Sheets sharp again for M-Braves

Published 11:00 am Tuesday, July 10, 2012

PEARL — Atlanta’s rotation might be on the verge of getting a big boost for the stretch run.

Former Louisiana-Monroe pitcher Ben Sheets showed Monday that he’s ready to pitch again in the major leagues after a two-year absence.

Sheets went 52⁄3 innings in his second and possibly final start for the Mississippi Braves, but got a no-decision in a 6-5 win over the Birmingham Barons at Trustmark Park.

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Long after Sheets had left the game, the M-Braves won in the 10th inning. Alden Carrithers led off the inning with a walk and advanced to third on a botched pickoff throw by Birmingham reliever Kyle Bellamy. Keenan Wiley’s RBI safety squeeze bunt sent the fans to the exits and the M-Braves to their season-best fourth win in a row.

Right-handed reliever Andy Russell (5-1) earned the win in relief, throwing two effective shutout innings with two strikeouts.

As for the main attraction, Sheets didn’t disappoint. He turned in a second solid outing following his M-Braves’ debut on July 4. Sheets threw 89 pitches — 58 for strikes. He gave up seven hits and three runs, two earned, with four strikeouts. His fastball was consistently clocked at 91 to 92 mph, and topped out at 93 mph. After two starts in Pearl, Sheets felt comfortable both with his surgically repaired elbow and his repertoire.

“It feels right. Right where I need to be,” Sheets said. “It’s all health. When you’re worried about the elbow, you’re not going to be thinking about much else. I’m just worried about making a pitch. I know I can max effort it if I have to. I’d like one or two more ticks on my fastball. It’s not like I’m asking for 98.”

The game began well for Sheets. He retired the first five Barons he faced and allowed one earned run through five innings. But he ran into trouble in the sixth, as he surrendered a single and hit a batter. Both runners later scored.

“I’m throwing strikes and I’m even making some mistakes,” Sheets said. “But you’re going to make mistakes, even when you’re locked in or in the middle of the season. You’re going to make mistakes, guys are going to hit balls.”

As for his trademark 12-to-6 curveball, it showed some of its old bite in both starts and Sheets hopes to continue his progress with it.

“It can always get better, and people have gotten a few hits off of it, but I haven’t spun the ball as good as this,” Sheets said.

Sheets’ first appearance for the Atlanta Braves could be as soon as Sunday’s game with the New York Mets. He could help the bottom half of a rotation that’s struggled mightily.

No. 3 starter Brandon Beachy, a former M-Brave, was lost to season-ending elbow surgery. While ace Tim Hudson (7-4, 3.56 ERA) and Tommy Hanson (10-5, 3.71 ERA) have been solid at the top of the rotation, Mike Minor and Randall Delgado — who also spent time in the minors with the M-Braves — have struggled at the bottom. Combined, the pair have a 9-14 record, with Minor’s ERA flirting with six runs per outing and Delgado at 4.52.

Minor has allowed a team-worst 19 home runs. He did have a solid start in a win over the Chicago Cubs last weekend, pitching a three-hitter and giving up just two runs.

Sheets could definitely help, especially if he regains the form he had with Milwaukee in 2004, when he had 264 strikeouts and made the second of four All-Star appearances.

Sheets was last an All-Star in 2008. Before last week, he hadn’t pitched in a professional game since July 19, 2010 with the Oakland Athletics.

But if anything, Sheets is enjoying the ride. For the first time in several years, he feels like himself again.

“I definitely thought my elbow was going to hurt the rest of my life,” Sheets said. “This year, I got out there, ramped up my throwing program and I felt fine. I’m staying level, but I feel like I’m getting better every time.”