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Braves Flashback/Recap: May 18

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Sometimes, even Craig Kimbrel can get Luke Jackson’d

Atlanta Braves v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

One of the least-and-also-most amusing narratives regarding the Braves’ 2019 season pertained to the efficacy (specifically, the lack thereof) of Luke Jackson. For this phenomenon, I prefer the shorthand of Jackson being “haunted,” i.e., the extreme misfortune he suffered on balls in play, often in clumps, seemed about as likely to have an ethereal explanation as a tangible one. (In more concrete terms, as has been documented by the TC commentariat and elsewhere, Jackson’s 2019 was essentially one of the least-lucky reliever-seasons ever in 2019.)

So, when I came across the events of a game the Braves played in Phoenix on May 18, 2011, it rang a bell for me. If Luke Jackson could be serially haunted, well, certainly even someone like Craig Kimbrel couldn’t avoid the bad juju indefinitely, either.

The gist: After trailing for most of the game, the Braves tied the game on a pinch-hit Brooks Conrad double, and then took a short-lived lead on a sacrifice fly. The teams were deadlocked at 3-3 for most of the late innings, until the Braves took the lead in the 11th thanks to another pinch-hit single, this time from Diory Hernandez. But, Kimbrel gave up four straight singles with one out in the ninth to turn a 4-3 lead into a 5-4 walkoff loss, with terrible fortune on two balls in play that probably shouldn’t have gone for hits.

Box scores: Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs

How it happened: The pitching matchup for this game was definitely odd. The Braves would be starting Julio Teheran, but this wasn’t the Teheran Braves fans and the league at large would become familiar with a few years later. Rather, this was only-made-six-starts-so-far-at-Triple-A, top-five-prospect-in-baseball Teheran. He had made his major league debut a couple of weeks earlier (it was awful), and was now back to fill in for another rotation turn. The Diamondbacks, meanwhile, were starting Joe Saunders, who had spent his career to date being an exceptionally generic starter (99 ERA-, 108 FIP-, 106 xFIP-, 6.6 fWAR in 775 innings across parts of six seasons), but had been much, much worse to start 2011, with the actual per-nine-innings stats in the 5.00s, and the minus stats in the 130s or higher. However, Saunders would inning-sponge his way into somehow keeping the Braves off the board.

The first was fairly typical in this regard. The Braves got two hard-hit singles from Martin Prado and Chipper Jones, and a well-struck flyout from Brian McCann, but couldn’t score as Dan Uggla overswung on a first-pitch changeup and tapped it weakly back to Saunders. Teheran started his second career outing with two quick outs, but then, uh-oh:

That, on the other hand, was a hanging changeup that the batter did not miss. After that, Teheran lost a very long battle with Stephen Drew and ended up with a walk, but spun a very nice 1-2 curveball that Chris Young swung through to end the inning.

Both pitchers then threw a series of scoreless frames. Saunders allowed just one baserunner in that span, a one-out Alex Gonzalez single in the second. His third featured three straight groundouts, completing a span of five straight outs on the ground that started in the second. Teheran’s innings were more adventurous. In the second, he yielded a one-out walk to Juan Miranda and a follow-up single, but stranded the runners following a Saunders bunt when Ryan Roberts popped out. Drew tagged him for a two-out double in the third, but another pop, this time from Young, saved him there.

The scoreless streaks ended with another Arizona run in the bottom of the fourth. Miranda pulled a single to right on a 3-1 count, and moved to second on Saunders’ two-out bloop into center. That set up Roberts, who poked one into right. Jason Heyward fielded the ball on a hop and made a strong throw home, but it wasn’t quite in time to nab Miranda. Old friend Kelly Johnson, in his second year with the Diamondbacks, flew out to very deep center to end the inning. Teheran would not be allowed to come back out for the fifth and a third time against Upton and Drew, ending his second career start with just a four-inning effort in which he threw 83 pitches. It was his second consecutive start in which he allowed two walks, got just one strikeout, and was tagged for a homer, while failing to last five innings. He wouldn’t clear five innings in a major league outing until his next start, in September, which was also the first time he wouldn’t allow a homer and gather more strikeouts than walks.

The Braves squandered a chance against Saunders in the top of the fifth. Gonzalez led off the frame with a single that ate up Roberts at third and rolled into left. McLouth followed with a four-pitch walk, and though he wouldn’t be coming out for the fifth, Teheran stayed in to drop a bunt that resulted in a forceout at third and nearly got him doubled up, if not for a low throw and Johnson failing to keep his foot on the first-base bag. Martin Prado followed by hitting into the most routine of 6-4-3 double plays, giving Saunders five scoreless innings despite just one strikeout so far.

