He's just one of the guys, Sheets would say. Then he took the mound on Opening Day and showed why he's not.
Sheets retired 22 consecutive batters after surrendering a second-inning solo home run and finished a complete-game two-hitter, thrilling the second-largest crowd in Miller Park history with a 7-1 Brewers win over the Dodgers on Monday.
"I'm happy that finally, hopefully, I don't have to keep answering questions about Ben Sheets' health," manager Ned Yost said. "I think we all saw it for ourselves today."
Added owner Mark Attanasio: "If you are serious about wanting to be a contending team, you have to have a guy like that."
Sheets faced two batters over the minimum in his 12th career complete game and limited the Dodgers to two hits -- Jeff Kent's solo homer leading off the second inning and Brady Clark's one-out double in the ninth. Sheets did not walk a batter while striking out three.
The rest of the Brewers provided plenty of help. They scored in each of the four innings they faced right-hander Derek Lowe (0-1), who was knocked out after allowing six runs on eight hits and five walks. Shortstop J.J. Hardy led a balanced Milwaukee attack with three hits, and Bill Hall hit the team's first 2007 home run, a solo shot off Mark Hendrickson in the sixth.
But Sheets, whose last two seasons have been marred by injury, was the star.
"I'm going to accept my part on this team, no doubt," Sheets said prior to his fifth Opening Day assignment in the last six years. "But this ain't the past Brewers team. We've got the capability of overcoming individuals. This is more of a 'team' than I think we're accustomed to in Milwaukee. Our staff goes deep, our infield goes deep, our catching goes deep and our outfield goes deep. That's going to help us.
"I'm only responsible for 34 of those games during the year, and I'm going to do what I need to do to get out there for them."
Monday was a good start. The Dodgers didn't hit a ball past the infield during Sheets' 16-pitch first inning, but Kent launched Sheets' fifth pitch of the second inning over the center-field wall, tying the game at 1.
"The first inning, there was a lot of emotions out there," Sheets said. "In Kent's at-bat, I was trying to bring myself down and he got me. I was trying to find that groove. You can't pitch on that kind of emotion the whole game. Jeff Kent's a very professional hitter, and he can swing the stick. Once he got me, I think that helped me settle down."
And that was the end of L.A.'s offense. Sheets retired the next 22 hitters in a row with help from new center fielder Hall, who made a spectacular diving catch in the third inning, and shortstop Hardy, who gobbled up a grounder up the middle in the fifth, spun and threw to first to end that frame.
Sheets retired the first batter he faced in the ninth inning before Clark, traded from Milwaukee to Los Angeles on March 26, yanked a double down the left-field line, just past diving third baseman Craig Counsell. Sheets retired Juan Pierre and Russell Martin to finish his first complete game since 2005.
"That's the first time Benny [pitched] in the stretch all day long," Yost pointed out. "He was sharp and on the attack. He feels good."
Sheets improved to 3-0 in Opening Day assignments and became the first Brewers pitcher to go the distance in an opener since Don August took a 2-1 loss at Cleveland on April 3, 1989. The last Brewers pitcher to toss a complete game and win on Opening Day was Mike Caldwell, who beat the Yankees in New York on April 5, 1979.
"He was ready, as strong as I've ever seen him," Kent said. "He's a gamer, I've always admired that. He set the tempo for his team, and they got him runs early and that was it."
Now, can everyone please stop asking about injuries?
"I feel like it's a non-issue, you know?" Sheets said. "I feel like I finished last year healthy and kind of got by that hurdle. I'd rather stick more to talking about pitching and what we do, than me talking about whether I'm going to get hurt tomorrow tripping on a roller skate."
Sheets finished with 104 pitches, including 59 over the final six innings. When he came to the plate in the bottom of the eighth inning -- a sign Sheets would at least get a chance to finish what he started -- the crowd rewarded him with a long standing ovation.
He struck out for the third time in the game.
"I like to get my strikeouts in early," Sheets joked.
And on whether he had to lobby Yost to pitch the ninth, Sheets cracked, "I had to put him in a figure-four."
That his sense of humor is back, according to Yost and Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, means that Sheets finally feels strong again. He hadn't enjoyed a healthy Spring Training since 2002, battling back and then shoulder problems.
If he can stay healthy and make 30-plus starts, how good could he be?
"He has a chance to be in the upper tier of National League starting pitchers," Yost said. "Personally, I believe top five. But like anyone else on the team, he has to go out and do it. It's time for all of us to stand up and produce."
Sheets, a Brewer since 2001, agreed.
"Even when we were bad, we expected to go out and perform and win that day," Sheets said. "Now we've got the capability and maybe winning, which is nice."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less