast ball averaged 97.4.
According to FanGraphs.com, his heater is now hitting 93.3. As a newfound key member of the injury-ravaged Atlanta Braves rotation, Sheets is winning more as a “pitcher” than a guy blowing high-octane heaters past hitters.
On Monday, Sheets limited the Phillies to one run and seven hits over 7.1 innings in Atlanta’s 6-1 win. The same guy who fanned 264 batters in 237 innings for the Brewers in 2004 did not record a strike out but issued one walk, improving to 4-1 with a 1.41 ERA in five starts.
At 63-46, the Braves lead the National League wild card race and sit 2.5 games behind the Washington Nationals in the National League East standings. With Brandon Beachy out for the season and Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens on the disabled list, Atlanta needed a lift in the rotation, and Sheets is the unexpected provider.
FoxSports.com’s Ken Rosenthal chronicled the inspiring story of how the Braves and Sheets forged an alliance that has helped the team remain in contention for a division title and a post-season berth, and the pitcher to resurrect a career that appeared to be in jeopardy.
As Rosenthal writes, Sheets was coaching the traveling team for which his 10-year-old son, Seaver, plays. The team was in Atlanta for a tournament in late June. While there, Sheets decided to toss a five-inning simulated game at Georgia Tech.
Sheets, Rosenthal reported, had already worked out for the Braves and other teams in Monroe, La., where he and his family reside. Scouts from several teams attended the simulated game, as did Braves general manager Frank Wren, assistant GM Bruce Manno and director of professional scouting John Coppolella.
Sheets, who did not pitch last season after having Tommy John surgery in August 2010, delivered 80 pitches in 100-degree heat, according to Rosenthal. He featured a fast ball that ranged from 90-92 m.p.h., a curve ball and a change-up.
On July 1, the Braves signed Sheets to a contract. He had two rehab starts at Double-A Mississippi and made his Braves debut on July 15 against the Mets, tossing six innings, allowing no runs and two hits.
Sheets can still register strikeouts. He had eight in 6.2 innings versus the Marlins on August 1. His win on Monday against Philadelphia demonstrated that he doesn’t need a 98 m.p.h. fast ball to win. He just needs to remain healthy to continue what is one of the most remarkable comeback stories in recent seasons.