George Sherrill came on for the bottom of the fifth and worked a pseudo-1-2-3 inning, allowing Young to reach after Chipper bobbled a slow roller, but then picking him off right after.

Finally, with Saunders facing the meat of Atlanta’s order a third time, they struck for the first time, though it was a fairly abortive effort. Heyward started the inning by dunking one into left. Chipper followed with a fly ball towards the right-field line that Upton, shifted way over towards center, couldn’t get to. With the tying runs in scoring position and none out, this happened, courtesy of Brian McCann, Gerardo Parra, and some very weird baserunning by Chipper:

The Braves were on the board and had halved the lead, but made a needless out. That wasn’t the only such blunder in the inning, either. Saunders followed with a walk to Uggla, and Freddie Freeman followed with a grounder that bounced off the glove of a diving Drew and bounced into left field. I guess Uggla thought one out at third base thanks to Parra wasn’t enough, so he tried to take third on the play, and also got gunned down. So yeah, the Braves had three singles, a walk, and a double in the inning, and scored one run on a sacrifice fly. Cool cool cool cool cool.

Sherrill then combined with Scott Linebrink to throw another scoreless inning. Sherrill was lifted after a Parra single that brought up pinch-hitter Xavier Nady in Saunders’ place; Linebrink got Nady to ground out weakly to short. Saunders finished his evening having allowed nine baserunners but just one run in six innings, despite a 1/2 K/BB ratio. With him out of the game, the Braves actually got it together.

The Diamondbacks asked Esmerling Vazquez to hold a one-run lead in the seventh. The righty was kind of a weird choice, as he was more of a middle reliever who had been below replacement level in 2010, with minus stats in the 120s across the board. While he had only allowed a few runs to date, his peripherals were worse than ever. The Braves quickly made Vazquez and the Diamondbacks pay. The inning started with a four-pitch walk to the very swing-happy Gonzalez. McLouth tried to bunt him over, but hit it too hard and simply replaced Gonzalez at first, now with an out. With the pitcher’s spot due up, the Braves pushed the Brooks Conrad button, and the result was awesome:

That was actually Conrad’s first extra-base hit of the season; he had a miserable 32 wRC+ coming into the game, albeit in just 25 PAs (only one start). The game was tied, but only for a moment, as Prado did a fantastic job turning a high 0-2 pitch into a routine fly ball deep enough to score Conrad as the go-ahead run. By the time Vazquez struck out Heyward to end the inning, he had turned a 2-1 lead into a 3-2 deficit.

Not to be outdone, though, the Braves had a whirlwind of dumb happen to them in the bottom of the seventh. It actually wasn’t too many things, but the things that happened made everyone’s head hurt. With a one-run lead, the Braves gave the ball to... Scott Proctor? Now, let’s rewind a bit. Proctor had always been a pretty bad reliever, aside from one year with the Yankees where he was very effective. He missed all of 2009 with Tommy John Surgery, and was awful for the Braves in the minors (most of the year) as well as the majors (a few mop-up appearances in September) in 2010. The Braves invited him to Spring Training in 2011, but cut him because he was so bad (and also to avoid paying him a bonus), and instead re-signed him again and stuck him in Triple-A. For some reason, he got called up a few days before this game, and had pitched a part of an inning, bailing George Sherrill out of a jam. Now, here he was, in pretty high leverage for some unknown reason.

Mirroring the Diamondbacks’ ill-fated decision to use Vazquez with a lead, Proctor followed suit by walking the first batter he faced on five pitches. Johnson then upstaged McLouth with a successful sacrifice bunt. Proctor got ahead of Upton, 0-2, and then this inexplicable thing happened:

I just... bruh. Fortunately, that was the last of Proctor’s misadventures in this game, though he did make things needlessly scary a few batters later, when Drew hit a ball a few feet short of going for a homer out to center. It should be noted at this point that the Braves definitely had access to the full suite of O’Ventbrel in this game, as they would use them over the game’s remaining innings. The usage of Proctor in this game, as well as in general, ever, remains a mystery.

