A’s manager Bob Geren called Ben Sheets “an All-Star” and “a competitor” and “a true ace.” Imagine the praise Sheets would have received in the event that he had, you know, retired a batter in Oakland’s 13-5 loss to the Reds on Monday.
But this was the right-hander’s line, straight from the fourth dimension of spring training freakishness: 10 batters faced, none retired, 10 runs, nine earned, eight hits … and a walk for good measure.
It would be foolish to suggest that the A’s have absolutely no reason to worry. They do. Sheets hasn’t appeared in a major-league game since 2008. He’s one year removed from major elbow surgery. Despite his track record with the Brewers, the 31-year-old is far from a sure thing.
A’s fans will probably wince through his starts until they are convinced that he is again the dominant pitcher that he once was. I don’t blame them, particularly since the team invested $10 million in Sheets.
But I also expect him to pitch, and pitch well, against the Mariners when the regular season opens on April 5.
Sheets didn’t look or sound like someone concerned about his health when he spoke with reporters after his early exit. He was wearing Velcro hand weights and in the middle of a workout when reporters entered the clubhouse.
“Do I even count as the pitcher of record today?” he quipped. Sheets said it was “ridiculous” that he couldn’t get out of the first inning. I took it as a good sign that he could poke fun at himself. He said repeatedly that his arm felt “great” – better than in his last start. The radar guns supported that, since his fastball averaged better than 90 miles per hour.
A healthy Sheets is the key to a young, promising Oakland staff. The same could be said of Justin Duchscherer, who has yet to appear in a Cactus League game because of health issues of his own. For that reason, there might be greater cause to worry about Duchscherer than Sheets.
Yet, the fact remains that Sheets spent about 20 minutes on the mound and couldn’t get anyone out on Monday afternoon. Hard to believe.
In Sheets’ defense, he was trying to work on his fastball. And when major-league hitters catch on to the fact that you’re pumping fastballs, well, this is the sort of thing that can happen.
“I believe I’m going to be OK,” Sheets said.
And the alarmists may not want to hear it, but there was plenty of blame to go around.
Chris Dickerson led off with a fly ball to left field that might have been caught by a more experienced outfielder than Jake Fox. It dropped for a double.
Orlando Cabrera followed with a comebacker that Sheets muffed. “Right to me,” he lamented.
So instead of there being two out, the Reds had runners on first and third. And that’s when things really started to go haywire.
Jonny Gomes scalded a double off Kevin Kouzmanoff’s glove. Laynce Nix dribbled a run-scoring single through the infield. You get the idea. The drubbing didn’t end until Dickerson – did he even take off his batting helmet? – paddled a fastball over the wall in right.
At that, Geren lifted his ace. There wasn’t much of a reaction from the fans until one batter later, when Cabrera’s routine groundout was met with sarcastic applause.
By then, Sheets was en route to a faraway mound where he could finish his allotment of pitches without interference from the Cincinnati hitters.
I presume he worked a shutout there.
“Nothing out there that was any good, except for the fact that I did get in a thousand pitches in the first inning,” Sheets said. He added later: “People (have) had bad springs before. This one’s taking it to a whooooole new level.” “He just didn’t locate his pitches real well,” Geren said. “We’re going home with him saying he felt great. We just have to go with that and take it into his next start. He definitely threw the ball better. The results weren’t there.”
It should be noted that the results weren’t there for Zack Greinke last spring, either. He had a 9.21 ERA in the Cactus League. He fared a little better during the regular season.
But there is no mistaking the Sheets of ’10 with the Greinke of ’09. At this time last year, Greinke was coming off a 13-win season. Now, Sheets is coming off a zero-start season.
The questions are there. No one disputes that. I just think the answer is pretty simple: It’s the middle of March, Sheets hasn’t pitched in ages, and his command isn’t very good right now.
“Eventually, the lights are going to turn on,” Sheets said. “I’ve got to start getting better. I want to start having some success, something to build on.”
When asked about the decision to pull Sheets when he did, Geren said, “I’m not worried about his ego.” And I would say that Sheets’ ego is fine. Just like his arm.