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Braves Flashback/Recap: April 26

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A rematch of an epic showdown went much better for the Braves the second time around

New York Mets’ starter Pedro Martinez delivers against the A Photo by Howard Earl Simmons/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

On April 10, 2005, baseball fans were treated to an epic showdown with an epic result: John Smoltz faced off against Pedro Martinez, and both sparkled. We didn’t cover that game in this series, instead choosing to focus on the Braves winning their 2009 home opener in walkoff fashion, but it was a great one. Smoltz tied his own Atlanta Braves record with 15 strikeouts, while Martinez pitched a complete game two-hitter to help the Mets grab their first win of the season. (The Mets won the game 6-1 as Carlos Beltran’s two-run homer turned a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 deficit, and then scored four more runs off the bullpen.)

For Smoltz, who was returning to the rotation in 2005 after four years in the bullpen, it had been a frustrating comeback in April. He was lit up for one of the worst starts of his career by the Marlins to start the season, and then lost two consecutive games in which he allowed four total runs (including the Chase Utley-led loss we covered here). The Braves finally won a Smoltz start on April 21 (his last outing before this one), but it was by a 2-1 score, with both Braves runs scoring on an error with two outs in the ninth. (Should have covered that game!)

Martinez, meanwhile, had capped off his 2004 World Series Championship season by signing a $53 million, four-year deal with the Mets. That 2004 season was actually his worst in a decade, with “only” 4.9 fWAR. But, Martinez had started 2005 with his new team with a vengeance, putting up a 53 ERA-, 30 FIP-, and 43 xFIP- in his first four starts. With Smoltz finally coming off a game the Braves won, and Martinez being especially dominant to start his year, the stage was set for a potentially-epic rematch to an already-awesome matchup.

How it happened: Honestly, though, viewers hoping for some kind of monumental April Baseball Game II: Pitching Dominance Boogaloo were sorely and quickly disappointed. Six pitches into the game, Martinez had allowed his first baserunner by means of a single off the bat of Pete Orr, a rookie making his first career start at third base. After Orr’s grounder up the middle, Marcus Giles hit a first-pitch grounder that rolled between third and short. Martinez seemed like he might once again get out of trouble (in the April 10 game, he stranded Andruw Jones on third after a leadoff triple), as he got Adam LaRoche to ground into a 3-6 forceout. But, the Braves wouldn’t be shut down this time around. Brian Jordan, very much on his last legs, shot a ball down the left-field line, scoring Orr with an RBI double. Then came Johnny Estrada, whose RBI double accounted for the only run off Martinez a couple of weeks ago. Estrada did the same thing here, dropping a ball into right field for a double that scored two more runs. Martinez struck out Andruw Jones to end the frame, but the Braves had tagged Martinez for as many runs as he had given up in his last two starts combined. Up to this point, the most hits Martinez had allowed in a start was three — the Braves already had four.

Smoltz did not encounter the same first-inning issues. He got three straight groundouts on 11 pitches, and the Braves were right back to work. He even got a one-out single off Martinez in the top of the second, and moved to second when Rafael Furcal reached on a bunt single, but Orr hit into a 4-6-3 double play on a 3-1 count to end that rally. The Mets would claw a run back in the bottom of the second, as David Wright’s one-out double down the left-field line scored Cliff Floyd, who had knocked a leadoff single into right center. After a groundout, Smoltz walked Victor Diaz on a full count to bring up Martinez, whom he struck out with two on to end the inning. The Braves got that run right back: Martinez went strikeout-walk-strikeout to start the third, and Estrada knocked another double, this time over Beltran in center, to collect his second two-bagger and third RBI in three innings.

After that... there wasn’t much. After Estrada’s second double, the next seven batters were all retired. Smoltz started the bottom of the fourth by walking Floyd after a 10-pitch battle, but then turned a first-pitch comebacker from Doug Mientkiewicz into a 1-6-3 double play. He then walked Wright, but got a flyout from Ramon Castro. Martinez, meanwhile, had settled in. He retired eight straight Braves after Estrada’s third-inning double, breaking that streak by (what else?) walking Estrada on four pitches. He then retired the next five batters he faced to end his night: seven innings, seven hits, four runs, two walks, eight strikeouts. He wouldn’t allow more than five hits in another start until June 18.

