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Braves Flashback/Recap: April 28

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A low-scoring game with the Cardinals had some very unexpected outcomes.

Atlanta Braves v St. Louis Cardinals

One of the main reasons baseball is fun: the ratio of expected to unexpected things. Unexpected things don’t happen so frequently as to have innings, games, and seasons resemble chaos, but they happen frequently enough that the game is constantly surprising you. We’ve visited the not-quite-good-enough 2009 Braves a few times now, once for their walkoff-winning home opener, and once for a pretty ignominious bullpen implosion. We’re coming back there for the third time this month to look at a quaint little win where the unexpected occured.

What do I mean by that? Well, you’ll see if you read below. But I’ll give you one big introductory point by way of two facts: first, the Atlanta starter in this game was Jo-Jo Reyes. Second, the game ended with a 2-1 score. As you might surmise, yes, this was Jo-Jo Reyes’ best career start (arguably). And that’s why we’re here.

How it happened: The prelude to this game is pretty easy to describe — Jo-Jo Reyes was, well, not good. He got 10 starts as a rookie in 2007, and was below replacement. That led to the Braves giving him more (??) starts in 2008, where he was marginally better, but still below replacement. So, move forward into 2009, and when the Braves needed a starter, they... again gave Jo-Jo Reyes a chance? His first outing of the season went about as “well” as you’d expect: five runs in 5 23 innings, a homer allowed, three walks, four strikeouts. The 37 Game Score (v2) was right in line with his average game score from the two seasons prior, which hovered in the 40-43 range. And yet, here the Braves were, ten days after Reyes flubbed yet again, having lost two in a row, facing a Cardinals team with the best record in the majors to that point, and once again, deploying Jo-Jo Reyes.

The first inning didn’t really seem to suggest that this April 28 contest would showcase anything meaningfully different from Reyes’ career to date. Reyes started the game by striking out Brian Barden (a human of whom I have zero memory), but then hit Colby Rasmus on the forearm and walked Albert Pujols on five pitches. It seemed for a moment that Reyes might actually survive without yielding an early run as he got Ryan Ludwick to go fishing for something low, but instead:

To be fair, this wasn’t Reyes’ fault. There’s a chance Chipper Jones makes that play, and a chance that he whiffs and Yunel Escobar is able to throw out Molina, or that the ball is at least deflected to Escobar rather than beyond his reach. But, even with Reyes striking out Chris Duncan to end the inning, the Braves were in familiar territory: an early hole with Reyes on the hill.

Their task now would be to try to do something against Kyle Lohse, a long-tenured innings sponge-y starter who was coming off two better seasons in 2007 and 2008, and in his second year with St. Louis. For a bit, it seemed like they might be able to get that first run right back: Omar Infante bounced a leadoff single up the middle and Lohse pitched around Chipper. But, Casey Kotchman, who at this point was wearing the derisive nickname “3U” for obvious reasons, pulled off something worse than a 3U — an inning-ending 3-6-3 double play by hitting it right to Pujols. So, the first inning went about as expected. But what about the rest of the game?

Reyes came back out onto the hill for the second. He struck out Khalil Greene, who had hit the first homer Reyes had ever allowed back in 2007. He struck out Brendan Ryan. After Lohse singled through the left side (because of course that happened, unexpected or not), an easy groundout from Barden ended the inning. The Braves again minorly threatened Lohse in the second, with a two-out rally that featured a Jordan Schafer walk and a David Ross liner single to left, but that brought up Reyes, who was easily dispatched.

And then... something happened. Reyes got through the heart of the St. Louis order on ten pitches, including retiring Pujols. Kotchman and Escobar combined to ruin another rally (Escobar singled, Chipper walked, Kotchman hit into a force at second and Escobar got caught in a rundown after wandering too far off third base), but Reyes went right back out there and had another 1-2-3 frame, this time needing just nine pitches. He was helped by this cool Infante effort:

After the Braves stranded Schafer in the bottom of the fourth after a two-out single, Reyes again came back out with a 10-pitch inning featuring two easy groundouts and a strikeout. Basically, at this point, both pitchers were cruising, and both offenses had keeled over. Both the fifth and sixth featured three up, three down innings across the board. Brendan Ryan robbing Reyes helped in this regard.

