Cardboard Memory: Francisco Cabrera

1992_stadium_club_mediumOne game. The Atlanta Braves missed a shot at the playoffs this year by a single game. When that happens, and you think back on the season, you realize that there isn’t a single player on the team that couldn’t have done at least one thing different and clinched a playoff for the wild card for the Braves.

What if, on May 13, Dan Uggla hadn’t struck out three times with runners in scoring position in a 5-4 loss to the Phillies? On July 3, the Braves lost 5-4 to the Orioles. What if Jason Heyward hadn’t grounded into a double play in the bottom of the 5th with the bases loaded?

It would be easy to pick on Derek Lowe, or Nate McLouth, or Scott Proctor, but there isn’t a player on the team that didn’t screw up at some point. The Rookie of the Year contending closer blew saves and the Rookie of the Year contending first baseman struck out with runners in scoring position. The future hall of fame third baseman lost a ball in the lights and grounded into several rally killing double plays.

That’s the thing you see. When you miss that chance by one game, one single game, then every mistake that led to a loss changed the course of the season. It wasn’t just the bad players, or the guys who struggled. There isn’t a player on the Braves who, if they had come through in the clutch just one time when they didn’t, wouldn’t have altered the course of the season.

Of course, the Braves have also won their division by one single game. In seasons like these, the inverse to the above is true. In a year when a team wins their division by a single game, every player that contributed to every win put the team on top. Subtract any of those clutch plays, and the season turns out different. There are no games that don’t matter in a season where you win or lose by one game.

So, I’m thinking about this Francisco Cabrera play. No, not THAT play. A different play. A play in 1991. A play in a year when the Braves won their division by a single game. A play that didn’t win a game, but a play that gave the Braves a chance to win a game. A play as important as any other in an important season.

1993_upper_deck_mediumComing up through the Blue Jays' minor league system, Francisco Cabrera could do two things: he could hit and he could strike out. Throughout his career with the Braves, Cabrera was mostly used as a pinch hitter with the occasionally appearance at first and catcher. He had a great smile, he played hard, and on occasion, he had a flair for the dramatic.

There wasn’t a Braves fan alive who wasn’t shocked when the Braves arrived at Riverfront Stadium on August 21, 1991, only two and half games behind the Dodgers. Seven days into July, the Braves were down nine and a half games. The last six years had taught Braves fans that this was the point in the season where the Braves would fade towards the bottom of the standings, but that wasn’t happening.

Instead, the Dodgers were playing around .500 ball following the All Star break, and the Braves just kept chipping away at the lead. The Braves had been playing .500 ball against the Reds up to that point of the season and had split a double header the day before. The Dodgers looked like they were starting to put things together and had won seven of their last ten games. The Braves felt that this was a win they needed.

1991_score_100_mediumThey would get up quick in the top of the 1st. An Otis Nixon single was followed by a Jeff Tweadway walk. Terry Pendleton would then stroke a long single scoring Nixon and sending Treadway to 3rd. A Ron Gant sacrifice fly would plate Treadway. After Pendleton stole 2nd, David Justice would drive him in with a hard single of his own. Unfortunately for the Braves, the Reds would send eight players to the plate in the 1st as well, and Armando Reynoso would surrender the lead. The score stood at 4-3.

The Braves would retake the lead in the 3rd as Justice would drive in another run with another single, and Cabrera would walk the go-ahead run in with the bases loaded. Reynoso would hold off the Reds until the 4th, but Jim Clancy would relieve him and allow two inherited runners to score and the Reds would retake the lead at 6-5. The 5th would go even worse for Clancy as he would allow the Reds to score three more times. Despite a solo home run by Cabrera in the 7th, all looked lost for the Braves as they headed into the 9th down 9-6 and Rob Dibble was headed in to close the game out.

Before Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel, there was another bullpen crew of three that dominated hitters and garnered headlines and they were known as the Nasty Boys. The year before, Rob Dibble, Norm Charlton and Randy Myers had anchored the bullpen fir a Reds team that would sweep the seemingly dominant A’s in the World Series. They did everything they could to live up to their reputation. They were angry and they were mean and they could pitch. The Reds just didn’t blow three run leads in the ninth with Rob Dibble on the mound.

1991_topps_mediumEverything went as you would expect to start the 9th when Pendleton struck out swinging and Ron Gant lifted a lazy fly ball to center. Things would look up though as Justice pulled a double down the right field line. Dibble would then walk Brian Hunter and Francisco Cabrera would head to the plate.

Rob Dibble was not one to nibble around the edges and he would come right after Cabrera with the hard stuff. Cabrera would foul off the first pitch. Dibble would wind up, ready to send a second pitch past him. He didn’t succeed though. Cabrera got his entire body into the swing and sent the ball deep to left-center. The ball seemed to carry forever, and there was no play for Billy Hatcher or Glenn Braggs to make as they watched the ball go over the fence and the Braves tie the game. The game would go on for four more innings, but the Reds looked finished from the moment the ball sailed into the seats. (Dibble’s fellow Nasty Boy, Randy Myers, would give up the winning run when David Justice would double in Greg Olson, who was a defensive replacement for Francisco Cabrera.)

Before this game, the 1991 season was fun, but most of us knew, we KNEW that the fun would end. After all these losing seasons, we were all just happy to see the Braves stay in contention into mid August. After this game though, something new happened. It was a feeling unknown to the current generation of Atlanta Braves fans. We knew that our team wouldn’t quit. We knew that this team could win any game. This is when we started to believe. Thanks Frankie.

And to think, he’d top that the very next season.

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