Smoltz wasn’t too different. There was that aforementioned two-walk inning in the fourth, and in the fifth, he gave up a two-out double to Jose Reyes, but stranded him on a groundout from Kazuo Matsui two pitches later. Floyd and Wright strung together some singles in the sixth, but Smoltz carved up Castro on three pitches to end that threat. In the seventh, it was time for pinch-hitter Marlon Anderson (in Martinez’ spot and Matsui to knock some singles, and that chased Smoltz. He left with an okay starting line: 6 23 innings, seven hits, three walks, four strikeouts — but also the lead. Chris Reitsma (remember, he was good in 2005, it’s 2006 Chris Reitsma that you’ll want to complain about) came on to face Beltran before the latter could again ruin a Smoltz start with a later homer, and got a deep flyout to Andruw from him on the first pitch he threw.

After that, it was up to the bullpens. Heath Bell was the first man out after Martinez and retired the Braves in order; Reitsma stayed on for the eighth and got three straight groundouts. Estrada found his way on base in the top of the ninth once again, thanks to a misplay at second by Matsui. But, new reliever Mike DeJean elicited a 5-4-3 double play off Andruw’s bat, and then struck out Raul Mondesi to send the game to its final frame.

Since the first, the game had been quiet, but it suddenly got uncomfortably loud in the ninth. Can you guess why? Here’s a hint: the Braves had not yet moved on from the idea of Dan Kolb, closer (though it was coming).

Needing three runs, the Mets first turned to Miguel Cairo to hit in place of Castro. Cairo reached on an infield single, and things immediately started to look rocky for Kolb once again. (It’s worth noting that Kolb had, prior to this game, gone four straight appearances without allowing a run, though the 2/2 K/BB ratio in those 3 13 innings didn’t inspire much confidence.) However, there was a brief and glamorous recovery, as Kolb forced Diaz into an 0-2 count and then got a 4-6-3 double play out of him. But, needing just one out, Kolb couldn’t seal the deal. Pinch-hitter Eric Valent doubled on an 0-2 pitch. That brought up Reyes, who hit a first-pitch double to score the second New York run. Now in a position to tie the game, Mets skipper Willie Randolph went for his big gun — Mike Piazza, inserted in place of Matsui. Piazza didn’t tie the game, but he did hit a grounder up the middle, scoring Reyes. That brought up Beltran, and he too reached base, hitting a rope into right-center that moved Piazza over to third. Kolb had started the inning with a three-run lead and allowed five hits. The lead was now down to a single run, and that run was on third. Coming up was Floyd, the cleanup hitter, who had reached base three times (two singles, one walk) and made just one out on the night. Bobby Cox and the Braves had had enough. Kolb was out, and in was... John Foster?

Look, the 2005 Atlanta bullpen was not very good. It had Chris Reitsma, but that was about it. Blaine Boyer was decent, and Macay McBride would be really effective (but horrifically unlucky), but wouldn’t make his debut until July, and that was months away at this point. On top of that, the Braves started the season with one relief southpaw, Tom Martin, who had been acquired in a Trade Deadline deal in 2004, but was sub-replacement afterwards. To make matters worse, Martin had retired just one of the last six batters he faced, and the Braves pulled the trigger with him way sooner than they would with Kolb, releasing him after just four 2015 appearances. In Martin’s stead, they called up Foster, who had a circuitous route back to Atlanta. Foster had pitched in relief for a few games with the 2002 Braves, but then got traded to the Brewers. He was taken by the Cubs in the Rule 5 draft after the 2003 season (where he posted -0.3 fWAR), but then got returned after it turned out he had a torn labrum. The Brewers released him, and he signed with the Braves one day after they released Martin. He was called up to the big-league team about a week later, and that’s how he found himself in this situation, facing Floyd with the game potentially on the line in his second MLB appearance of the 2005 season.

