By MATT BECKER
(AP) -- Signed with minimal expectations, Ben Sheets is providing the Atlanta Braves with a surprising lift in their pursuit of a playoff berth.
Expectations are much greater for Cole Hamels, who the Philadelphia Phillies are banking on to get them in playoff contention for the next half-dozen years.
Pitching for the first time since signing a massive contract, Hamels looks to lead the Phillies to a fifth straight win in Friday night's series opener with the Braves and Sheets, who has yet to allow a run in his return from Tommy John surgery.
After pitching amidst trade rumors for weeks, Hamels (11-4, 3.23 ERA) takes the mound in Atlanta two days after signing a $144 million, six-year contract to stay with Philadelphia (45-54). The deal includes a club vesting option for 2019 and a limited no-trade provision for the 2008 NLCS and World Series MVP, who gave up five runs and a season-high 10 hits over 7 2-3 innings in Saturday's 6-5, 10-inning loss to San Francisco.
"(The goal) here is to win and to win multiple championships," he told the Phillies' official website. "We got one in '08. As much as I did my part I'd still kind of like to do more. It's something to where it went too fast. And that's ultimately where I want to make it happen again, as many times as possible."
Getting a ring this year seems like a tall order given that Philadelphia is 9 1/2 games back of Atlanta (54-44) for the NL's second wild-card spot.
The Phillies, though, are finally healthy and have won eight of 11. The five-time defending NL East champions defeated Milwaukee 7-6 in 10 innings on Wednesday for their third straight walkoff win.
"It shows we haven't given up," said second baseman Chase Utley, who has two homers and six RBIs in the last five contests. "We have some ground to cover, but we have the type of guys who are determined to win."
Sheets (2-0, 0.00) is showing similar determination in his return with the Braves, who beat Miami 7-1 on Wednesday for their second win in a row.
After giving up two hits in six innings of a 6-1 win over the New York Mets in his first big league game in two years July 15, Sheets permitted five hits in six innings in a 4-0 win over Washington in the opening game of a doubleheader Saturday. The right-hander, a four-time All-Star with Milwaukee between 2001-08, has struck out 11 and walked four.
"If you're asking me if I'm surprised I haven't given up a run, yeah," he said. "I'm not surprised that I'm getting people out. I wouldn't have come back if I didn't think I could get anybody out."
Sheets is 2-4 with a 4.88 ERA in eight starts against the Phillies, last facing them in 2008.
The Braves swept a three-game series in Philadelphia earlier this month but have lost five of six meetings in Atlanta, scoring eight runs in the defeats.
Brian McCann has been a huge nuisance for the Phillies this year, homering in each of his five games while batting .364 and driving in 13 runs. He homered off Hamels on May 1, one of only three hits in 21 at-bats against the left-hander since 2010.
Hamels gave up two runs and six hits in six innings in Philadelphia's 4-2 comeback win that day. He is 1-0 with a 3.52 ERA in his last four starts against the Braves with the Phillies winning each.
Updated July 26, 2012