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Braves Flashback/Recap: April 27

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The Braves played the role of unintrusive speed bump really well in this one.

Atlanta Braves v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

There’s a particular thing that I loathe about deliberately bad baseball teams. It’s not just the obvious, regular thing, wherein an entire six-month slug of entertainment is rendered deliberately pointless. There’s something more irritating within it: that in a series of contests, the only purpose of one team is to play out the string, to be the Washington Generals to every other team’s Harlem Globetrotters. Watching your favorite team be basically the nameless, momentary antagonists in every other team’s highlight reel montage, well, that’s the worst.

It takes on an additional dimension when fans put forth the extra effort to watch those teams in person. Look — a trip to the ballpark isn’t a magic carpet ride these days, especially for night games on weekdays. Unless you happen to live very close by, you’re looking at transit time both ways, and given the three-hour game length, you’re basically going from the office to the park and then to bed. That tradeoff could very well be worth it... but when you’re watching a 25-man show up in uniforms that may as well say “Flimsy Roadblocks” on the chest lettering, well, ugh.

When we previously revisited the 2016 team, it was because they had a surprisingly good, gripping game that they lost by a hair despite facing off against a dominant team starting their best pitcher. This... this was not that. This was an aggressively bad team that had been cut off at the knees (really at like, the shoulders) by its own management, getting clobbered by a good one, with me there to see it in person. This was a team trying to avoid losing eight in a row after they had already lost nine in a row to start the season. This was a team that had only hit three homers all year coming into April 2016, who had already set an Atlanta record by failing to homer in 15 straight games. This was a team giving yet another meaningless turn in a rotation to Bud Norris, who had given up five homers in his first four starts (spanning 21 13 innings), compiling a 163 ERA-, 146 FIP-, and 119 xFIP-. This was a team that was about to get shut down by a guy throwing knuckeballs. This was the 2016 Braves, and they lost to the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, 9-4.

How it happened: The whole “speed bump” thing was very evident throughout this game. Steven Wright started the game with eight straight strikes. On the eight of those strikes, there was perhaps the first among many signs that the Red Sox would be using this game to show off at the expense of the Braves.

Wright ended the first by striking Adonis Garcia, who had two particularly ignominious facets in this game. First, he was literally the best the Braves could apparently do at DH in this interleague series, as they started Daniel Castro at third base to let Garcia bat third without playing the field. Second, he was absolutely baffled by the knuckleball all night. In this first PA, he just sat and watched four pitches until whiffing badly on a knuckler nowhere near the plate and in the dirt.

That made it Bud Norris time, and oh boy. Disaster doesn’t quite do justice to the start. From my seat in the stands, I could tell watching his earlier warmup sessions that he wasn’t getting the results he wanted, but it was so much worse than anyone could have guessed. By the time it was done, Norris logged one of his worst starts ever, and arguably his worst start as a major league, period (by FIP; by other measures it’s a bottom five start basically across the board).

Norris actually nearly got out of the first with little damage. With one out, Dustin Pedroia rolled a grounder up the middle, and Xander Bogaerts followed with a bouncer to third. Castro fielded it and threw to second for the forceout, but Bogaerts beat out the relay by not very much. That brought up David Ortiz, playing his final major league season, and Big Papi doubled into the right-field corner to score Bogaerts from first with the game’s first run.

That brought up Hanley Ramirez, who doubled the lead with a bloop single into shallow center.

Ramirez would steal second and Norris would walk Travis Shaw, but finally got a groundout from Brock Holt to end the inning.

Amazingly, the Braves actually showed some fight against Wright in the second, though it felt somewhat cursory. Freddie Freeman drove a high-and-away Wright knuckler to deep left, where it bounced high off the Green Monster for a leadoff double. After Jeff Francoeur struck out (duh), A.J. Pierzynski came up and accomplished a personal milestone in this unfortunate game:

That brought up Kelly Johnson, who followed suit with a similar dunker into left, scoring Freeman. The Braves actually had a wonderful chance to tie the game afterwards, as catcher Ryan Hanigan completely whiffed on a knuckler (it hit him in the knee guard) and moved both runners into scoring position, but Erick Aybar did some whiffing of his own, and Drew Stubbs popped out to Pedroia to end the inning with the Braves still trailing. (For whatever it was worth, Hanigan had one of the most miserable times I’ve ever seen, even when the subset is limited to catchers trying to corral knuckeballs. It was bad. It didn’t matter.)

