If the Braves needed to drown out any sorrows Friday night, after watching one of their top trade targets, Zack Greinke, acquired by the Angels, Ben Sheets was the perfect man for the job.
Sheets keeps making his own case for being one of the biggest acquisitions in the majors this month. He pitched six strong innings, allowing one run, to win his third straight game for the Braves, 6-1 over the Phillies.
The 34-year-old with the bionic arm is now 3-0 with a 0.50 ERA since returning from two years out of the game following two elbow operations.
The former four-time All-Star for the Brewers built up his arm strength in his backyard, pitched a simulated game for Braves scouts at Georgia Tech while in town coaching his son’s Little League team, and now he’s given up only one run in 18 innings.
“It was all upside,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez of signing Sheets to a minor league contract. “And good for (Braves general manager) Frank (Wren) to think outside the box a little bit and go get him. Right now he’s about as good as you want.”
Sheets gave up one run on two hits to the first two Phillies batters he faced, breaking up his 12-inning scoreless streak, and no more over the next five innings.
His batterymate Brian McCann did what he’s done every game he’s played against the Phillies this season – hit a home run – to give Sheets a 5-1 cushion with a three-run shot in the fifth inning.
“I’m just riding it, dude, riding the wave,” Sheets said. “I’m on a very good team and guys do the heavy pulling. I’m just trying to put in a little two cents myself, try to help us out.”
McCann has hit a home run in each of the six games he’s played against the Phillies, including two grand slams.
He hit a grand slam to help the Braves rally from 6-0 down against Roy Halladay on May 2 on their way to a 15-13 win in 11 innings. That game snapped an eight-game losing streak to the Phillies. Since then the Braves have won five of six against their NL East rival and four in a row. They’re back within four games of the Nationals.
The Braves spoiled Cole Hamels’ first start for the Phillies since he signed a six-year $144 million extension on Wednesday. He was off his game. He had a career-high six walks on Friday, threw more balls than strikes (56 balls to 53 strikes) and lasted a season-low five innings.
The Braves took advantage of all the freebie baserunners as well as two errors committed by the Phillies. Third baseman Mike Fontenot misplayed a groundball by Sheets, with the bases loaded and two outs in the second inning, allowing the Braves to break through with their first of two runs. Michael Bourn helped tack on another run in the sixth by reaching on left fielder John Mayberry’s three-base error.
Chipper Jones doubled twice in three at-bats against Hamels to continue his hot streak. He has hit safely in 23 of his past 25 games, including eight straight, while hitting 34-for-92 (.370). His second double in the fifth inning tied him with Reds great Pete Rose for second all-time in extra-base hits among switch-hitters. Jones now has No. 1,041.
“We got Cole on an off night,” Jones said. “…That’s very uncharacteristic, but we took advantage of it. Error helped there in the second, kind of get us on top. Got the homestand and the series kicked off on the right foot against a really good pitcher.”
Sheets’ fastball was not quite as lively Friday as it had been in his first two starts, sometimes settling at 89 mph, not the 91-92 mph he maintained for much of his first two starts. But that didn’t change his effectiveness. He has now beat the Mets, Nationals and Phillies to help the Braves go 11-4 this month against the NL East.
“That curveball he possesses is the great equalizer,” 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.”
Sheets gave up back-to-back hits to Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino to allow the Phillies’ only run. But after a two-out walk to Carlos Ruiz, Sheets coaxed a groundout from Hunter Pence to end the first inning. He set it up with a first-pitch curveball, then got Pence to bounce out to second base on a 92 mph fastball.
“I’m just scared out there really,” Sheets said, laughing. “It’s definitely not the stuff that I’m accustomed to pitching with. I’m just making good pitches with all of them. I’ve got a different arsenal, but it’s all about putting the ball where you want to put it, whatever you throw. Even if it’s a terrible pitch, if it’s located well it’s OK.”