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Braves Flashback/Recap: April 16

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A rising Chase Utley ruined the Braves’ day, basically by himself

Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Ah, the 2005 Braves, the rear guard of an era. They would falter, eventually, but not yet. They were pretty good! They had one of the best position player groups in baseball, and while there wasn’t much behind him, John Smoltz was back in the rotation, and tearing stuff up. Smoltz had a really nasty, career-low-type re-debut in the rotation against the Marlins, but came right back five days later and put up an insane 15/0 K/BB ratio against the Mets (but lost the game when he gave up a two-run homer in the eighth). The early 2000s Braves were no strangers to starting slow, but the 2005 season had the Braves at 6-4 heading into April 16. They had just thwomped the Phillies, 11-4. The Phillies, meanwhile, were looking to go from “pretty good” to “meaningfully good” after finishing with 86 wins in each of the last two seasons. All of those were meta-narratives floating around this game, but what really ended up happening was that Chase Utley appeared on the scene and ate the Braves’ lunch, kind of by himself, and the Braves lost a close game.

How it happened: Hitters beware — this game had a pretty unpleasant matchup for batsmen on either side. You had resurgent John Smoltz for the visitors, and never-great, always-solid, even-at-end-of-career Jon Lieber for the home team Phillies. As a result, basically nothing happened offensively for the first four innings. In the first, the Phillies got two men on by virtue of a single and a Rafael Furcal fielding error, but Jim Thome hit into 4-6-3 double play to end the inning. The Braves got Raul Mondesi on with a one-out single in the third, but he was caught stealing with Smoltz at the plate (for some reason). Jimmy Rollins would reach on a two-out single in the bottom of the inning and steal successfully, but Smoltz struck out old friend Kenny Lofton to end that inning.

Chase Utley made his presence felt in the fourth. The thing with Chase Utley was that his initial situation was really kind of wild! In 2003, Utley had a non-descript first 152 PAs in the majors as a 24-year-old, and was already an above-average player in 2004 thanks to average hitting and above-average defense, but played only sporadically. Why, you ask? Because the Phillies already had Placido Polanco (6 fWAR combined 2003-2004) at second, and David Bell (career-high 3.6 fWAR in 2004), plus Jim Thome at first base and Jimmy Rollins at shortstop. Anyway, Utley came into the 2005 season still not having a full-time position or a spot, because Polanco accepted salary arbitration (this was a different free agency regime than we have now) when he couldn’t find a better free agent offer elsewhere, and manager Charlie Manuel didn’t feel like making either one a permanent utility player. Coming into this game, he had started four of the Phillies’ ten games at second, but he was playing in this one, hitting sixth. Jim Thome fought Smoltz into an eight-pitch walk, and Pat Burrell popped out. That brought up Utley, and on a 1-2 pitch, he slammed a double into center. Thome, a great human but not a fast one, chugged and huffed and puffed around the bases, but hey, the Braves had Andruw Jones in center. He wasn’t able to flag down the ball in flight, but he fired an absolute strike home and Thome was not able to score.

That set the Braves up to take a lead. Johnny Estrada doubled with one out, moved to third on Adam LaRoche’s groundout to first, and scored when Brian Jordan shot a single into right field. The Braves had a chance to extend their lead in the next frame, but ruined it with a bad sequence. Furcal led off the inning with an infield single, and with one out and Chipper Jones at the plate, took off for second. He was gunned down by Todd Pratt, which ended up being a big tactical mistake in retrospect (and also without hindsight...) because Chipper Jones sliced a groundball double down the left-field line that could have scored the speedy shorstop. Instead, the double came with no one on, and Andruw Jones grounded out to Rollins at short to end the inning.

That sequence ended up mattering, a lot. On the very first Smoltz pitch of the bottom of the sixth, Rollins took him out to right-center for his first homer of the season. The game was now tied. Smoltz then issued back-to-back walks to Lofton and Bobby Abreu, and the sixth was looking ominous. However, Smoltz bore down. Six pitches later, the Phillies had recorded two outs — Smoltz carved up Thome on three pitches, and then got Pat Burrell to pop out on an 0-2 pitch. That brought up Utley, and like Rollins, he didn’t wait to do his damage. On the first pitch of the PA, Utley lined a ball into right field for a single. Lofton scored the go-ahead run, while Abreu and Utley were able to move up a base when Mondesi made a gaffe in fielding the ball. Smoltz was able to get David Bell to ground out, but the damage was done, and the Braves went from leading to trailing in the span of six batters.

With the spurts of scoring behind them, Smoltz and Lieber just kept rolling along. An Adam LaRoche single was the only non-out over the next three half-innings. Smoltz ended his day with a 10-pitch inning; Lieber, not to be outdone, needed just six pitches to finish his eighth inning. Smoltz finished with two runs in seven innings and a 4/3 K/BB ratio; Lieber allowed the sole run in eight frames with two strikeouts and zero walks. Chris Reitsma worked the bottom of the eighth and allowed a hit but nothing else. That set up Philly closer Billy Wagner for the ninth with a one-run lead (though Lieber had not been pinch-hit for and theoretically could have continued on).

