Sheets brings excellent arm, leadership to Braves

ATLANTA — Ben Sheets doesn’t want to talk about his surgically repaired elbow, his comeback or even his unexpected and amazing success in three starts with the Braves.

His hitting ability – or inability is more like it — is on his mind, and when something is swimming around his brain, there’s little to stop it from coming out of his mouth.

“My bat is starting to come around,” he said. “I’m starting to make some loud outs during BP. Swinging and missing is at a minimum.”

Rookie infielder Tyler Pastornicky chimed in: “What are you, like at .029 for your career.”

“No, I’m at something like .067,” Sheets said. “I’m awful. I can’t hit. (It’s) hard.”

Sheets has long been considered one of the worst hitting pitchers of his generation, and with his career average barely registering at .077 – he didn’t give himself enough credit — he has the numbers to reinforce it.

But the Braves don’t pay him to hit.

They don’t care what he does with a bat, as long as he keeps taking the bats out of the hands of their opponents.

Sheets has been masterful three starts into his improbable comeback from a two-year sabbatical from baseball forced on him by Tommy John surgery.

He dominated the Mets, the Nationals and the Phillies in successive July starts, holding them to one run in 18 innings. Sheets has allowed 13 hits and struck out 15 and given himself hope, that at 34 years old, there are more pitches and wins left in the right arm that carried him to four All-Star games in his first eight years in the majors.

“I’m just riding it, dude, riding the wave,” Sheets said. “I’m on a very good team and the (other) guys do the heavy pulling. I’m just trying to put in a little two cents myself, try to help us out.”

Unknown quality

The Braves weren’t sure what they were getting when they signed Sheets on June 30, two days after a workout at Georgia Tech, set up while he was in town with a youth baseball team he was coaching.

They knew that they had to fix a rotation that had sputtered and stumbled throughout the first half. They were never going to catch the Nationals unless they could do something about their starters.

So after two minor-league starts, and rehabbed elbow, got his test on July 15, nearly two years since throwing his last major-league pitch.

He not only passed, he excelled. He out-pitched Johan Santana and beat the Mets 6-1.

Two weeks later, he’s 3-0 with a 0.50 ERA heading into today’s start against the Miami Marlins.

“It was all upside,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “And good for (GM) Frank (Wren) to think outside the box a little bit and go get him. Right now, he’s about as good as you want. Good for us. Maybe there are a couple guys running around out there in East Cobb with a tournament who want to come out. I only live a couple miles away. Scout some of those old coaches.

“(Seriously), that was a hell of a pickup with a lot of upside, and we’re reaping the byproducts of that.”

Still well armed

Sheets doesn’t throw as hard as he did when he pitched Team USA to a gold medal in the 2000 Olympics and he was going to all those All-Star games as the ace of the Brewers.

But he still has plenty of pop, with a fastball in the low 90s, and his curve remains dangerous, sometimes as unhittable as it was 10 years ago.

“He’s not one of those guys where you can go up there and sit on his heater and hit his curveball,” catcher Brian McCann said. “Both his pitches are too good to do that.”

He shut out the Nationals in six innings on July 21, but promptly gave up the first run of his comeback in the first inning of his last start against the Phillies.

That was it, though, as Sheets worked his way out of that trouble and held Philadelphia to only four more hits over the next five innings in the 6-1 victory.

“He’s been rock solid. That curveball he possesses is the great equalizer,” Chipper Jones said. “He throws that thing whenever he wants. He can get a quick strike with it to get ahead early and set up some other things, and he can drop it on you 3-2. He throws it a couple different speeds. Obviously, the one that puts people away is what he’s noted for, but yeah, we couldn’t have asked for anything better. In 18 innings he’s given up one run. That’s pretty impressive.”

Not ready to retire

Sheets’ rehab from surgery was different than other players who have experienced extensive elbow repairs.

He thought he was done with baseball, so he wasn’t working toward coming back. He didn’t rush the process and enjoyed the two-year break at home in Louisiana.

“I was just a dad,” Sheets said. “There was no grind. There was no goal. There was nothing.”

At first, his elbow was sore after playing catch with his sons. Gradually, it felt better.

And then one day, there was no pain, so he started throwing harder.

His velocity began to build. His curve regained its bite.

“I gave myself time. I was out over a year and a half,” Sheets said. “The doctors said your arm should be healed. They said to just approach it like a normal year. That’s what I did.”

Sheets tried out for several teams in the spring, but there was little interest. He was stronger and his pitches were sharper and faster at the June workout.

He signed with the Braves over the Cardinals. After two minor-league starts, Sheets was back in the big leagues.

“It’s kind of a start over again for him,” Gonzalez said.

Still can’t hit

Sheets’ time away from the game didn’t help his ability to hit the white ball he’s been able to command with amazing precision.

He’s 0-for-5 this season, but coaxed a walk from Santana in his first plate appearance of his comeback. And his lack of a batting average is only slightly worse than the worst hitting years of his career.

Sheets actually managed to hit .134 in 2004, when he also finished third in the NL in ERA at 2.70.

His other averages don’t come close to that.

A sampling: .076 (2003), .071 (2001), .067 (2007), .030 in (2006) and .022 in 2005, when he had one hit in 45 at-bats.

He deflects more questions about his surgery and recovery and recent success with more joking answers about his hitting.

“Hitting is hard, except when I’m pitching. It seems to be easy (for the other team) when I’m pitching,” he said. “I just can’t hit. Never could. I’ve never been very good at it.”

And that’s fine. He wasn’t brought in to do that.

The Braves just want him to pitch like he has in his three starts.

Sheets did more than contribute to, he helped sparked their July success.

They are 11-5 since he joined the team, finished July with an 18-8 mark, the third-best record in the majors for the month, and are riding a seven-game winning streak.

So who cares if Sheets can’t hit.

“He’s given up one run in three starts. He’s everything that we could have asked for,” McCann said. “He’s great in the clubhouse. He’s a veteran presence. All the way around, it’s pretty special we got him.”