The bottom of the second, though... mega-oof. Hanigan singled on an 0-2 pitch past an Aybar that seemed to be moving in quicksand, or tethered by spectral manacles or something. After a walk and a poked single to right by Mookie Betts, Pedroia came up, and, welp:

Sure, it was kind of a cheap homer, but again, Washington Generals, remember? Amazingly, Norris was allowed to stay in after that, but after one more out and then another Ortiz double, he was pulled. His final line: 13 batters faced, four outs (lol), seven hits, two walks, six runs, zero strikeouts.

The Braves inserted John Gant to eat up some innings. Gant had made a few relief appearances for the Braves earlier in the year, but had been sent down despite a 7/0 K/BB ratio in three innings because he gave up two runs apiece in back-to-back outings. Gant got his first out on this nifty catch by Freeman:

He then gave up his first walk of the year, but ended the inning with a routine flyout off Holt’s bat.

The Braves then had a very weird third inning on offense. Markakis drew a leadoff walk as Wright went after him with fastballs and missed the zone. After Castro struck out on three pitches, Garcia swung twice and then decided not to swing anymore, which delivered unto him a walk. Freeman then hit a comebacker right to Wright, which seemed like it was going to be a 1-6-3 double play, but Wright threw a sinker that Bogaerts couldn’t scoop. Instead of an out, the Braves had the bases loaded. Francoeur popped out, which brought up Pierzynski, who got possibly the most benign hit-by-pitch RBI of the 2016 season:

(Actually, Baseball Savant indicates there were five softer hit-by-pitches with the bases loaded in 2016 alone, so welp.) Kelly Johnson could have tied the game at that point with a slam of his own, but instead he popped out to very shallow left.

Gant had a nice bottom of the third, going 1-2-3 with a strikeout. The game got kind of silly in an inconsequential way after that. Wright struck out Aybar to start the inning, but Hanigan flubbed both the catch and his attempted throw to first. Wright then struck out Stubbs, but Hanigan couldn’t hold onto that high knuckler either, and Aybar had advanced to second on two strikeouts. Later in the inning, yet another passed ball by Hanigan (three total in the inning) would move Aybar to third. But it wouldn’t matter, because two soft groundouts ended the inning.

The Red Sox would not let Gant escape a pounding. After a Pedroia strikeout, Gant would walk Bogaerts and then give up a first-pitch near-homer to straightaway center to Ortiz. After a review, it was ruled a double, and Ortiz had three two-baggers in three trips to the plate, while the Red Sox had a 7-2 lead. Gant collected another strikeout, but then Shaw hooked a pitch that wasn’t anywhere near a strike into the right-field gap. Between Stubbs and Markakis in the outfield and the ball dying at the base of the wall, Shaw had himself a triple. The Red Sox nearly made it a 10-2 lead, but Holt’s deep fly to right was caught by Markakis at the short bullpen wall. They’d have to settle for just a six-run lead by the end of the fourth.

After that, meh. Wright had a 10-pitch fifth inning, getting three outs in the air. Gant allowed a couple of baserunners, including another walk, but was bailed out by Freeman making another cool play to start a 3-6-1 double play. Wright and Gant both had 14-pitch 1-2-3 innings in the sixth. Wright finished his night with a two-strikeout inning that also featured a walk. His last PA of the night was a three-pitch strikeout of Garcia, who still had absolutely no idea how to hit a knuckleball. His final line: seven innings, three hits, three walks, eight strikeouts, and two runs (only one earned, though it was his own error). Gant, too, was gone at this point, having allowed six baserunners (three hits, three walks) in 4 23 innings, along with two runs and four strikeouts.

Hunter Cervenka came on for the bottom of the seventh and had a cool inning, getting both Shaw and Holt to whiff on sliders away in the dirt before Hanigan grounded out.

And then, in the eighth, a brief reprieve from misery:

Let’s be clear. Coming into this game, the Braves had a 56 wRC+. The next-worst team’s wRC+? 75. The Braves had three (3!!!) homers. The next-lowest total for a team? 13. The median team had 20. With this homer, Freeman ensured that these Braves would not tie the 1946 Boston Braves, who went 16 games without a homer. It also prevented the Braves from marching on the 1991 Cardinals’ record of 18 games without a homer. Thanks, Freddie. That homer came off Tommy Layne, who retired the next three Braves on eight pitches.

For the bottom of the eighth, the Braves tabbed closer Jason Grilli, who I guess needed to get some work. After all this team had lost so much that there wasn’t really much use for a “closer.” Grilli got a couple of lineouts, and then... I don’t know how to describe this, under than a flailing of the arms and hands, and once again, the words “Washington Generals.”

Grilli would also give up a walk (why), but ended the inning and the Braves’ pitching ledger by getting Ortiz to fly out.

