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Left scrambling for answers, lefty Sherrill finds right fit with Braves

 

Written by Brad Kirtley
APSU Sports Information Director

Austin Peay State University GovernorsAtlanta, GA – He just couldn’t find his way. In a sense, George Sherrill felt like he had two left feet. Coming off arguably his best major league baseball season in 2009, the left-handed reliever seemingly couldn’t do anything right in 2010.

Every solution Sherrill attempted went wrong, left him scratching his head. It even saw the Austin Peay alum designated for assignment by the Los Angeles at one juncture late in 2010.

But all the wrong turns of 2010 took Sherrill in a different direction last winter and eventually brought him, in his mind, to the right place.

Lefthander George Sherrill has helped the Braves stay amidst the NL East pennant race during baseball's first half. (Courtesy: Austin Peay Sports Information)

Lefthander George Sherrill has helped the Braves stay amidst the NL East pennant race during baseball's first half. (Courtesy: Austin Peay Sports Information)

Sherrill, who pitched for the Governors in 1998-99, went to spring training in 2010 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, coming off two phenomenal seasons. In 2008, Sherrill literally became a cult figure for the Baltimore Orioles, a first-time closer who recorded 31 saves that season and pitched 2.1 innings in the All-Star game.  He was nicknamed the “Brim Reaper” because of his flat-bill adornment of his baseball cap. 

A year later, he was even better. He tallied 20 saves for a woeful Orioles team, posting a 2.73 earned-run average in 57 games.  But on July 30, 2009, Baltimore elected to trade Sherrill to Los Angeles to a Dodgers team battling for the playoffs. As good as Sherrill had been in his previous five seasons as either a closer or set-up specialist, he was even better over the final two months of 2009. In 30 games, he allowed just 19 hits in 27.2 innings pitched and posted an incredible 0.65 earned-run average in helping Los Angeles to the National League Western Division crown. Sherrill received the thrill of pitching in his first post-season.

But then came 2010, and well, the numbers were very un-Sherrill like. He pitched in 65 games for the Dodgers and gave up 46 hits in 36.1 innings-it was the first time since his first season at the major league level that he allowed more hits than innings pitched. He also had just one more strikeout (25) than walks (24). Control always had been one of his greatest assets. His earned-run average stood at an unsightly 6.69 when the season ended.

The 1999 Austin Peay graduate literally was left searching.

“I just couldn’t find the right arm slot,” Sherrill said. “I would work on it and think I had something figured out. It would work for a couple of days and then I would struggle again.  Everything I tried was like putting a Band-Aid on it. I knew there was something wrong with my delivery, but we couldn’t figure it out.”

And almost comically, even when he attempted to do the right thing, it turned out wrong.

Married the previous offseason, Sherrill was attempting to be a considerate husband one May night when he got home late after a ball game.

“My wife (Lindsay) was already in bed asleep and I was trying to be quiet,” Sherrill said. “I didn’t want to plop down in bed and disturb her. Instead I tried to set my arm down and roll into bed. But the middle of my back caught. I still ended up pitching that (next) day.”

After that, though, the Dodgers attempted to take precautions with Sherrill. They told him “‘go down and make sure it’s fine and work on your stuff; come back in 15 days or whenever.’ Based on what they saw, they didn’t want to make it worse.”

Sherrill ended up on the disabled list. He recovered from the injury, but for the most part, his numbers didn’t-he couldn’t work his way out of his pitching funk.

“Nothing seemed to work,” Sherrill said. “It might for a couple of appearances. I was in the bullpen every other day trying to figure it out. If not, I was throwing a flat ground, all trying to get that muscle memory back.  We just couldn’t get it figured out.”

The sudden struggles were just part of a bizarre season. The Dodgers, who were the toast of Major League Baseball the previous season in earning their second straight post-season appearance, finished fourth in the West and were the talk of Major League Baseball for another reason-the divorce battle between owner Frank McCourt and his wife. “Reporters would ask us about that situation,” Sherrill said. “I had no idea about it; I didn’t read the newspapers or watch the news. I really didn’t care. I was concerned about what I was doing on the mound and what we were doing as a team.”

The timing of Sherrill’s lost season, however, couldn’t have occurred at a worse time. The former independent league vagabond gained free agency for the first time after the 2010 season. After making a reported $4,500,000 in 2010, Sherrill knew that kind of offer would not be waiting for him during the offseason.

But an accomplished left-handed reliever, even coming off a disappointing season, was going to have his suitors. In fact, the best two teams in the National League East-and arguably the best two teams in the National League-came calling-the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves.

