I hold the 2001 Braves team in a special place in my heart. Baseball is primarily entertainment, and some seasons (good seasons) are inherently more fun than others. But the 2001 team was my introduction to baseball, and to the Braves. The twists and turns of that particular campaign were pretty great in and of themselves, but having that be the six-month, saga-level introductory course to what baseball entails was sublime. I don’t think I’d trade that experience for everything.
The thing is, the 2001 team wasn’t a juggernaut. Two much better teams would immediately follow, as both the 2002 and 2003 squads won 101 games each. In fact, the 2001 team only won 88 games, only captured the division lead in mid-August, and actually finished its first two months of play as a .500 team. It had a huge cast of characters: 18 position players got 100 or more PAs (in general, a team usually has only around 13-14 players get that many), pitchers adjusted to new roles on the fly, and even Tim Spooneybarger made an appearance. It was just phenomenal, and had almost no dull moments: the team spent all but 12 games of the season within five games of first place, and clinched on the third-to-last game of the year. Exciting, but not dominant. That was this April 4 game, too.
The set-up: The late 1990s were the heyday of Mets-Braves entanglements. The Braves won the division each time, of course, and had knocked the Mets out of the playoffs in the epic 1999 NLCS, which featured Robin Ventura’s Grand Slam Single. But, in 2000, the Mets finished a game behind the Braves yet won the NL pennant (only to get beaten in the World Series by the Yankees, much like the Braves in 1999). The 2000 season was also marked by additional animus thanks to John Rocker’s comments, which were printed in the January 2000 issue of Sports Illustrated — Rocker was suspended for the first part of the 2000 season but remained a part of the Braves organization as they kicked off their 2001 season.
Much like in 2006, the Braves had a weird start to their 2001 season, as they played a single-game series in Cincinnati before heading home to play the Mets. In a conciliatory gesture, the visiting clubhouse at Turner Field was adorned with welcomes and acknowledgments of the Mets’ NL championship the prior season. The Mets proceeded to ruin the Braves’ home opener: Ventura homered in the eighth off Rocker to give the Braves a two-run lead, and after the Braves immediately re-tied the game against relievers John Franco and Turk Wendell, Ventura would hit his second two-run homer of the game off Kerry Ligtenberg in the tenth to top Atlanta. The Braves came into this game looking for their first home win in 2001, and they got it in walkoff fashion
How it happened: The pitching matchup for this game featured two Kevins: Appier for the Mets and Millwood for the Braves. Appier had recently signed a $42 million, four-year deal with New York, and was reaching the twilight of his career in his mid-30s. (Appier has a surprisingly strong Hall of Fame case with over 50 career fWAR, but it’s one of those things that just gets left by the wayside, perhaps because he was never the same after surgery to repair his torn labrum in 1998.) Millwood had been a delicious surprise for the Braves so far in his career, an 11th-round pick who had already provided 14.2 fWAR over three full seasons and a partial rookie year, a rate of over 4.2 fWAR per 200 innings pitched.
The game was quiet until the bottom of the third, when the Braves struck first. Appier struck out Millwood, but the latter reached base anyway on the rare wild pitch-strikeout combination. A single and a groundout to first later, Millwood stood on third, and Appier walked Andruw Jones on four pitches with a base open to elect to pitch to Chipper Jones (for some reason). That didn’t work out, as Chipper lined a 1-0 pitch into right for a two-run single.
The Mets would get a lone run back in the sixth, as Millwood allowed a one-out single and then a walk. Never really a huge groundball pitcher, Millwood nonetheless was getting tons of them in this game, and he got another one off Ventura’s bat, which could have ended the inning. First baseman Rico Brogna fielded the ball and threw on to second for the fore, but shortstop Rafael Furcal’s throw to the first base bag was errant, allowing a run to score. That brought up Mike Piazza, who singled on a line drive to center. Ventura raced home but the Atlanta defense didn’t let Millwood down twice in the same frame, as Andruw Jones gunned him down at the plate. Both Appier and Millwood ended up lasting six innings. The former allowed two runs with a 4/1 K/BB ratio, the latter the lone run with a 2/1 ratio.
A couple of relievers for each team threw scoreless frames, and the Braves inserted Rocker into the game in the ninth, hoping to preserve their slim lead and not endure another Rocker meltdown. Since you already know this was a walkoff win, you know that a Rocker meltdown did indeed ensue. He walked two of the first three batters he faced, including throwing three straight balls to Ventura after getting ahead of him with a 1-2 count. Rocker then threw two quick strikes to Jay Payton but couldn’t finish him off — Payton singled to left on an 0-2 pitch, and pinch-runner Joe McEwing (replacing Ventura on second) scored the tying run. Left fielder B.J. Surhoff threw Todd Zeile out at third base for the second out of the inning, and Rocker got a pop out to end the frame, but the Braves would have to do some more work for their victory.
