From his backyard in Monroe, La. to pitching in a third-deck setting, as Ben Sheets described Turner Field, the former four-time All-Star for the Milwaukee Brewers never flinched.
After two elbow surgeries and two years out of the sport, Sheets returned to the major leagues Sunday with six shutout innings against the Mets to lift his new Braves team to a season-high seventh straight win, 6-1. The Braves used a three-game sweep of the Mets to pull within three games of the first-place Nationals.
“It was pretty incredible,” Sheets said afterward. “Honestly in my mind, two years ago I was done, which was fine. I gave myself ‘coach of the year’ award in youth ball. Somebody asked me ‘Who gives that?’ I said ‘I give it to myself.’”
One of those youth players – his 8-year-old son Seaver – has been encouraging Sheets since March, when he began building his arm back up by pitching to Seaver’s “throwback” machine. When asked about his dad’s effort Sunday, Seaver said it was “good.”
“Great,” he said, smiling.
Seaver’s reaction was more enthusiastic later in the clubhouse, when he and his brother Miller, 5, rushed into their father’s arms. For the first time since the middle of 2008, Sheets’ elbow wasn’t bothering him after a game.
“I feel like myself,” said Sheets, who out-dueled Johan Santana for his first win since July 10, 2010 with the Athletics. “That’s one thing I can say I never felt like in Oakland.”
Sheets said he couldn’t help but feel some nerves as he took the ball in the first inning, after Chipper Jones flipped it to him and said “just like riding a bike.”
That’s pretty much how it looked.
Sheets threw a 91 mph strike to Ruben Tejada to start his day, setting up his first strikeout, and finished it with a 91 mph fastball past David Wright for his fifth strikeout. He allowed only two hits in between, walked one, and threw 57 of 88 pitches for strikes.
Sheets faced one jam in those six innings but looked like a man who relished the chance to show he could escape one. After getting Wright to fly out to strand a pair of runners in scoring position in the third inning, Sheets clapped his right hand into his glove as he walked off the mound.
“That was a big moment, a big pitch,” Sheets said. “That pitch could really turn things around.”
It was the first of 10 consecutive Mets set down by Sheets.
The Braves offense, meanwhile, took a while to get rolling against Santana, who was scoreless through four, but once they started they rolled up six runs in the fifth inning. Matt Diaz just needed a little time to get loose. Santana’s recurring nightmare doubled to center to start the inning rally and move to .514 (19-for-37) for his career against the Mets left-hander.
“I feel a lot of pressure against him,” said Diaz, who also made a pair of great catches in left field in the ninth. “Fredi (Gonzalez) plays the matchups, so you feel like you better go out and do the job, especially if you are sitting someone with the power of [Dan] Uggla. There was a lot of pressure there, but it’s a lot of fun too.”
Santana failed to get a strike call on a borderline pitch to Michael Bourn, with runners first and second, and Bourn then drove in a run with a double.
Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen got ejected for arguing with homeplate umpire C.B. Bucknor during a visit to the mound, but the damage was done. Martin Prado drove in a run on sacrifice fly and Jason Heyward, Chipper Jones and Freddie Freeman followed with hits. Freeman broke it open with a three-run home run, his 12th of the season.
“We might have caught some breaks on some pitch calls but so did they at some point,” Diaz said. “We took advantage when we did.”
Sheets, who hadn’t pitched since July 19, 2010, showed that his fastball was back to 90-92 mph, and touched 93 mph a few times to Wright. He also mixed in the curveball he was known for on days like when he struck out 18 Braves in 2004.
“We are ecstatic,” Jones said. “We get contributions like that from him, I see us winning a lot of games here in the second half.”
For full postgame quotes, click here.