July 5, 2012 9:53:19 AM
PEARL -- Ben Sheets appeared exactly the way he and everybody expected he would look Wednesday night -- rusty.
It had been nearly 22 months since the four-time All-Star had taken the mound in a professional baseball game, and the layoff caused him to make mistakes in his return to the game. The Jackson (Tenn.) Generals capitalized on those mistakes in a 4-2 victory against the Mississippi Braves in a Double-A minor league game at Trustmark Park.
A crowd of 7,093 saw Sheets, who signed a contract with the Atlanta Braves on Friday, started and surrendered four runs on five hits in 74 pitches in the Independence Day matchup.
"Getting behind 4-0 is not the thing we were looking to do," Sheets said. "On my end, it's just been a while, and it stinks I made a couple mistakes early."
Sheets, who will turn 34 on July 18, contemplated retirement after his second Tommy John surgery to replace the elbow ligament in his right arm. After struggling with early count contact against an aggressive lineup, Sheets retired his final 10 batters.
In his first inning, Sheets allowed back-to-back triples to left and right field against the Seattle Mariners' Double-A affiliate. He struck out the side in a frustrating 25-pitch frame that saw Jackson take a 2-0 lead.
"I felt like I make a lot of good pitches, but the ones that weren't good were hit and hit hard," Sheets said.
Sheets, a nine-year MLB veteran, went 4-9 with a 4.53 ERA in 20 starts for the Oakland Athletics in 2010. An elbow injury ended his season. The Milwaukee Brewers used the No. 10 overall pick to select Sheets out of the University of Louisiana-Monroe in the 1999 Major League Player First-Year Player draft. He won 10 or more games in seven of his eight seasons with the Brewers, and had four winning seasons. He earned All-Star honors in 2001, '04, '07, and '08.
Sheets had one of his best season in 2004, when he went 12-14 with 2.70 ERA. He had five complete games in 34 starts and struck out 264, which was second in Major League Baseball.
On Wednesday, Sheets struck out six thanks to a power curveball he used to get swinging third strikes. He also walked one. However, Sheets admitted he didn't have consistent command of the pitch in his first rehabilitation appearance.
"The shape of (the curveball) is very good and hung a couple of course but that's okay because we'll just keep working on that," Sheets said.
In his first professional appearance since 2010, the 6-foot-1 right-hander's fastball was in the 91-92 mph range to begin the game. He stayed in the 88-89 range in the final inning.
The velocity Sheets showed Wednesday was similar to what he delivered Sunday when he threw to former Atlanta catcher Eddie Perez in the Turner Field bullpen. Prior to Sheets' appearance Wednesday night, four professional teams watched him throw in a simulated game at Georgia Tech University. The Braves agreed to terms with him less than a day later.
"I felt like maybe I could've gone two or more innings, so that's always a good sign," Sheets said.
Sheets, who joined the Mississippi Braves last weekend for the end of their road trip in Mobile, Ala., plans to make another start Monday at Trustmark Park. He hopes to join Atlanta in two weeks.
With Atlanta in second place, six games behind the Washington Nationals in the National League's Eastern Division, team officials hope Sheets can improve a rotation that is 27th in quality starts with 31. The final three spots of the Braves active roster (Mike Minor, Randall Delgado, and Jair Jurrjens) all have ERAs above 4.50. A season-ending elbow injury to Brandon Beachy, who was 5-5 with a 2.000 ERA in 13 starts, also depleted Atlanta's pitching depth.
"I'm still a long way from Atlanta," Sheets said. "We'll keep going till we get there. We'll find a way hopefully."