I haven’t been to too many Braves games in my life, which is mostly an artifact of, well, having been to Atlanta once, ever. (Yes, I did see a game while I was there.) Instead, I’ve seen the Braves way more as a visitor, at least when the schedule deigns that they come to Fenway Park, which is actually relatively often. But, I was lucky in another respect: right at the time that I became a baseball fan, I happened to befriend a kid whose mother worked for the Giants’ team hospital, which meant access to tickets for special events, like the Braves coming to town.
The Braves won their first series in San Francisco that I happened to be present for, which was pretty cool. But coming into this game, it wasn’t quite as fun for me, as the Braves came into this game, the final one of a four-game set, having lost the first two and then clawed back a victory. Said friend was actually kind of insufferable about baseball and the Giants, so the experience was a bit of a mixed bag. But hey, live baseball with the Braves!
The gist: This game was very fun until it wasn’t: the Braves romped to a sizable lead while stifling the San Francisco bats for a second straight game. Things got really dicey in the ninth as John Smoltz turned a four-run lead into a two-on, one-out situation with the winning run on base, but then actually rebounded to slam the door and send me home happy.
The set-up: Probably the main thing to know about this game, set-up-wise, is that the Giants were starting Jason Schmidt. There is (was? is?) one big narrative about Schmidt: the Braves were dumb to let him go when acquiring Denny Neagle. But, this was always incredibly irritating to me, in retrospect (at the time of this game, I didn’t understand any of these implications). Neagle gave the Braves 8.5 fWAR in two-and-a-half seasons, and then got dealt for more contributions (Bret Boone, Mike Remlinger). Schmidt, meanwhile, compiled 12.6 fWAR after the trade, before becoming a free agent, but that happened over five-and-a-half years. Schmidt didn’t actually become super-good until after he became a free agent and (re-)signed with the Giants. In any case, Schmidt was coming off a 3.0 fWAR season, but had actually been injured and pretty bad in 2002 coming into this start, having allowed 11 runs in 13 2⁄3 innings, with a lame 11/10 K/BB ratio. The narrative would mostly get annoying later (especially when he had super-dominant years in 2003-2004).
The Braves were countering with a different Jason, he of the Marquis persuasion. Marquis had been okay as a swingman in 2001, but like Schmidt, had been pretty bad (and a bit injured) to start 2002. He’d only made four starts before this one, with two being awful and two being decent.
Overall, the Braves were 20-21 coming into this game, in fourth place in a very crowded NL East despite being just 2.5 games back. The Giants had finished a playoff-less, 90-win season in 2001 but now had the best record in the NL at 25-14. The NL West was also really crowded, with just 4.5 games separating four teams, with the Giants holding a half-game lead over the Diamondbacks (who had eliminated the Braves from the NLCS in 2001).
How it happened: Given that it featured two struggling-to-this-point Jasons, this game had so. little. offense. in the early going. Through the first three innings, there was just one walk (Barry Bonds, of course) and one single, both with two outs. Seven of the 18 outs came via strikeout. With two outs in the top of the fourth, Gary Sheffield opened the scoring with a first-pitch solo dinger into left that was crushed so hard that no fielder bothered to take a step to pursue it. Chipper Jones followed with a grounder single up the middle, but Andruw Jones flew out to right to end the inning.
With a lead and Bonds leading off the inning, Marquis yielded his first extra-base hit of the afternoon, an opposite-field double. However, he got two first pitch outs around a backwards “K” of first baseman/teen heartthrob J.T. Snow to strand Bonds. He was less fortunate when the Giants tied it up in the bottom of the fifth. Tsuyoshi Shinjo led off the inning by reaching on an errant throw from Mark DeRosa at short. (This was a weird little stretch where the Braves put Rafael Furcal at second and DeRosa at short out of concerns regarding the former’s throwing shoulder. This experiment lasted all of four games.) After Pedro Feliz flew out, Schmidt bunted Shinjo to second, and Marvin Benard (it’s always bugged me that it’s “Benard” and not “Bernard”) singled him home with a liner into right. Benard got nabbed trying to take second on the throw, which meant that Marquis had yielded his first run in a seven-pitch inning. (His previous low for an inning in this game was 12 pitches.)