The Red Sox inserted Matt Barnes for the ninth. Barnes would eventually become a crazy strikeout machine, but at this point he was just a generic reliever guy coming off a sub-replacement year. The Braves would tag Barnes for a run (Stubbs single, Markakis double) to cap the scoring at 9-4, and a couple of groundouts ended the game. The final out, fittingly, would have been made by Pedroia at second, except that he had been pulled in favor of Josh Rutledge after his second homer of the night. Then I went home.

Game MVP: Pedroia had the biggest, baddest statline, of course, but Ortiz’ doubles really set the tone for the beating to be bestowed upon the Braves. Also, people write in Ortiz in Boston mayoral elections, so, yeah.

Game LVP: Who else, but Bud Norris? He was banished from the already-terrible rotation after this start. This is a strange sentence to type, but Norris lost his rotation spot before Williams Perez did.

Biggest play: Pedroia’s grand slam. The Braves probably didn’t have a real chance regardless of what he did there given the overall mismatch, but that really didn’t help.

The game, in context of the season: The Braves’ skid hit eight. They’d snap it in the next game, avoiding the four-game sweep in Boston. After this, the Braves mostly avoided long skids — they’d have one more seven-game losing streak, and three each of four-game and five-game losing streaks, but nothing like what happened in April. For the Red Sox, this was a fourth straight victory, and part of a 7-1 stretch. Boston would go 32-20 through May before stumbling in June and spending most of the year embroiled in a crazy four-way division race. They’d really only start pulling away in September, finishing first in the AL East with 93 wins, but getting swept by Cleveland in the ALDS.

Pedroia had another great season in 2016, with 4.9 fWAR (121 wRC+). It was his last awesome season before injuries took over his career. To date, though, this was Pedroia’s last multihomer game, and one of his most recent truly great offensive games. (He had a 5-for-5 with two doubles in July 2016, and a perfect day with a homer in September 2017 that would also qualify.)

It’s still mind-boggling, but David Ortiz ended his career with a 4.5 fWAR season, which was his best effort since 2007. His best years, by age: 32, 31, 30, 41. Go figure.

We should probably loop back to Bud Norris, who had a super-weird 2016. He was awful as a starter, and got banished from the rotation. He then spent a month in relief, where he was pretty good (47 ERA-, 85 FIP-, 109 xFIP-). That meant that when Mike Foltynewicz got hurt, Norris was re-inserted into the rotation, where he went a little berserk. Norris had five more starts for the Braves in 2016 after this one, where he put up a 52 ERA-, 50 FIP-, and 69 xFIP-. He allowed just seven runs in five starts, didn’t allow a homer, and aside from his first start back, had K/BB ratios of 6/0, 7/2, 8/2, and 8/0. On the heels of seven shutout innings against the Mets, the Braves traded him to the Dodgers in a trade that netted Caleb Dirks and Philip Pfeifer. Norris then more or less pumpkin-ed with the Dodgers. He had some good starts, but also some bad ones, got hurt, and came back very ineffective after the injury.

John Gant was up and down between Gwinnett and Atlanta for most of the 2016 season. He never really got a prolonged shot, and suffered from ERA-FIP, ERA-xFIP, and FIP-xFIP gaps over his first 50 innings in the bigs. The 102 xFIP- was interesting, but the Braves didn’t care and sent him to the Cardinals in the offseason for Jaime Garcia, for some reason. Gant has since become something between a cool swingman and useful reliever, which makes the trade even more confusing in retrospect.

This was a pretty good start for Steven Wright in his only notable major league season. Wright actually made the All-Star Team in 2016, but then succumbed to a wide array of injuries, as well as personal issues, including both a domestic violence accusation and a PED suspension.

Video?

Recap:

Condensed game:

Anything else? Entering this game, the entire Braves team was tied with 102 individual players for homers in 2016. A full 60 players (around five full MLB rosters of position players) had more homers than the entire Braves team.

TC Recap: https://www.talkingchop.com/2016/4/27/11523680/braves-fall-to-the-red-sox-following-dustin-pedorias-monster-game

TC Game Thread: https://www.talkingchop.com/2016/4/27/11521396/braves-vs-red-sox-game-thread-april-27th

Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about April 27: This was the announcement date of Operation Moolah in 1953. In short, the U.S. was prepared to offer a tidy sum of cash to any defecting pilot of a MiG-15 that brought said functioning combat aircraft to South Korea. There was technically no defection resulting from the operation recorded, and an armistice was signed a few months later. A few months after the armistice, a North Korean pilot actually did fly his plane to South Korea, but he was unaware of Operation Moolah. Over the course of these months, President Eisenhower opposed the operation, considering it unethical. You can actually still see the one MiG-15 aircraft at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.