“I have ties to Philadelphia with Pat Gillick (current Phillies advisor and the former Seattle Mariners General Manager who signed Sherrill in 2003) and Charley Kerfield (special advisor to current Phillies general manager who, as a scout for the Mariners in 2003, recommended Sherrill be signed from an independent league baseball),” Sherrill said. “Charley would talk to me several days in a row and Pat came up to visit me.

“My agent went down to the winter meetings and we were kind of drawn to Atlanta, how they respected the entire process, respected us. I know you are going to do things for a guy you want, but it seemed genuine-it didn’t seem fake at all.”

But there was one thing the Phillies didn’t have. Location. His hometown, Memphis, is less than five hours away from Atlanta.

“It was the draw of playing closer to home, for my parents to be able to see me more than just four days in St. Louis or four days in Texas,” Sherrill said. “Now they can come for an entire homestand if they want. That really swayed us.

“Charley (Kerfeld) even emailed afterwards to see if there were anything they could have done differently. I told him they were perfect; they couldn’t have done anything differently. But just playing closer to home was the clincher.

“It has been a blast so far.”

After signing a one-year contract with the Braves, Sherrill knew now it was up to him as far as rediscovering the lost magic. To know Sherrill also is to know he is one athlete who can overcome adversity. How else can you explain someone bouncing around on buses in independent baseball just hoping for an opportunity to sign with a major league-affiliated team?  

Sherrill spent time in the offseason studying video of his mechanics. In the spring, Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell and minor league pitching coordinator Dave Wallace helped him discover one little flaw in his delivery. The results have been nothing short of sensational. Heading into the All-Star break, he owned a 2-1 record with an impressive 2.22 ERA. In 24.1 innings pitched, he has 27 strikeouts. More importantly, he has just seven walks.

He is part of dynamic bullpen that features three young up-and-coming stars, All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel and two other left-handed standouts, All-Star Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty. His role is quite different than it was over the previous five seasons, where he was either a closer or one of the primary set-up men. 

“As a lefty specialist you are going to get up and go down a lot,” Sherrill said. “But you also are going to get up and get in a game a lot. Here it has been a different type role. Sometimes I will be a lefty specialist, coming in to get one guy, but then sometimes I will be an inning guy.

“Sometimes it has been (facing) a lefty with the lead, sometime it is an inning when we are down. Sometimes it has been an inning-plus in extra innings. I think it’s just the nature of the beast. We have been in so many close games there is going to be different roles for me getting in there.

Having handled almost every bullpen assignment during his previous six fulltime seasons has more than equipped Sherrill to handle his new-found versatile role for the Braves.

“It really hasn’t been a tough adjustment because everything has been sharp so far this season,” Sherrill said. “The last year or so when I was in Seattle, 95 percent of the time it was me coming in to face a lefty or a couple of left-handed hitters.

“Here it has been a little bit different. We have one of best bullpens in the league-the best bullpen in the league with O’Flaherty, Venters and Kimbrel at the end (of the game), it leaves the rest of us kind of hunting for some innings. Those three guys are in there a lot, so for me it’s  a matter of just trying to stay sharp.”

Sherrill turned 34 in April, an older age for most baseball players. However, for left-handed relief specialists, 34 is considered relatively young. It is not uncommon for lefty specialists to pitch into their early 40s.

“It (playing baseball) is something I really enjoy doing,” Sherrill said. “I love coming to the ballpark and getting in here early and getting my (conditioning) work done.

“The shelf life for a professional athlete is not that long and I want to continue to play this game as long as I can. I haven’t put a number on it. My wife’s best friend told me I have four or five good years left. I hope she’s wrong. I want to go a little bit longer than that. I want to continue to play this game as long as I can. But it also is about making wise choices (with your money).”

With his wife expecting their first child in late November, that aspect becomes even more important to the veteran hurler. He hopes to move from a high of playing post-season October baseball into a natural high of becoming a first-time father. But first things first. After the All-Star game, the Braves will be pushing to be in position to win the division or claim a wild-card position.

“It makes it a lot more fun when it is a great group of guys and the team is winning,” Sherrill said. “We are chasing down the Phillies, who have the best record in baseball, and I think we can do it. If not, we can distance ourselves from everybody else and gain the wild card spot. I think it is going to be a fun second half.

“I had a taste of the post-season with the Dodgers and it was a blast.”

Another post-season, perhaps even a World Series appearance, would suit Sherrill just right a year after the veteran hurler was left scrambling for answers.

For a previous feature on George Sherrill see: From unwanted to an All-Star, former Gov Sherrill’s trek has been improbable.


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