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Braves Flashback/Recap: April 12

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Let’s stay in 2001, where the Braves and Mets were locked in on a roll of good pitching

2001 All-Star Game X

We’re well into the part of the calendar where most dates have a game in every season, but I want to stay in 2001 for at least one more game, because it was another pitching clinic. It wasn’t quite the same as the prior game, where the Braves threw a combined Maddux with Greg Maddux while Rick Reed threw a complete game in a loss, but it actually had even less scoring, with just one run in ten innings instead of two runs in regulation. The downside is that the Braves lost after blowing some awesome chances to win, but this was another tense, exciting game where basically every PA mattered.

How it happened: The pitching matchup for this game was John Burkett for the visitors, and Glendon Rusch for the home team. Both were interesting stories. Burkett would end up being one of the stories for the Braves during the 2001 season, but during this April game, he was a guy coming off a couple of average-y years that both looked far, far worse than they were because of an ERA-FIP gap. (To wit: Burkett had posted only a combined 2.0 RA9-WAR across 1999 and 2000, but nearly a combined 5.0 fWAR.) Rusch had similar issues, but in somewhat more dramatic fashion, given that he hadn’t had a long, effective track record like Burkett.

You see, Rusch was a habitual FIP underperformer, to a dramatic extent. By the time his career was done, he was the third-biggest underperformer in terms of ERA-FIP gap, ever. To that end, the overall narrative about Rusch was that he was, at best, “okay” — even when he was really good. The 2000 pennant-winning Mets team was “led” by Mike Hampton and Al Leiter, even though Rusch had a better FIP than both and all three ended up with essentially the same fWAR (4.6 to 4.8). In 2001, the Mets arranged their rotation to be Leiter, new acquisition Kevin Appier, Rick Reed, and then Rusch, even though Appier and Reed were considerably worse than Rusch in recent history, including on an ERA basis. For once, though, his run prevention would match his peripherals, to the Braves’ detriment.

The Braves actually started out this game with a veritable offensively flurry compared to the events of the prior game. The Jones boys strung together back-to-back non-outs with a single and a walk, and after Brian Jordan flew out to deep center, Rusch plunked Javy Lopez to bring up Wes Helms. (The Braves were using their lefty-facing lineup, including Helms at first for Rico Brogna and “oh hey that guy” Kurt Abbott at second for Quilvio Veras.) However, Helms flew out to right.

That was about all of the excitement offensively for the first five innings of play. John Burkett stranded Mike Piazza’s leadoff double in the second and Darryl Hamilton’s two-out triple in the third. A leadoff single by Robin Ventura in the fourth similarly went nowhere. Rusch, meanwhile, was perfect for four innings, aside from B.J. Surhoff reaching on a fielding error to start the fifth. The Braves got another little rally going in the sixth, with a leadoff single by Andruw Jones and a one-out walk by Jordan, but Lopez struck out and Helms again flew out with a chance to do some damage. Burkett and Rusch would scatter a few more hits and nothing else, and both departed after the seventh. Burkett finished having allowed five hits, with a 4/0 K/BB ratio. Rusch struck out five and walked two, while yielding just three hits.

John Franco and Mike Remlinger exchanged scoreless eighths. Franco’s included a one-out single; Remlinger struck out the side. In the ninth, the Mets went to closer Armando Benitez, and the Braves had (but wasted) a golden chance to win the game.

With the lefty-throwing Rusch out of the game, the Braves went to their benched starters. Quilvio Veras subbed in for Helms, and greeted Benitez’ first pitch with a line drive single to center. Benitez then plunked Surhoff to bring up Abbott’s spot, and the Braves pinch-hit with the lefty-hitting Brogna. However, Brogna struck out on three pitches. In Remlinger’s spot, the Braves inserted backup outfielder Dave Martinez. Unfortunately, that worked out super-terribly, as Benitez got ahead of Martinez 0-2, and then got him to squib a ball right to short for a 6-4-3 twin killing.

In true don’t-use-your-closer-in-a-tie-game-on-the-road fashion, the Braves did not turn the ball over to John Rocker in the ninth. Instead, they deployed fellow southpaw Odalis Perez, who was not really “in the bullpen” but just wasn’t needed for his current turn in the rotation given the early April schedule. Perez ended up having a 1-2-3 inning, though got bailed out after a four-pitch, one-out walk to Piazza when Lopez threw pinch-runner Desi Relaford out at second.

