Mark Wiedmer: Atlanta Braves turn to Sheets for help with pitching

Mark Wiedmer: Atlanta Braves turn to Sheets for help with pitching

July 2nd, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

ATLANTA - Never mind that Ben Sheets' agent had been crunching numbers and scenarios for much of the last three weeks with Atlanta Braves general manager Frank Wren.

Or that the four-time All-Star pitcher had been rehabbing back home in Monroe, La., since October in hopes that the Tommy John surgery he underwent in August of 2010 would prove a success.

Or that his right arm had grown so strong during those workouts on his 9-year-old son Seaver's throwback net that Sheets believes, "I could throw for 10 straight days if I wanted to."

All that may have strongly pointed to a comeback for the 33-year-old who hasn't pitched a single game in the majors in nearly two years.

But the husband and father of two insisted on Sunday that when he arrived in the Big Peach last week to coach Seaver's little league team in a tournament at East Cobb, "I was pretty content coaching youth baseball, working with my kids."

Pretty content, maybe. But not so content that Sheets turned down a chance to throw a five-inning simulated game in front of Wren and four other teams on Thursday at Georgia Tech.

Nor was he too content to work out a second time Sunday morning at Turner Field under the watchful eye of Atlanta pitching coach Roger McDowell just before the start of the Braves' 8-4 loss to the Washington Nationals.

"Very impressed," said Wren after announcing Sheets had signed a minor league contract "with major league terms. We're getting a four-time All-Star who hasn't forgotten how to pitch. And there's nothing wrong with his arm. He'll have a start at Mississippi on July 4. Then another in Mississippi right after that. If he progresses as we hope, he should join our rotation in the next few weeks."

Not much as progressed as Sheets hoped it would when he first broke into the big leagues in 2004. A bulging disc in his back hindered him early on with the Milwaukee Brewers. Ear infections plagued him in 2005. Shoulder tendonitis struck in 2006. A hamstring hamstrung him 2007. More elbow problems shelved him for the playoffs in 2008. Then came another elbow surgery in 2009 before the Tommy John surgery the following season after he'd joined the Oakland A's.

This guy's seen more surgeons' scalpels than the combined Housewives of Beverly Hills.

But as Wren was quick to point out, when Sheets is healthy, he's something. He was the winning pitcher in a 4-0 shutout of Cuba when the U.S.A won gold in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. On May 16, 2004, he struck out 18 Atlanta Braves. He finished with 264 strikeouts that season, second only to Randy Johnson in the National League. In 2008 he started the All-Star game and struck out three in two scoreless innings. His strikeout-to-walk ratio for much of that season was 8 to 1.

Even after all Sheets has been through, Wren said he was throwing 91, 92 miles per hour on Sunday, less than three days after the five-inning simulated game on Thursday.

"He'll replace one of our pitchers, probably even one of the guys in the rotation," said Wren. "We just haven't been as consistent as we'd like. We need more of a sure thing on a daily basis."

The Braves have been consistently inconsistent to date, their starters now 29-29 on the year after Tim Hudson took the loss against the Nats. Of course, Sheets is but 90-92 for his career, so talented though he may be, he can't - at least for the moment - be seen as a significant upgrade in the wins department.

Yet Sheets sees Atlanta as a significant upgrade on at least two fronts.

"Being from Louisiana, there have always been a couple of teams you look at and think, 'I wouldn't mind putting on that uniform,'" he said. "The [chance to get to the] postseason is also a very big part."

The postseason is anything but certain at this point. The Braves are now 41-37. They would stand third in any NL division.

Yet every pennant chase starts somewhere, most with a significant moment, whether forged on or off the field.

As the Braves' wooing of Sheets intensified on Thursday, Wren sent a couple of dozen Braves caps to the left field stands that night for the kids on his little league team.

Said young Seaver (yes, he's named for Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver) to his father upon slipping on his hat, "Dad, we want these caps to count for something."

If you're Wren, you hope they'll count toward far more Braves wins than losses whenever Sheets toes the mound.