The Braves, well, they made it interesting. Chipper Jones led off the inning with a groundball single to left. Andruw Jones and Estrada then both nearly teed off on Wagner, but both balls lacked the little bit of carry they needed to transform into go-ahead two-run homers. With Adam LaRoche due up, the Braves swapped in Julio Franco to gain the platoon advantage over Wagner. That move worked out, as Franco singled on a liner to right, bringing up Jordan, who of course was the only Brave to drive in a run on the night. Note that Jordan was largely a lefty-killer in his career in general, but by 2005 (his career was essentially over, it’s just that no one was admitting it), hitting lefties was essentiallyall he could do. The tension only ramped up, as Wagner’s 1-2 offering was wild, moving both the tying and go-ahead runs into scoring position. The Braves subbed in Wilson Betemit for Franco, hoping that Jordan could come through again.

Wagner came set and delivered his 2-2 pitch. Jordan laced it on a line back up the box, to the right side of the mound... but as the ball was about to escape the infield, it went thunk into the outstretched glove of a diving Chase Utley. A lot of times, you see this sort of play, where the second baseman dives to his right, and the ball hits the heel of the glove, or the momentum of the dive sidles the ball out of the glove. But none of that happened. Instead, the game was over, and Utley had driven in the go-ahead run while also preventing the tying run from scoring.

Game MVP: Chase Utley, of course, but also Jon Lieber, who somehow found a way to pitch eight one-run innings on just 75 pitches while getting only two strikeouts. So maybe “Chase Utley but also the Philadelphia defense behind Jon Lieber” is the right way to go here.

Game LVP: Everyone but Chase Utley, really. There’s not really a good candidate, as this was a well-played game. Utley just stole the show and the win.

Biggest play: Utley’s game-saving grab, of course.

The game, in context of the season: The Braves and Phillies would dance a dance somewhat like this game for much of the season, with the main difference being that the Braves ultimately came out ahead. They played .500 or better in every calendar month, ending with 90 wins and never relinquishing first place after July 22. The Phillies were mostly done in by a slow start, including a 3-8 skid to end April. Another complicating factor in the division race that year was the Nationals, who were 51-32 on July 5 and at one point had a 5.5-game gap between them and the Braves, but went 30-49 to end the year to finish at exactly .500. This game was actually kind of unusual, in that it was a loss for the Braves (who had a good April) and a win for the Phillies (who did not).

Chase Utley went on to have a wild, 7.2 fWAR season (134 wRC+, 19.1 Def), cementing a starting role in early June. (Utley played in every game between June 2 and the end of the season.) It was the first of five consecutive seasons of fWARs between 7.2 and 8.2 for the 15th overall pick in the 2000 draft — a peak that’s better than almost anyone’s. The Phillies actually ended up trading Polanco partway through the season, which ended up being kind of weird because Polanco went on to finish his 2005 with a career high 5.4 fWAR, and because over the course of the season, the Phillies gave 617 PAs to David Bell and his 0.3 fWAR with a 72 wRC+. The Braves certainly thank them, but boy, what a serious case of roster mismanagement. In exchange for Polanco, the Phillies got basically nothing — a Ramon Martinez sub-replacement level handful of PAs, and 52 innings of Ugueth Urbina (0.5 fWAR), after which the latter retired. General manager Ed Wade was, perhaps unsurprisingly, fired after the season despite a team that had finished with 80 or more wins for five straight seasons. (Wade then went on to ruin the Astros.)

John Smoltz didn’t have a favorable outcome in this game, and the Braves had lost all three of his starts through this game. He then went on to reel off a span where he allowed nine runs in six starts, and finished the season with 5.2 fWAR. Amusingly, Smoltz picked up right where he left off, starting-wise — before his health woes and transition to the bullpen, he had 5.2 fWAR in 1998 and 5.4 in 1999; his return to the rotation featured seasons of 5.2, 5.5, and 5.5. Smoltz was just *smacks lips* incredible. Jon Lieber, meanwhile, finished 2005 with one more above-average season (3.1 fWAR) in a career that had plenty of them. It was his last notably above-average season and he retired after a shortened 2008 campaign, but he definitely had a nifty (36.8 fWAR) if under-the-radar career. While this was one of Lieber’s best starts of the season, he’d out-do himself against the Braves later in the year, when he threw eight scoreless frames with a 7/0 K/BB ratio. As a random weird fact, arguably the best start of Lieber’s career came in his fourth-to-last start ever: a complete game shutout with an 11/0 K/BB ratio. It was the only time in his long career that he struck out more than eight batters and allowed zero runs.

Video: I tried, and couldn’t find anything. Would’ve been a good one to have a highlight reel of for sure.

Anything else? Jim Thome factored into this game, but had essentially his worst season ever in 2005, compiling -0.1 fWAR and missing much of the season with injury. (Thome hadn’t posted anything less than 3.3 fWAR since becoming a full-timer in 1995.) Thome’s absence paved the way for Ryan Howard, who won the Rookie of the Year award in 2005; Thome was then traded in a mutually-agreeable swap with the White Sox so that he could be closer to his father after his mother’s passing. Thome went 210 calendar days between his last homer of 2004 and his first homer of 2005, his longest ever such drought aside from the strike-induced one in 1994-1995 and a few later ones that were the result of missing substantial chunks of time with injury.

Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about April 16: Maybe not altogether “cool,” in the sense that war never is, but April 16, 1945 marked the start (or perhaps resumption) of the Red Army’s offensive to capture Berlin. My great-grandfather participated in that series of events.