For the top of the eighth, the Diamondbacks used David Hernandez, who threw a very quick, nine-pitch inning that included getting Chipper looking. Eric O’Flaherty countered with a scoreless eight of his own, striking out the first two batters, giving up a cheap double over third to Miranda, and then ending the inning on a bounceout to short. Hernandez then went three up, three down again, though at least McLouth made him work for it by forcing a 10-pitch at-bat that finally ended when he whiffed badly on a changeup in the dirt. Like (delayed) clockwork, Jonny Venters followed O’Flaherty and threw a scoreless frame of his own to send the game into extras. Venters pitched around the righty-hitting Roberts, walking him on four pitches, and then made things dicier by plunking Johnson. Upton nearly ended the game right there with a three-run walkoff homer, but the ball sailed into that little nook in the left-field corner of Chase Field, giving Prado enough room to catch the ball. The runners advanced, but Venters overmatched Drew with his nasty slider and that was that.

Very effective closer J.J. Putz picked up right where Hernandez left off for the top of the 10th, collecting two strikeouts and a groundout, needing just 11 pitches to put his team back into walkoff territory. But, the Braves let Venters keep on doing his own work, and Venters had a much less stressful second inning, getting two groundouts and a strikeout on just ten total pitches. Eric Hinske, who had come in for Freeman as part of a double switch, made a nice diving stop to end the inning.

For the 11th, the Diamondbacks went with Aaron Heilman, which was more of a “hope it works” than a “we’ve got tons of arms to throw at these guys” move. Heilman, once a top prospect, had gone from failed starter to good reliever with the Mets, but then had quickly become a bad reliever. He compiled 0.0 fWAR over the last three seasons coming into 2011, and was used often in mop-up duty by Arizona, when he was used at all. Much like Vazquez before him, the Braves took advantage of the Diamondbacks using a not-very-good reliever.

Chipper started the inning with a walk. The Braves then made another really bad baserunning blunder. Joe Mather, who had pinch-run for Chipper, advanced to second when Uggla bounced a ball that eluded Johnson. However, Mather overran second base, and got caught in no man’s land after Johnson picked the ball up. The end result was that Uggla’s single ended up being a bunt — Mather was in a rundown long enough to allow Uggla to move up, and the Braves went with one out, man on first to two out, man on second. The pitcher’s spot was due up next (because Freeman was double-switched out), and the Braves went with Diory Hernandez, basically a no-bat backup shortstop. For the second time in the game, though, the pinch hitter came through for the Braves.

This was Hernandez’ first RBI of 2011, as well as his first RBI and successful pinch-hit since August of the prior year. After Gonzalez followed with another single, the Braves could have given themselves more of a cushion, but Drew had other ideas, robbing McLouth:

All of this, including Mather’s blunder and Drew’s dive would prove key in the fateful bottom of the 11th. All the Braves needed was three outs from Kimbrel, after the O’Vent part of O’Ventbrel had already thrown three scoreless frames. But, remember how this post started. Things were about to get spooky. Well, spookier.

Kimbrel started his evening by getting Parra to ground out. Russell Branyan, who had been double-switched into the game along with Putz, then hit a solid single into right, and promptly exited the game for a pinch-runner. What followed next was straight out of the Luke Jackson 2019 lowlight reel (there’s no good video, but try around 12:55 in the condensed game embed below).

Ryan Roberts came to the plate, and on a 1-2 count, hit a ball back to Kimbrel on a bounce. Kimbrel didn’t quite manage to snag the ball, instead deflecting it towards Uggla at second. Uggla, who had been moving in one direction, had to pivot to smother the ball darting the other way. His resulting throw on to first was too high, and Roberts reached base safely. If Kimbrel gets the ball, there’s a decent chance he gets one out, perhaps two. If he doesn’t touch it, there’s a decent chance Uggla starts a game-ending double play. Instead, Kelly Johnson was up with two on and one out, and pulled Kimbrel’s first pitch on the ground between Hinske and Uggla. The tying run scored, and Roberts made it over to third as the winning run. In this case, only partial ghosts were in play — Johnson didn’t hit it weakly, but he also didn’t crush it. It was just a normal grounder, mostly made brutal by the prior play.

So, with the winning run at third, and Justin Upton at the dish, this happened, again on the first pitch:

Hit too weakly for a double play, hit too awkwardly for an effective play at the plate, ending the game. Uggla booting it didn’t help, but it likely wouldn’t have mattered. Ghosts, man. They could happen to anyone. Even you.

Game MVP: This was a pretty weird game, not really driven by any singular effort. Let’s go with Kelly Johnson, who went 1-for-4 with a sacrifice bunt and a hit-by-pitch, but whose 11th-inning game-tying hit was the most meaningful but also not fully affected by the paranormal.