After that exchange of singletons, there was another lull in hitting, with just one baserunner and four strikeouts over the next two full innings. That almost changed when Bonds nearly took Marquis deep in the sixth, but he hit into what the Giants call “triples alley,” the deepest part of the park featuring that awkward corner between two straight fences, and Sheffield had little trouble coming down with the ball. Amazingly, it had taken Schmidt just 75 pitches to get through seven innings, and he was most of the way through the third time in the order having allowed just the Sheffield homer and not much else. But, the Braves broke through in the eighth nonetheless.
After Julio Franco grounded out to start the inning, Schmidt had his only momentary lapse in control of the game, giving up a four-pitch walk to Javy Lopez. It was his first walk, and second three-ball count of the game. The Braves went for the jugular (at least as best they knew how): Keith Lockhart pinch-hit for Marquis (7 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 6 K in the game, one of his best three-ish starts to date, depending on the metric), and Marcus Giles came in to run for Lopez. Those moves were a mixed bag: Lockhart popped out on the first pitch, but Giles stole second on the pitch right after. Furcal, up for a fourth time against Schmidt, drew an eight-pitch walk, and that was it for Schmidt. He finished with 7 2⁄3 innings on just 95 pitches, with 20 of those coming in the eighth.
With the game on the bases, the Giants went to generally-dominant workhorse reliever Felix Rodriguez, who had put up a combined 3.8 fWAR over the last two seasons. All Rodriguez had to do was get an out, but the Braves weren’t cooperative. DeRosa took a first-pitch ball and then hit a grounder back up the box, allowing Giles to score from second. Rodriguez then walked Sheffield to load the bases, and on a 2-2 count, Chipper unloaded, smashing a hard liner off the big ol’ wall in right field. All three runners scored, giving the Braves a fairly comfortable 5-1 lead with just six outs to go.
Mike Remlinger, in his pretty-close-to-dominant relief work stretch, came on for the eighth as part of a triple-switch (Remlinger in for Chipper, Henry Blanco in for Lockhart, Darren Bragg in for Giles). He started his day with a leadoff walk to David Bell, but then got Benard (argh, why not Bernard?) to hit into a double play and finished the frame off with a groundout. After Tim Worrell threw an eight-pitch, 1-2-3 top of the ninth, the Braves gave the ball to John Smoltz in a four-run game.
This was actually kind of a weird move, in that leverage in a situation where three outs ends the game but four runs are needed to tie is pretty low, and it’s not like Smoltz was underworked: he had pitched in two prior games in this series alone, including a two-inning stint in the series opener (because he hadn’t worked the three days before then). It also turned out to be a pretty scary sequence. Smoltz started his afternoon by walking Bonds. A first-pitch popout by Jeff Kent helped, but Snow singled to right, bringing up Benito Santiago. Never much of a hitter, Santiago was coming off four straight forgettable years, and had a very meh 84 wRC+ coming into this game. But, he took the first pitch he got from Smoltz and smacked it over the fence in left-center, turning a four-run lead into a one-run lead, just like that. Things actually got even scarier from there. Shinjo lined a pitch into right-center for a single, and then moved to single on pinch-hitter Damon Minor’s five-pitch walk. The Giants had gone from needing more runs than they had outs to putting the winning run on base, in the span of six batters. But, finally, Smoltz buckled down. After falling behind Bell 3-1, he got a foul and then struck him out swinging. That brought up Benard, who took a strike, fouled off a second, and then missed a third to end the game.