Lohse actually again walked Chipper to lead off the sixth, but Jeff Francoeur would hit into a very easy inning-ending double play after Kotchman struck out. In the top of the seventh, Reyes benefited from the same after a leadoff single.

That was actually how Reyes’ night ended. It was a really good start: just three hits, a walk, and a hit-by-pitch in seven frames, to go with seven strikeouts. The lone run that the Braves trailed by wasn’t really Reyes’ fault, aside from the fact that it happened due to an earlier hit-by-pitch and walk. But, nonetheless, the Braves still trailed. Lohse, meanwhile, was done after six innings, as he was battling a stomach bug and couldn’t continue, He’d been less efficient, with four hits and four walks yielded to go against six strikeouts, but hadn’t given up any timely hits.

So, Lohse gave way to Jason Motte, Motte nearly gave up the lead, as Schafer singled with one out and then Greg Norton (yes, Greg Norton), pinch-hitting in Reyes’ spot, nearly split the gap. But, Rick Ankiel, now on his second life as a position player, had just been double-switched with Motte and took over for Duncan, with Rasmus moving to left, had other ideas.

With Reyes also out of the game, the Braves gave the ball to Peter Moylan. Moylan had a 1-2-3 inning of his own, which was a nice measure of revenge for him. Why? Because in the prior game (which I considered doing instead of the Braves-Red Sox 2016 game), Moylan had allowed the eventual deciding run to score by walking the pitcher hitting for himself in the seventh inning. That was a pretty stupid outcome then, but this was another game, and Moylan acquitted himself well. The Cardinals still hadn’t managed to send four men to the plate since the second inning, and yet, the Braves were still trailing.

For the eighth, the Cardinals tabbed Kyle McClellan, a righty-throwing pseudo-long man who had been decent in 2008 and had allowed just three runs (two earned) in April with good peripherals, while pitching generally in really high leverage. One thing McClellan didn’t do was walk too many righties... but remember, this was the game of the sufficiently-unexpected!

Infante started the inning with a five-pitch walk. For some reason, the Braves decided that they needed to bunt him over, so the first out of the inning was made as Escobar successfully sacrificed. Really, all that achieved was a walk to Chipper, and taking the bat out of his hands seemed like it might hurt a fair bit given that McClellan then struck out Kotchman. But then, he did the unthinkable: after a first-pitch strike, he threw four straight pitches that Jeff Francoeur did not swing at. (Francoeur would finish 2009 with just 23 walks. Only three full-time players in 2009 had a lower walk rate; only Bengie Molina had a higher swing rate; only six players had a higher chase rate.) But, there were still two outs, and the next man up was Matt Diaz.

Diaz was a fan favorite, but he was generally miscast as a starter, given that he could not really hit righties. In an injury-shortened 2008, his wRC+ against righties was -11. (He’d finish his career with a great 126 wRC+ against southpaws and a near-unplayable 78 wRC+ against righties.) The Braves, though, didn’t make any moves. It would be Diaz against a righty with the game on the line. One weird thing about this outing is that McClennan, generally a sinkerballer, was throwing mostly slider-cutter-things and curves in this game. Each batter he’d faced so far had only gotten one four-seamer or sinker; the rest was all slider-cutter-things and curves. It was the same for Diaz — McClennan alternated slider-cutter-things and curves, with Diaz fouling off the former and taking the latter for balls. This proceeded into a 2-2 count. At that point, McClellan missed horribly with a curveball, and it ended up behind Diaz’ head. If it had hit him, the Braves would have tied the game, but Diaz stood still and took it for a ball. On the next pitch, Diaz swung at a cutter-slider off the plate...