Game LVP: The ghosts that ruined Craig Kimbrel’s night, of course. Kimbrel earned -.799 WPA with his outing, which was his worst mark to date, and one he’d only “top” four times in his career since.

Biggest play: Kelly Johnson’s single, for the same reason as above.

The game, in context of the season: This game was kind of amusing in the context of where the two teams ended up. With the loss, the Braves dropped to 25-20, remaining in third place but now 2.5 games out. The Diamondbacks, meanwhile, improved to 19-23, also in third place and four games back. By the end of the month, the Diamondbacks would be above .500 for good. In August, they captured a division lead for good. They finished with 94 wins and lost the NLDS in five games. As for the Braves, well, you know how 2011 ends.

This game was the last time Teheran was called up until September, when he made three more starts, only one of which was better than this one. Teheran then had his lost 2012 season where he struggled mightily in the minors until grabbing a permanent rotation spot in 2013. Meanwhile, this game was fairly fitting for Saunders’ season, which was his worst full campaign in his career (0.3 fWAR in a career high 212 innings). It’s possible that teams didn’t notice or care, because he somehow managed to have an ERA over a full run better than his FIP (93 ERA-, 123 FIP-, 114 xFIP-). So, basically, he frustrated other teams the way he did the Braves in this game, pretty much all season.

A lot of players that played a role in this game never appeared in another major league game after 2011, including Diory Hernandez, Aaron Heilman, Scott Proctor, Russell Branyan, and Juan Miranda. For Kelly Johnson, who had a crazy breakout year in 2010 (5.3 fWAR) after being cut by the Braves, 2011 was his last decent season (2.0 fWAR). Ryan Roberts, meanwhile, was in the midst of his only good season in 2011 (3.6 fWAR). He was also good in 2009 in part-time duty, but otherwise pretty replacement level-y. And, of course, Justin Upton, whose RBI bookended the game, had his big breakout season in 2011, putting up a 141 wRC+ and 6.3 fWAR, which he still hasn’t replicated.

Kimbrel, meanwhile, was just fine in 2011, with 2.8 fWAR and +1.90 WPA. While the occasional appearance of ghosts may have been annoying (56 ERA-, 40 FIP-, 50 xFIP-), it didn’t bug him too much in the end. His season both started and ended far worse than a dominant stretch in the summer: this was Kimbrel’s fifth meltdown through this date, but he’d literally have just one more until September (when he managed four in less than three weeks).


Condensed game:


TC Game Recap:

TC Game Threads: (1); (2); (3)

TC Commentariat Zeitgeist: This game was awful for multiple reasons, basically. Probably the most interesting thing looking back is that there was a ton of discussion about Kimbrel not being the de facto closer — even though Kimbrel led the relievers in fWAR at the time (Venters and O’Flaherty were 0.2 wins off), probably because Venters and O’Flaherty had mega-positive WPA at the time, but Kimbrel was negative even before this loss. In any case, that probably stopped real soon given how Kimbrel took off. But it was funny to see that at this time, Kimbrel was inspiring as much angst and agita as... Luke Jackson would in 2019. Heh.

Anything else? The Braves also lost the second game of this brief series. That made it the first time the Braves were swept by the Diamondbacks since 2006, and the first time ever that the Braves were swept, in any amount of games, at Chase Field. In fact, it’s the only time ever the Braves have been swept at Chase Field, even though the Diamondbacks have come in and swept the Braves in Atlanta fairly often.

After a season in which Kelly Johnson had a 129 wRC+, he had just a 49 wRC+ coming into this game. He finished 2011 at a 93 mark, which was compiled by alternating awful months and good/decent ones (51, 131, 79, 126, 69, 100). After the Braves left town, Johnson finished May with a stretch where he hit six homers and 12 total extra-base hits in 11 games.

Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about May 18: Okay, so this isn’t really “cool” by any stretch, but it definitely qualifies in the guise of “weird historical stuff.” On this day in 1896, Tsar Nicholas II (you may remember him as the dude that gets deposed and executed by the Bolshevik Revolution) is the honoree in a set of post-coronation festivities in Moscow. Somehow, a rumor ends up spreading that said festivities are going to have some pretty cool party gifts for the attendees (including gold coins), so the celebration grounds end up swelling with people. Of course, counter-rumors that too many people showed up and therefore there aren’t enough gifts take hold, leading to a panic, riot, and stampede that leaves nearly 1,400 people dead in the end. This generally isn’t mentioned as such, but considering the events that happened about two decades later and cost Nicholas his life, well, you can at least connect the dots if you squint...