In the tenth, the Braves again had a chance to take advantage of Benitez, but did not do so. Rafael Furcal led off the inning with a drag bunt single and then immediately stole second on new catcher Todd Pratt (who had to be used because of the pinch-running for Piazza in the prior frame). With the go-ahead run on second, and Andruw Jones, the only Brave with multiple hits on his line in this game, at the plate, it seemed like Benitez was going to essentially pitch around one Jones and take his chances with the other. He threw three straight balls, but came back with a 3-0 strike and then another pitch that was fouled off. With a full count, all Jones could do was ground to third, which didn’t do anything for Atlanta’s cause.

The next sequence featured something fairly comical: with one out and a base open, the Mets now elected to intentionally walk the other Jones in Atlanta’s lineup. However, this wasn’t nu-MLB, and back in those days, you still had to throw four balls to put someone on base. That, apparently, was not an easy concept for Benitez. On what ended up being ball two, he wildly missed Pratt’s target, allowing Furcal to scooch over to third. It was a quintessentially Mets move, and the weirdest part of it was probably that it didn’t spark a nne-run rally by the opposition. However, as you already know, this game ended in a Braves loss, which meant that the silly wild-pitch-on-an-intentional-walk did not actually come back to hurt Benitez. With a 1-0 count, Brian Jordan popped out to very shallow right field, shallow enough that not even Furcal would risk the play at home plate. Javy Lopez then hit a routine grounder to short on the first pitch he saw, and a golden opportunity ended up a goose egg.

The Braves turned the ball over to Kerry Ligtenberg for the tenth, and wouldn’t have to wait long for their demise. Ligtenberg’s first four pitches all missed the zone, and the winning run stood on first in the form of Todd Zeile. Tsuyoshi Shinjo laid down a fine-enough bunt in front of the plate on the first pitch he got, and Lopez had no choice but to throw to first. Up came Rey Ordonez, who to that point literally had a 49 career wRC+. 49! Anyway, you can see how this ends. Ligtenberg threw one more pitch, Ordonez lined it over third, down the line, where no one was going to get it under any arrangement, and there it was. The Mets had scored for the first time in 19 innings, and that sole run sunk the Braves,

Game MVPs: This wasn’t quite the Maddux-helps-throw-a-Maddux-and-Rick-Reed-throws-a-complete-game show, but Burkett and Rusch each threw seven scoreless. They had five 1-2-3 innings between them, and a combined 9/2 K/BB ratio. Those poor offenses.

Game LVP: Kerry Ligtenberg. Come on, those were some wicked sideburns, but how can you follow up yesterday’s game and all the pitching in this one with a four-pitch leadoff walk and then... Rey Ordonez? Rey Ordonez?!

Biggest play: The one that scored the run. Notably, this wasn’t Ordonez’ highest WPA game, nor even his highest WPA game against the Braves. Go figure.

The game, in context of the season: This was one of the better starts of 2001 for both Burkett and Rusch. Rusch didn’t quite replicate his 4.7 fWAR 2000 season, but 3.2 fWAR in 2001 was still nifty. Burkett, however, was arguably the story of the 2001 Braves, putting up a career-best 5.1 fWAR in his age 36 season. Burkett leveraged his success into an $11 million, two-year deal with the Red Sox where he returned to being average. Rusch was traded after the season as part of an 11-player, three-team deal and never replicated his success with the Mets, though he continued to underperform his FIP in every season but one.

Rey Ordonez finished the year at replacement level despite good defensive marks. Armando Benitez, who wriggled out of trouble twice and didn’t cost his team the game, had a pretty disappointing relief season for New York. Benitez had put together 3.1 fWAR in 1999, his first year with the Mets, and followed it up with a 1.5 fWAR effort. But 2001 happened to feature both another strikeout rate decline and a spike in homers. It’s possible the Mets didn’t mind, though, as Benitez actually had more WPA in 2000 than his 3 fWAR 2001, and more WPA in 2002 than in 2001.

Video? I’ll stop doing these old games one day, I promise.

Anything else? This game was Kurt Abbott’s only career start as a Brave, and last career start. Abbott went 1-for-3. He made one more pinch-hit appearance for the Braves in the following game, and then was sent to the minors. He never made it back to the majors, and retired a few years later.

Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about April 11: Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was declared safe and effective on this day in 1955. Salk was a badass.