Who says you can’t have epic games in April? You can, you will, and the 2005 Braves definitely did. An amazing pitching matchup, as close a game as possible, and the unlikeliest of heroes, all in one package, delivered on April 18 to Minute Maid Park.
The set-up: The Astros and Braves had at least a little bit of a rivalry going in the early 2000s. In 2001, the Braves bounced the Astros out of the NLDS (yes, the Astros were still in the National League back then...) with a sweep. The Astros had high 80s win totals the next couple of years, but didn’t make the playoffs, but returned in 2004 to return the favor by teeing off on Jaret Wright and seemingly every other Atlanta pitcher in Game 5. (The final score was 13-2, just in case you were still particularly sad about the 13-1 Game 5 from 2019.) There was therefore at least some elevated baseline level of intrigue when the Braves visited Minute Maid Park for a brief two-game set in mid-April.
The pitching matchup, too, was clocking in on “must-see” territory. The home team would be throwing Roger Clemens, who at this point was in the “I guess I’ll retire, oh wait, I’m going to make how much if I pitch this year?” phase of his legendary career. (In 2005, Clemens was earning $18 million, then the highest single-season salary for a pitcher.) 42 years old, Clemens was showing no signs of slowing down, compiling 5.7 fWAR in 214 1⁄3 innings in 2004. The Braves, meanwhile, would be countering with new acquisition Tim Hudson, who himself had a stellar track record of production (between 3.5 fWAR and 5.8 fWAR in every year of his career so far, including his half-season rookie campaign). Neither pitcher had shown much sign of rust, decline, or anything else in their first two starts of 2005, and the stage was set for a serious showdown.
The Braves came into this game at .500. The Astros were one game below, as a result of going 2-4 in the six one-run games they had played out of 11 total so far.
How it happened: Boy, this pitching matchup did not disappoint. Clemens started his first inning with a groundout and then back-to-back strikeouts. Hudson allowed a leadoff single, but a strike-’em-out, throw-’em-out double play and a deep flyout to center from Jeff Bagwell gave him a 12-pitch first inning. The Braves hit into their own inning-ending double play in the second, while Hudson collected two strikeouts in the bottom of the inning. The first time a pitcher faced more than three batters in an inning in this game in the fourth, when Chipper Jones singled with two outs. Hudson’s first non-1-2-3 inning came in the bottom of the fifth, when Jason Lane singled on a grounder up the middle. Lane would steal second, but Hudson notched back-to-back strikeouts to neutralize the threat.
Through six innings, Clemens had allowed just two singles while striking out six and walking none. The Braves finally put some pressure on him in the seventh. Marcus Giles reached on a squibbed infield single to Bagwell at first base. Chipper Jones then rolled a grounder down the third-base line for a double, moving Giles to third. Clemens got a grounder to first from Andruw Jones that wasn’t hit in a good place for Giles to score, and then intentionally walked Johnny Estrada to set up a matchup with two upcoming righties. That plan worked perfectly, as Clemens overpowered Julio Franco with a 2-2 fastball and got Brian Jordan to ground it right to the shortstop for an easy forceout at second. But hey, he wasn’t Roger Clemens for nothing.
Tim Hudson was also not Tim Hudson for nothing. He finally issued a walk in the bottom of the seventh, one of the two-out variety to Morgan Ensberg. But, Jason Lane flew out two pitches later, and Hudson had cruised through seven. His pitch counts, inning by inning: 12, 15, 13, 9, 20, 9, 15.
Raul Mondesi hit a single to start the eighth, and that was it for Clemens. Manager Phil Garner took out Rocket, and put in Brad Lidge. (Random fact: the prior season, Brad Lidge struck out 157 batters in 94 2⁄3 innings, which is still an NL record despite the game changing so much in favor of both relievers and strikeouts since then. He is still the only reliever to strike out 144 or more batters while throwing fewer than 100 innings.) Lidge then did his best Clemens impression, getting the Braves in order. Hudson, meanwhile, remained in the game and seemed to be impervious to times-through-the-order concerns or really, anything else. In the bottom of the eighth, he had his quickest inning yet, needing just eight pitches to get three outs. The inning wasn’t without drama, as Luke Scott sent a fly deep to right and Brad Ausmus reached on an infield single, but the Braves were able to double up the very speedy Willy Taveras on the next pitch.
The Braves had another chance to score in the top of the ninth, as Chipper Jones greeted Lidge with an opposite-field double that split the gap, his second two-bagger of the game. However, Lidge overpowered Andruw Jones and Johnny Estrada, and then got Franco to roll out to second.
Mike Lamb had been double-switched into the game over Ensberg when Lidge came in for Clemens, and he led off the start of walkoff territory for the Astros. On Hudson’s very first pitch of the ninth, Lamb yanked a double deep into the right-field corner. The Astros now had the winning run in scoring position. The Braves and Bobby Cox, though, made no moves to end Hudson’s outing. The Astros had Eric Bruntlett pinch-run for Lamb, and Adam Everett bunted him to third. Hudson (or someone else) would now have to try to get around Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell with the game on the line.