It didn’t take long to send the Braves fans home happy; unlike the prior night, extra innings were not in the cards. Donne Wall had a pitched a 1-2-3 eighth for New York and was left in for the ninth, but was removed right after walking Brian Jordan to lead off the frame on five pitches. In came the eccentric, slider-heavy Turk Wendell, shark teeth necklace and all. Wendell coaxed a routine 0-2 flyout from Javy Lopez, but Rico Brogna poked a double down the right-field line to put the walkoff run on third base. With Rocker’s spot due up, Bobby Cox inserted who else but Keith Lockhart. Lockhart took a pitch for a strike, then whiffed on the second. He took a ball, and finally made contact on the fourth pitch... and did one of the few things you really don’t want to do in that situation: hit it right back to the mound, with Jordan breaking for home on contact. The ball bounced off the mound to Wendell’s left. Wendell was able to glove it, but his momentum was definitely not towards home plate, and he made an awkward, non-competitive throw home. Jordan touched the plate easily, and the Braves had secured their first walk-off win of 2001 (five others would follow).
Game MVP: Kevin Millwood’s effort definitely qualifies, as it was marred only by an errant double play attempt relay throw.
Game LVP: Turk Wendell, who definitely didn’t do his job in the macro sense of retiring opposing batters, nor the micro sense of fielding his position well.
Biggest play: While Lockhart’s walkoff fielder’s choice (yes, this is how it was scored) seems relevant here, the reality was that Brogna’s double set the win up. Brogna would have a few big games and hits for Atlanta during 2001, but was generally a huge drag on the roster, finishing with -0.7 fWAR in just 223 PAs and forcing the Braves to scramble desperately for first base help throughout the season. The Braves gave Brogna (along with rookie Wes Helms, who was similarly ineffective) rope until July, and then signed Ken Caminiti, the 1996 NL MVP, who was recently released by the Rangers. Caminiti was somehow even worse than Brogna or Helms (and never played baseball again after the Braves released him at season’s end), and the Braves went and signed 42-year-old Julio Franco out of the Mexican League on August 31. Franco ended up raking in September, and stuck around to provide mediocre-to-worse production for the Braves for the next few seasons, which is still ridiculously impressive given that he was in his mid-40s at the time. So yeah, 2001: when Rico Brogna, Wes Helms, and Ken Caminiti were all worse options than a 42-year-old signed out of the Mexican League. Baseball, man.
The game, in context of the season: While the Braves won this game, they’d drop the rubber game to New York 7-1, and would stumble around in April to a 12-14 record. They were just at .500 by the end of May, but a great June, coupled with the rival Phillies totally fizzling out after a 34-18 start, eventually delivered the division to them.
Despite the rough start to the season, Rocker mostly settled down and was fine from a baseball perspective. Still, the Braves had enough of him and traded him to Cleveland for Steves Karsay and Reed. Karsay ended up outpitching Rocker the rest of the way.
Kevin Millwood, meanwhile, ended up posting one of his worst years in 2001, despite the effective start. He basically had the ineffectiveness trifecta: a lowered strikeout rate, an elevated walk rate, and a case of homeritis.
The Mets, meanwhile, had no good follow-up for their pennant-winning 2000 season. They were 10 games under .500 at the start of June, and only managed to finish the season at 82-80 thanks to an 18-9 finish. They’ll always have Mike Piazza’s game-winning homer (against the Braves) in the first game after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but the team ended up going nowhere, despite a 3.4 fWAR season from Appier. (Edgardo Alfonzo’s weird career path, where he posted MVP-type play in 1997, 1999, and 2000, followed by a collapse in 2001, a return to that level in 2002, and then fading into obscurity in 2003 and beyond really torqued the Mets in this regard.)
Video recaps? Sorry, wasn’t able to find anything.
Anything else of note? This game featured one of only seven appearances for the Braves by Marc Valdes, who threw a scoreless inning. Valdes finished his Braves tenure, and his final major league season with a 7.71 ERA, 10.05 FIP, and -0.4 fWAR in just nine innings, which is pretty impressive if you think about it.
Rico Brogna is just a really weird case — it’s not clear why the Braves signed him to fill a first-base hole, given that aside from a good rookie stint, his entire career was just mediocrity or worse. As a first baseman with no real bat, he had no real way to provide value, and was coming off a season where he finished nearly a win below replacement in under 200 PAs. In three-plus years with the Phillies, he finished below replacement in nearly 2,000 PAs. While Brogna suffered from a form of spinal arthritis that affected his health and production, I always found the 2001 Braves first base saga fascinating. Just imagine how a similar situation would be fumed about these days, were it to ever occur — a contender giving away a starting spot to a guy who hadn’t even been average in the last half-decade, and had mostly recently been awful.
Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about April 4: The current iteration of the United States flag was formally adopted by Congress in 1818. At the time, there were only 20 stars. While most people probably think that the 13 stripes (one for each original colony) and changing number of stars as new states were admitted to the union have been two immutable aspects of the flag, prior to this formal adoption, the flag actually had 15 stripes, to acknowledge Vermont and Kentucky. The flag designers then just opted not to add extra stripes (or stars) to the flag because it would be too cluttered. In other words, for a 23-year period between 1795 and 1818, there were 15 stripes and 15 stars on the flag, despite five other states being added to the union in that time.