Game MVP: It didn’t really do him much good in the end, but Jason Schmidt was crazy-good in this game. He did have three runs charged to him, but the only real damage against him was Sheffield’s homer, and he probably could have done without the four-pitch walk to Lopez that hastened his departure. Before the eighth, here were his inning-by-inning pitch counts: 8, 9, 7, 20, 12, 14, 7. He’s a big reason why this game took just 2:36 to play, despite featuring nine runs and 23 baserunners. While this game wasn’t much of a turning point (he’d struggle again next time out), the 2002 season was. He set a new career high with 4.5 fWAR at age 29, and then follow that up with two 6+ fWAR seasons. In fact, the worst of Schmidt’s age 29-33 seasons was as good as his best seasons from 22-28. Sadly for him and baseball, shoulder problems transformed him from an above-average hurler in his mid-30s to essentially unable to pitch on a dime; after no fewer than 25 starts and 150 innings from 2001-2006, he was only able to make 10 total starts across 2007-2009.
Game LVP: Felix Rodriguez, who needed one out and instead allowed three of the four batters he faced to reach base. Sure, the go-ahead DeRosa single was more unfortunate than problematic on his end, but walking Sheffield and letting Chipper crush a pitch were more dire. 2002 was actually end of Rodriguez’ run as a dominant reliever, giving him a very reliever-y career: he was replacement level in his first three seasons, decent in 1999, dominant in 2000-2001, decent again in 2002, and then trended towards replacement level over the next four seasons. He actually finished his career in Korea.
Biggest play: DeRosa’s go-ahead single had higher WPA than Chipper’s bases-clearing double. Go figure.
The game, in context of the season: The Braves moved up to .500 with the win, a threshold they reached for a 17th time in 42 total games. They would reach it two more times over the next four games, but then would absolutely erupt and go maximum ham. Including this series split and the prior series, a win over the Padres, the Braves would not lose a series between May 10 and July 27. They had a 21-5 record in June, and followed that up with an 18-8 July. In third place and 1.5 games out after this win, they were only 11 days away from a division lead they wouldn’t relinquish, which would grow to 19 games by season’s end.
The Giants, meanwhile, mostly chugged along the entire year. They would finish with 95 wins to the Braves’ 101. This stretch was a bit of a low point in their season, as they won just one series between May 10 and June 2. This loss knocked them out of first place, a position they’d actually never retake over the whole year, finishing 2.5 games behind the Diamondbacks. Despite this win, though, you likely know how this story ends for both the Giants and Braves — the Giants knocked the Braves out of the NLDS in five games, a crushing loss for high school freshman me, and made worse by the fact that the Braves outscored the Giants in the series and also that the Braves had the tying runs on base in the ninth of the elimination game with none out, but lost when Chipper hit into a season-ending double play.
Despite the neat outing, Marquis did not have a neat year. He was done in by the longball, something he avoided in this game: 123 ERA-, 120 FIP-, 105 xFIP-, 15% HR/FB, 0.3 fWAR across 114 innings.
Video? Unfortunately, too old.
Anything else? This game was the first time in three tries that Marquis faced the Giants and didn’t give up a homer to Bonds. (Though he nearly did, were it not for the odd dimensions of what was then known as Pacific Bell Park.) Despite his 73-homer onslaught in 2001, 2002 was actually Bonds’ best season, as he finished with a higher wRC+ than 2001 (244 to 235) and a tiny bit more fWAR (12.7 to 12.5). The reason was that everyone basically just decided to walk him, and the .070-point move out of SLG and into OBP is a favorable one, value-wise. Through this game, Bonds literally had walked in over a third of his plate appearances; he’d finish 2002 slightly under a third.
Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about May 16: Okay, this isn’t really “cool” but amuses me, so here goes. In 1891, there was an exhibition that started on this date in Frankfurt, Germany, which featured the first demonstration of long-distance electric transmission in modern form. The reason why I find this amusing is because one of the descendants of the hosts of this exhibition is the International Electrochemical Commission — a few years ago, I was at a conference giving a presentation, and for some reason, the organizers gave me a nametag/placard that said I worked for/was part of said Commission. (I am not, and have never been. I have very little understanding of chemistry and electricity at a scientific level.) I still have that nametag/placard/lanyard and I chuckle every time I see it; I wonder how confused the presentation audience was as to why someone from an international standards organization was providing a walkthrough of a very niche eGovernment software solution that had nothing to do with standards or science.