No sweat, though. Hudson got ahead of Biggio 1-2 and got him to ground to Chipper in a way that prevented Bruntlett from trying to make it home. The Astros now needed Bagwell to reach safely in order to win. The Braves could have walked Bagwell and taken their chances with a pinch-hitter, given that the Astros had double-switched Ensberg out of the cleanup spot, but there was no need. Huddy jumped ahead of Bagwell 0-2 and then nibbled until four pitches later, he got him rung up staring at strike three. Onto extras the Braves and Astros went, with the game still scoreless. Tim Hudson should have gotten a complete game shutout for this effort, but as the game wasn’t over, no dice. He finished his outing with just five baserunners allowed and nine strikeouts, all on a fairly economical 114 pitches.
Chad Qualls came on to replace Lidge. He threw a 1-2-3 inning that featured a leadoff infield single by Brian Jordan and then an inning-ending double play off pinch-hitter’s Adam LaRoche’s bat. The Braves had to (finally) use a reliever, and selected Chris Reitsma for that honor. Reitsma’s outing was straight terrifying. The first batter up was pinch-hitter Orlando Palmeiro (recall that Ensberg had been double-switched out of the cleanup spot, so the Astros were now committed to the pitcher’s spot coming up after Bagwell), and he stroked Reitsma’s first pitch of the game into the right-center gap for an easy double. The Astros didn’t bunt the potential winning run over this time, but they didn’t need to — Reitsma got ahead of Lane 0-2, but Lane then rolled a grounder through the left side to push said winning run to third, this time with zero outs. This was basically a nightmare scenario, and the Braves elected to walk lefty-batting rookie Luke Scott intentionally, loading the bases for righty-hitting Brad Ausmus, who might have been slow enough to get doubled up on a grounder.
However, Phil Garner pushed another button, swapping Ausmus for switch-hitting and weak-hitting utility man Jose Vizcaino. In a true slap-hitting vein, Vizcaino was very much a contact-oriented hitter despite having no oomph, and that presented a big problem when even a routine grounder or fly could spell doom. On an 0-1 count, Vizcaino did indeed make contact, but he lined it right at Marcus Giles. It was a step in the right direction, but the crisis was far from over. The Braves now had to deal with Willy Taveras, but Reitsma (now) had it covered. On a 1-1 count, he got a comebacker from Taveras and flipped the ball to Estrada for the second out. (There was no chance to get Taveras at first.) All Reitsma had to do now was retire Bruntlett, who had come in for speed purposes anyway. A grounder to short ended the inning. Phew. Exhale. Or kick stuff in frustration, if you’re the Astros. Reitsma and the Braves stared deep into the void, and somehow didn’t fall into it.
The miracle of the bottom of the tenth didn’t spur any offensive outburst in the 11th. Marcus Giles eked a double out of blooping a ball over Bagwell’s head, but after new reliever Dan Wheeler intentionally walked Chipper, neither Andruw nor Estrada could bring Giles home. The Braves then went to Jorge Sosa, who would go on to have that crazy peripherals-defying starting run later in the year, but at this point was just a random middle reliever the Braves had acquired right before the season started. Sosa against the heart of Houston’s order could have gone terribly, but it actually went okay. He struck out both Adam Everett and Bagwell, while Biggio popped out to Chipper in foul territory after a nine-pitch at-bat. So, onto the 12th.
Dan Wheeler, a journeyman reliever pitching for his third team in his sixth season, was still out there for another inning of work to face the bottom of the Atlanta lineup. On the first pitch of the 12th, he got a groundout from Franco. That brought up Ryan Langerhans for his first (and only) PA of this game; Langerhans had entered the game in the bottom of the 10th as a replacement for Pete Orr, who himself was a pinch-runner that replaced Brian Jordan with two outs in the top of the 10th. Langerhans was still a rookie at this point, but he had actually gotten two cups of coffee with the Braves already: a lone PA against the Astros in 2002, and then sporadic September playing time in 2003. He’d had a couple starts for the Braves already in 2005, but was primarily being used as a pinch-hitter and defensive replacement. (Remember that at this point, the Braves were still trying to make the end-of-career Brian Jordan and Raul Mondesi show a thing.) Hailing from Round Rock, Texas, a huge contingent of Langerhans’ family and friends, including his fiancee, were in attendance for this game, and they were probably pretty excited to see him get his licks in during a critical situation.
They were probably even more excited when, on the very first pitch he saw from Wheeler, Langerhans cranked the ball deep to right field. He hit it very high, and the ball just kind of kept wafting, kept carrying, kept going until it was far enough along to clear the right-field fence, at which point it descended just beyond it. It was Langerhans’ first career homer. A lot of the park went wild, because a lot of the remaining fans were the Braves’ faithful, cheering their team on the road. Langerhans’ family and friends went wild. Langerhans trotted around the bases. Wheeler retired the next two batters, but the wind would not go out of Atlanta’s sails.
Dan Kolb came on to slam the door on the Astros in the bottom of the 12th. Acquired from the Brewers in the offseason, it didn’t take Kolb too long to become the subject of some serious enmity from Atlanta fans — in his two outings before this one, he had: A) turned a two-run lead into a three-run deficit resulting in a 4-3 loss to the Nationals, and five days later, B) turned a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 walkoff loss to the Phillies. But, here he was again. Could he do the job this time? Yes, yes, he could.