Anyway, I typed that whole paragraph, and it may have taken you longer to read it than it took Foster to end the game. His first pitch to Floyd missed. His second pitch was hit high but not deep, and nestled into Furcal’s glove to end the game. It was Foster’s first major league save, and would be his only major league save.

Game MVP: Johnny Estrada drove in three of the Braves’ four runs and continued to bug Martinez. Offensively, this was one of his best games (2-for-3, two doubles, walk) of the 2005 season, which turned out tragically for Estrada after he was barreled by Darin Erstad in a plate collision. (87 wRC+ pre-collision, 58 wRC+ post-collision, which isn’t conclusive by itself, but combined with a lot of other evidence since, is at least somewhat suggestive. The confusing part is the 2006 season, in which Estrada rebounded reasonably well before completely collapsing afterward.)

Game LVP: This it totally unfair, but let’s go with Pedro Martinez, for turning round two of this matchup into a bit of a dud from the get-go.

Biggest play: Foster coming in and getting Floyd to pop out to end the game.

The game, in context of the season: After this game, the Braves improved to 12-9, while the Mets fell to 11-10. They’d win the next game to take the series, and finish April at 14-10. Over the course of the season they’d jockey with the Nationals early and the Phillies late, but come away with their 14th straight division title at the end — the last season of the infamous streak.

Martinez would finish 2005 with a vintage 6.1 fWAR, making it his last dominant season before injuries and decline really set in. He’d face the Braves three more times in 2005, and amazingly, two more of those would be Martinez-Smoltz matchups. On July 17, he’d throw six scoreless frames as part of an 8-1 victory over the Braves where the Mets roughed up Mike Hampton. Then, in September, he and Smoltz would tango twice. Smoltz would best him in similar fashion to this game on September 6: Smoltz allowed one run in seven innings, while Martinez got tagged for a few runs early and the Braves won 3-1. But, Martinez would have the last laugh, evening the season Martinez-Smoltz series at two games apiece, by throwing a complete game shutout on September 16 in a 4-0 win. Smoltz would defeat the Mets in the one other non-Martinez game for him in the 2005 season, allowing one run in seven innings on July 15 to best none other than Tom Glavine.

The Mets would finish 2005 with 83 wins. Despite having Martinez, they went 6-13 against the Braves in 2005, and never really came close to sniffing the playoffs due to a tough division.

John Foster would actually last the whole rest of the season with the Braves, and compile 0.2 fWAR across 62 appearances. He never pitched in the majors again.

Video? Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any.

Anything else? Here’s a random thing: of all the pitchers he faced, Estrada randomly hit Martinez really well for the tiny handful of PAs he had against him. Of any pitcher he faced 10 or more times, Estrada hit .500/.500/.900 off Chad Cordero, but his line against Martinez, .429/.500/.857 is third (Cory Lidle, RIP, is in between them). Meanwhile, from Santana’s perspective, only six batters with 10 or more PAs against him had better results than Estrada — including Willie Harris, first on that list. Go figure.

Cliff Floyd deserves mention here — 2005 was his last good (or even playable) season. Floyd ended up putting up 3.7 fWAR, his second-highest mark, in his age 33 season. This game extended an early-season hitting streak he had to 13 games. The streak would end at 20. Floyd hit for a 200 wRC+ during the streak, and just about there for the season through the end of the streak. He’d hit for a 110 wRC+ after the streak ended. Already a platoon-influenced batter (around a 30-point career platoon split), Floyd was even more vulnerable to lefties in 2005, which may have helped Foster and the Braves pull this game out. But, amusingly enough, Foster actually had very little of an xFIP-based platoon split for his career (his FIP was far worse against lefties, though that’s entirely HR/FB-driven), and a very modest one in 2005. But it worked out for the Braves on this date, even if Foster was very far from an ideal LOOGY.

Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool that happened on April 26: Very, very not cool, but this is the date of the Chernobyl disaster. Though it happened 16 months before I was born, my life likely would have been very different (were it to exist at all, butterfly effect and all that) had it not occurred on that date.