PITTSBURGH – Before putting their 162nd and final regular-season game in the books Wednesday, Braves players got chill bumps watching the first-inning adieu of retiring pitcher Ben Sheets and the sixth-inning farewell to another city by retiring icon Chipper Jones.
They finished a 4-0 win against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Braves’ 94th of the season, and looked ahead to drama that awaits Friday at Turner Field, where they’ll face the St. Louis Cardinals in what amounts to a Wild Card death match – one game to determine who advances to a division series against Washington, and who goes home.
“You win 94 games, a lot of teams win the division with that,” Jones said. “I certainly think we played well enough to win the division this year, but Washington just played a little bit better. We’ve got to get over this one-game playoff thing to give ourselves a legitimate shot at what we were all shooting for out of spring training.”
After the Nationals clinched the National League East title on Monday, the Braves scratched Tim Hudson from Wednesday’s start to rest him for a potential division series opener Sunday at Turner Field.
Sheets, pitching for the first time in 5-1/2 weeks, and seven other pitchers combined to throw a four-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts and no walks, and Jason Heyward and Brian McCann had two hits apiece as the Braves won for the 13th time in their final 18 games. In that period they’ve hit only .224 but have a 2.03 ERA, holding opponents to two or fewer runs 11 times.
Rookie Luis Avilan (1-0) pitched the second inning when the Braves took the lead, thus picking up his first major league win.
“Ninety-four wins, you’ll take anytime,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “Again, I’m so proud of the club. Our goal is always to win the division. That didn’t happen because Washington had a heck of a year year. But we’re in the postseason. That’s what we want. We want to get in and see how far we can play.”
The Braves capped a strong season-ending finish – including a 20-win September — with a win in the finale, after capping last year’s September collapse with a loss in the finale that allowed St. Louis to overtake them for the last postseason berth.
“Like I said last year at the end of the year,” Jones said, “I think we’ll look back on that September as a learning experience more than anything else. And you saw no better example than the way we played this September.”
Jones’ pinch-hit single in his final regular-season at-bat came 19 years and 19 days after his first hit — a pinch-hit single in his first major league at-bat.
“Good to go out the same way I came in,” said Jones, who lined single through the right side of the infield on A.J. Burnett’s first pitch of the sixth inning.
Jones got a standing ovation when he took the lineup card out to home plate, another when he was introduced in the sixth, and one more after scoring on J.C. Boscan’s bases-loaded RBI single.
“Obviously the storybook would be to hit the ball in the river [beyond right field],” Jones said, smiling. “I don’t try to do that as much as I used to. I’m happy with the slap singles to right.”
When Gonzalez picked Sheets to start the season finale after bumping Hudson, he didn’t know that Sheets had decided to retire after the season. The 34-year-old injury-plagued former Brewers ace had been a stirring story this summer after ending a two-year semi-retirement by signing with the Braves, then putting together a strong five-start stretch that helped them through a difficult time.
Then Sheets’ shoulder started throbbing and after eight starts he landed on the disabled list. He returned last month but sat unused in the bullpen for the last weeks of the season. When Gonzalez picked him to start the finale, the plan was for him to go two innings before turning the ball over to prospects Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran, followed by several Braves relievers.
Sheets didn’t make it through two, but pitched an inspiring and spectacular one – 12 pitches, two strikeouts, and 10 fastballs including eight clocked at 94 miles per hour or higher. He topped out with a 96-mph heater that MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen swung at to finish a three-pitch strikeout.
“[Pitching coach Roger McDowell] said it only took him, like, two minutes to warm up,” Gonzalez said. “He said, let’s go, I’m ready go to. And he comes in [after first inning] and goes, ‘Ok, that’s all I’ve got, boys. That’s all I’ve got. No more.’ … It’s been a pleasure and a great experience having him around for 3-1/2, four months, since the All-Star break. Great teammate, and guys love him.”
Braves second baseman Dan Uggla said, “That was awesome, man. He came out and started popping 93, 94, 95. He was just flat-out nasty that first inning. To watch him go out like that, that was awesome. It’s been a pleasure playing with him. An interesting guy. We’ve all enjoyed it, that’s for sure.”
Jones said seeing Sheets’ first-inning display brought back memories.
“I thought that was awesome,” Jones said. “He came off the field and he was like, ‘I’m done. I blew it out for one inning.’ He can say he made it back. That right there was the Ben Sheets that we all hated facing back in the day. All the young guys were saying, is that how he was for nine innings? And we were like, yep, that was it. You could see, when he’s throwing 94-95 and he’s got the yacker [curveball], he’s basically untouchable.”
Sheets said he’s retiring not because his shoulder or twice surgically repaired elbow are done, but because he wants to go back to being the full-time dad he was during his two-year hiatus. He insisted he wasn’t surprised that he was able to throw 96 mph after not pitching since late August.
“I’ve got a lot left in my arm,” he said. “That wasn’t the question for me. I knew I was going to do well. I knew my velocity was going to be up. I’ve been feeling really good. I’ve gotten a lot stronger over the last month. To say I was shocked by the stuff – no, I wasn’t, to tell you the truth. One inning’s a lot different than six.”
The Braves haven’t asked him about a possible bullpen role in the postseason, and Sheets has never made a relief appearance and isn’t going to plead for one now.
“I’m good, dude,” he told a reporter. “You don’t get to pick when you walk away sometimes. And to have an opportunity to go away with that [performance]? For me, that’s pretty good, man. It’s nice to know that I can still do this….
“They gave me an opportunity to pitch for a great team that’s going to go to the playoffs, and hopefully do something special. And to be a part of it in any capacity, it was fun.”