Everybody involved in the Brewers organization, from the owners box all the way down to the Miller Park janitors, knew that they had a special pitcher in Ben Sheets.
Sheets domination of the Cuban national team in the Olympics last year seemed to tell the Brewers that he was ready to take the next step and become a top-notch pitcher in the Major Leagues.
However, after Sheets first two starts, which were inconsistent and resulted in losses, whispers began. Did the Brewers rush Sheets up to the majors? Did Dean Taylor, Davey Lopes and Brewers fans expect too much from the 22-year old right hander? Would he crack under the pressure of being under the microscope? The Brewers for sure had not lost any confidence in Sheets, but they were definitely worried about the early-season performance.
Fast forward to Tuesday night. Sheets threw one of his best games of the year, battling 90-degree temperatures to throw 114 pitches and seven innings in a game where the Brewers needed a long and sharp outing during one of the most important road trips of the year that could make or break the Brewers season. Sheets showed tremendous confidence on the mound, and that confidence resulted in fastballs that Sheets threw as hard as 97 miles per hour - in the seventh inning. Sheets poise and confidence had the Cincinnati press focusing their stories on him, and not on the team they were supposed to be covering.
Sheets success so far this season could be attributed to possibly the smartest roster move Taylor and Lopes have made this season - sending Sheets to AAA Indianapolis after those two rocky starts to keep him on his regular pitching rotation for the two weeks the Brewers did not need a fifth starter in early April.
Since he was called back up from Indy, Sheets is 8-2 and has lowered his ERA from over 7 to 3.38. In fact, in the three starts immediately after the call-up, Sheets was overpowering. He allowed just two earned runs in 20 innings, picking up three wins and keying a strong month of May for the Brewers. After a bump in the road where Sheets lost a pair of starts in the middle of May, he has come right back to win his last four decisions, including a five-hit shutout over one of the best offenses in the majors, the St. Louis Cardinals.
Equally impressive is the fact that Sheets has been able to succeed even though he has not been able to blow opponents away with strikeouts, like he had done for most of his minor league career. Sheets has struck out 49 in 81.2 innings of work, but has allowed just 83 hits, a hits-to-innings pitched ratio that is unheard of for a starting pitcher in todays baseball. Sheets is on pace to log over 200 innings of work, and has more than a realistic chance to notch 20 victories, something no Brewers pitcher has done in over a decade. Of his 12 starts this year, eight of them have been quality starts (6 or more innings of work and allowing less than three runs). In the span of three months, Sheets has gone from the fifth starter to the undisputed ace of the Brewers organization and the player who should be the leading candidate to represent Milwaukee in the All-Star game in July. He is by far the leading candidate for NL Rookie of the Year, and if he keeps his current performance going, Sheets will surely gather votes for the NL Cy Young award.
The best part of this whole situation for the Brewers and their fans: Sheets is still only a rookie.