Backup catcher Raul Chavez grounded out to first. Jason Lane drew a seven-pitch walk, and made it to second on the pitch that struck out Luke Scott for the second out. Jose Vizcaino was up in a chance to benefit his team once again, but he lifted a routine fly ball to who else — Ryan Langerhans — and just like that, the game was over. The Braves defeated the Astros thanks to Langerhans’ timely heroics and gave everyone that witnessed it a thrilling memory.
Game MVP: You gotta give it up for Tim Hudson and his insane outing. This was pretty much his best start of the year, and arguably one of the top 10 starts of his career. 2005 was actually by far Hudson’s worst season until he would have a sadly injury-shortened campaign in 2009, but this was a, if not the shining moment therein. (There wasn’t anything particularly, repeatably wrong with Hudson’s first year with his new team, he just suffered from an inflated HR/FB ratio that combined with an uptick in his walks to really hurt his line. He was able to rein both in by 2007.
Game LVP: Julio Franco failed to come through a ton for the Braves in this one. He hit into an inning-ending double play in the second, and then in the seventh, he had the bases loaded and one out and struck out. He also ended the inning with a groundout and Chipper Jones on second in the ninth. There were also two other outs thrown in there, including one right before Langerhans homered. Still, he was 46 at the time, so how mad can you really be? This was also his worst game of the season (he never went worse than 0-for-5), so not a huge deal.
Biggest play: Ryan Langerhans’ first career homer, of course.
The game, in context of the season: The Braves would split this two-game series with the Astros and win their division for the last time during their streak. The Astros would scuffle badly through the season’s first two months, at one pointing bearing a 16-31 record. They’d end up completely rectifying that with a 16-9 June and 22-7 July. Even though they were never able to climb back into the division race after their slow start, they still edged the Phillies out of a Wild Card spot by a game with 89 wins by beating the Cubs and Greg Maddux on the season’s final day.
Of course, you know what happened next: these two teams would face off again in a second-consecutive NLDS, and this time, bounce the Braves out of the postseason (the Braves’ last postseason appearance until 2010) courtesy of another insane extra-inning game. You know the one I’m talking about: the one where the Braves blew a five-run lead, and in the 18th, Chris Burke homered off Joey Devine.
The funny thing about that game versus this game is that the cast of pitching characters was pretty similar. Tim Hudson started that game for the Braves (three runs in seven innings). Lidge, Qualls, and Wheeler combined for seven scoreless frames from the Astros. And, of course, Roger Clemens threw the last three scoreless innings of that game for Houston, helping to seal the deal. The Astros would make it to the World Series, where they would get swept by the White Sox.
Chris Reitsma was horrific in this game but lucked out — his season was a pretty great one (1.5 fWAR as a reliever). Dan Kolb was not horrific at all in this game, but was absolutely awful for the Braves (0.0 fWAR, -3.50 WPA). That -3.50 WPA is actually an amazing stat. It is not only the worst mark for a Braves reliever in a single season ever, nothing else even comes close. The next-worst mark is -2.88 by someone named Rick Luecken from the woeful 1990 Braves. Moreover, Kolb is the reliever with the second-worst career WPA mark in Braves history, just a bit behind Bruce Sutter (-3.79). Kolb lasted one season with Atlanta; Sutter at least had three in which to compile that very dubious mark. Even more amazingly, the Braves stopped relying on Kolb for high-leverage relief work by late May, yet he still managed to compile around half of his negative WPA after that point. His fairly nondescript outing in this game was one of his best of the season.
Despite taking the loss in this one, Dan Wheeler was really good in 2005 and 2006 for the Astros — he compiled 2.8 of his career 4.9 fWAR in those two seasons alone, meaning that it took him the other 11 years of his career to compile the other 2.1.
Video? I wish. You’d think someone would have captured at least the Langerhans homer, but I haven’t been able to find it.
Anything else? Aside from Langerhans’ heroics, Chipper Jones was the other hitting MVP in this one, and this game could have ended sooner if anyone else contributed. He reached base four times in five tries, and had two of the Braves’ total extra-base hits. The rest of the Braves combined to reach base seven times in 40 PAs. The Astros, of course, fared even worse, with only Jason Lane reaching base multiple times. Biggio and Bagwell combined to go 0-for-10; this was another pothole in Bagwell’s disappointing (and abruptly-incipient) final season, as his career was cut short by shoulder woes. (As a random personal fact, my closest friend is a relative of Bagwell’s, so I’ve always found his end-of-career circumstances particularly notable.)
If you’re wondering why the words “Lance Berkman” haven’t appeared in this recap, it’s because he was still rehabbing a torn ACL and didn’t make his 2005 debut until some time in May.
Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about April 18: I know baseball is dead to you, but this date marks the opening of the original Yankee Stadium in 1923. In less cool events, this was also the date of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, which I swear takes up probably a month of every elementary school student’s educational life if they attend the San Francisco Unified School District, like I did.