So many unexpected things. Diaz getting a hit against a righty. Diaz swinging at an awful pitch and still getting a hit for it. McClennan throwing slider-cutters for some reason. The Braves leading 2-1 after trailing 1-0 for essentially the entire game. Diaz had been 0-for-3 with a couple of strikeouts against Lohse and a weak bouncer to short against Motte. McClennan struck out Schafer, but the damage was done.

The Braves turned it over to Mike Gonzalez. Remember, this was the year of the two-headed Gonzalez-Rafael Soriano closer monster, and though the Cardinals had left-right-right coming up, the Braves chose to use Gonzalez (who, I guess, had worked less recently than Soriano). It turned out to be a good move.

Rasmus swung through a hittable slider. Pujols got caught guessing for something else, and took a slider over the plate for strike three. Ludwick didn’t want to make the same mistake, especially as he had taken a slider for strike one and swung through one in the zone for strike two. Instead, he made a different one, chasing something in the dirt to end the game.

Game MVP: Matt Diaz and the baseball deities that turned his dribbler into a game-winning hit.

Game LVP: Kyle McClennan. Three walks in one inning? Walking Jeff Francoeur? Bruh.

Biggest play: This is a no-brainer, right?

The game, in context of the season: This game returned the Braves to .500. They’d lose the next one to drop the series, and wouldn’t really pick it up until June. By that point, they were a little too far back to really challenge for a playoff spot, but finished with a respectable 86 wins. This was the team that lost six straight to end the season, dooming their playoff hopes, but they’d finally return to the postseason the following year.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, had a weird season. They were the best team in the majors in April, but went six games under .500 across May and June, finding themselves a few games out of the division lead here and there as a result. But then, a 16-11 July and 20-6 August sealed the deal. The Braves would actually sweep the Cardinals in St. Louis in September, but the Redbirds were so far ahead in the NL Central at that point that it didn’t matter. The Dodgers would sweep the 91-win Cardinals in the NLDS.

For Jo-Jo Reyes, this was possibly his best start as a major leaguer. He did not turn the corner. In his next three starts, he allowed 17 runs. He walked eight and struck out nine, just two more than in this game alone. In his last start, he only lasted three innings with an 0/3 K/BB ratio against the Mets. The Braves sent him to the bullpen, where he allowed two runs in a one-inning appearance. Then he was sent back to the minors. Midseason 2010, he was traded with Escobar to Toronto for a package that included Alex Gonzalez, Tim Collins, and Tyler Pastornicky. Reyes would have a half-season pitching like a fourth starter in Toronto, which was way better than what he had achieved before, but still not enough to get him waived and claimed by the Orioles. He then bounced around a few organizations and the Mexican League, getting cups of coffee with the Angels and Marlins in 2015 and 2016, respectively, and ending his career at 0.0 fWAR. The only positive season or partial season was his stint in Canada.

Kyle Lohse, meanwhile, had a couple of injury-shortened, down years despite his scoreless efforts in this one. He’d bounce back a bit to be more innings sponge-y and better later. Kyle McClellan would, despite this outing, end up being a perfectly cromulent reliever for St. Louis (0.2 fWAR) in 2009. He would slide below replacement level for the rest of his career, including getting a ton of turns in the rotation in 2011 while being terrible.

Video? You got it.

Recap:

Condensed game:

Anything else? Chipper walked in all four of his plate appearances. It was the only time in his career that he went 0-for-0 with four walks. It was the last of four four-walk games in his career. The Cardinals sent the minimum up to the plate after the second inning.

Had Reyes lost this game, he would have been the first Brave since 1990 to lose nine straight decisions. Instead, he got his first “W” in months the statbooks, for all the good it did him or anyone.

Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about April 28: On this date in 1994, Aldrich Ames entered a guilty plea for espionage. He had been feeding intelligence information to the Soviets for nearly a decade.