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ATL@PIT: Sheets impresses in final Major League start

PITTSBURGH -- Now that they have completed the grind of a 162-game schedule, the Braves can only hope that Chipper Jones' final season includes at least a few more weeks.

As the Braves completed the regular season with a 4-0 win over the Pirates at PNC Park on Wednesday afternoon, a couple of their veterans closed a chapter of their lives. Ben Sheets exhausted all that he had left in his once-prized right arm, and Jones delighted the fans with a single in the final regular-season at-bat of his career.

"It was a nice end to a successful season, and now we've got another season ahead of us," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "So let's keep on playing."

Martin Prado's first-inning sacrifice fly and Dan Uggla's fourth-inning RBI single propelled the Braves toward their 94th win -- their most since the 2004 season. But this regular-season finale was more about making playoff preparations and celebrating the contributions of Sheets and Jones.

The Braves will begin to look toward Friday, when they will host the Cardinals in a one-game Wild Card playoff. The winner will advance to the National League Division Series to face the top-seeded Nationals.

"When 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. Washington just played a little better. Now we've got to get by this one-game-playoff thing to give ourselves a legitimate shot at what we were all shooting for coming out of Spring Training."

Jones received a standing ovation as he came off the bench to lead off the sixth inning with a pinch-hit appearance against A.J. Burnett. After tipping his batting helmet in appreciation, he laced a first-pitch single to right field. This provided a fitting ending to a Hall of Fame career that included 2,726 career hits. He also scored his final regular-season run.

"Did you even doubt that was going to happen?" Gonzalez said. "That's the way he's been going."

While Jones will have a chance to add to the memories during the postseason, Sheets took full advantage of one last chance to impress at the Major League level. Fully expecting this to be the final start and appearance of his injury-plagued career, Sheets left everything he had on the mound.

Sheets recorded two strikeouts and unleashed fastballs that sat between 93-96 mph during a perfect first inning. When the inning was complete, the 34-year-old pitcher returned to the dugout and said he was done, putting an end to both his outing and his career.

"I thank those guys for giving me my last start," Sheets said. "I went out with a good one. I wish I would have had the opportunity to come out of the bullpen this last month. In my mind, I thought that one inning would look like that, and I thought that could be good."

Sheets certainly gained the attention of his teammates when he got Andrew McCutchen to swing through a 96-mph fastball to end the first inning. It evoked memories of those dominant years he enjoyed with the Brewers before his elbow and shoulder became an issue.

This was Sheets' first appearance since he was placed on the disabled list on Aug. 25 with right shoulder inflammation. After ending a two-year retirement by joining the Braves after the All-Star break, he made eight starts for Atlanta. Though he impressed in at least five of those outings, his fastball primarily sat between 88-90 mph.

"He came off the field and said, 'I'm done, I blew it out for one inning,'" Jones said. "He can say he made it back. That right there was the Ben Sheets we hated facing back in the day. All of the young guys were saying, 'Is that how he was for nine innings?' And we were all like, 'Yep.'"

Sheets' dominant inning provided reason to wonder if the Braves could put him in their bullpen at some point during the postseason. But Gonzalez said this would not be an option.

"I've never thrown an inning out of the bullpen in my life," Sheets said. "I think if I would have been in the plans it wouldn't have been Oct. 3. I'm fine with the decision. I'm just happy they allowed me to be a part of it throughout the regular season. I had a blast. To end up like this is icing on the cake."

After Sheets exited, Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado provided a glimpse toward the future. Teheran tossed a pair of scoreless innings, and Delgado recorded three strikeouts in his only inning of work. Eric O'Flaherty's recent sore back was not a problem as he threw a scoreless seventh inning, and Craig Kimbrel fittingly concluded the regular season with a strikeout.

Kimbrel ended the season with 116 strikeouts and just 14 walks in 62 2/3 innings. These numbers combined with his 1.01 ERA have led some to argue that he should be the NL's Cy Young Award winner. But for now, the Braves are simply hoping he continues to be a dominant closer in the playoffs.

"I'm so proud of our club," Gonzalez said. "Our goal is always to win the division. That didn't happen because Washington had a heckuva year and a heckuva ballclub. But we're in the postseason and that's what we want. We want to get in and see how far we can play."

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