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Braves Flashback/Recap: May 29

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A very nerve-wracking pitcher’s duel

Cincinnati Reds v Atlanta Braves Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

All I can say is, if this 2011 game between the Braves and the Reds had been played at the Great American Ball Park instead of Turner Field, it may have turned out quite differently.

The gist: There were only two scoring plays in this game, a solo homer by Jay Bruce and then a two-run go-ahead homer by Martin Prado. Both starters (Jonny Cueto, Jair Jurrjens) pitched eight innings and Craig Kimbrel slammed the door. But it was the fly balls and various baserunners that made it a tense, scary game.

Box scores: Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs

The set-up: Both the Braves and Reds were in fairly disappointing places as they drew up on the end of May 2011. Both teams had made the playoffs in 2010, with the Reds winning their first division since 1995, but both were not really getting much traction in the 2011 season, at least not yet. The Braves were 29-24, but 3.5 games out of first and in third place. The Reds were leading the division as recently as May 18, when they completed a five-game winning streak, but had gone 2-9 since to fall to 27-26, also in third place and now three games back. The two teams also hadn’t managed to make a statement in this series, splitting the first two games in Atlanta. The Reds won the first game, 5-1, but the Braves walked off 7-6 in 12 innings.

The Reds were starting Jonny Cueto, a fourth-year starter coming into his own (and before his dominant days). Cueto had been a worse-than-mediocre starter during his first two years in the league but had made big strides in 2010, finishing with 2.6 fWAR. His 2011 got off to a slow start as he missed the first month-plus of the season with a triceps injury, and had a small-sample 57 ERA- / 84 FIP- / 111 xFIP- line in four starts since his return.

The Braves, meanwhile, had Jair Jurrjens going for them, in his fourth year as a Brave (and fifth overall). Jurrjens was definitely an oddball, with back-to-back 3+ fWAR years in 2008-2009 (with a massive ERA-FIP gap in 2009 leading to a nearly 6 RA9-WAR year), but then a sub-1 fWAR season in an injury-plagued 2010 where he notably underperformed his FIP and xFIP. 2011, though, was starting to look like a return to earlier, great form: Jurrjens came into this start with a 41 ERA-, 76 FIP-, and 94 xFIP-. He had yet to allow more than three runs in an outing, and was coming off 7 23 scoreless against the Pirates.

How it happened: For this Sunday night ESPN game, the Braves were in their home Sunday reds... facing the Reds. Jurrjens started the game with two flyouts to center, and then made Joey Votto look awful on a full-count changeup in the dirt. Jordan Schafer got the Braves started by hitting a flare juuuust over the infield, but Martin Prado hit into a 6-4-3 double play and Cueto struck out Chipper Jones.

To start the second, Jurrjens got yet another out in the air to center, but the fourth one, courtesy of Jay Bruce, went a little too far for Schafer or anyone else to catch:

That’s a pretty bad hanging changeup right there. Jurrjens then got another out in the air before finally getting something on the ground, which was only converted into an out thanks to a very slick sliding stop and across-the-body throw from Alex Gonzalez at short.

The Braves tried to rally in the second, as, with one out, Freddie Freeman got nicked on the jersey and Dan Uggla rolled one through the left side. But, the Braves got a bad break when Gonzalez hit one right to third in a way that allowed Scott Rolen to step on the bag as he threw to first — Gonzalez beat the throw and the bases would have been loaded with one out, if not for the exact placement of the ball at the bag. Cueto then struck out David Ross to end the frame. Jurrjens returned to the mound and hurled a 1-2-3 inning. Paul Janish led off with a single, but got picked off by Ross on a snap throw back to first. Jurrjens struck out the next two batters. Cueto then followed with a perfect inning of his own.

Jurrjens then went back to his fly ball to center adventures. That’s how the inning started, and after Votto rolled one into right with one out, Rolen hit one to the base of the fence in dead center. Schafer was able to flag it down, but Votto moved up. After an intentional walk to Bruce, a third fly ball to center ended the inning. Cueto and Jurrjens then again traded perfect innings, with Jurrjens’ fifth featuring only one fly ball.

Another Braves rally dried up in an unusual way in the bottom of the fifth. Gonzalez and Ross connected for back-to-back one-out singles, bringing Jurrjens into the box. He attempted to bunt the runners over, but instead, this happened:

Jurrjens got two more outs in the air to start the sixth, and then walked Votto. A few pitches later, though, Ross gunned down Votto on a steal attempt.

In the sixth, the Braves broke through. With Votto facing the top of the order for a third time, Schafer led off the frame with a nine-pitch plate appearance that ended in a walk. That brought up Prado, who took two straight balls and then got a fastball strike he really liked:

Just like that, the Braves had a lead. Eric Hinske would draw Cueto’s second walk of the inning and the game with one out, but that was it (in the inning, and the game). Freeman neither flicked one over the fence in left, but the ball stopped just short of the wall for a flyout. Uggla then grounded out to short.

Now pitching with a lead for the first time in the game, Jurrjens started the inning with a comebacker, but then allowed a 3-1 opposite-field single to Bruce. A fly out (of course) and a groundout ended the inning.

A leadoff hit-by-pitch from Cueto in the bottom of the seventh amounted to nothing, other than Gonzalez being very upset about being plunked. Jurrjens laid down a successful bunt, but Schafer popped out to left to end the inning. The top of the eighth, though, featured a different flavor of drama. Jurrjens had done well to navigate the Cincy lineup for a third time so far, but the very light-hitting Janish shot a single past Chipper to start the inning, his second hit of the game. Cueto stayed in to bunt Janish to second (a-ha! no pinch hitter being asked to bunt here!), but Jurrjens battled back to go up the ladder on Drew Stubbs and strike him out on three pitches.

With two outs, though... oh hell, just watch the video:

That’s pretty game-saving from the guy who hit the go-ahead homer right there. The Reds argued vociferously that Ross missed the tag altogether and/or that his tag was high and therefore late, but to no avail. (I don’t see it... seems fine to me.)

That same man led off the eighth with a walk, as the Braves sought an insurance run. They’d come up empty. Two groundouts moved Prado to third, and the third ended the inning.

With Jurrjens at 98 pitches, and Votto-Rolen-Bruce due up a fourth time, the Braves swapped Jurrjens for Kimbrel. Things immediately got scary, as Kimbrel couldn’t find the zone and walked Votto on four pitches to start the inning. But, Rolen popped out, and Kimbrel was dialed in by that point, striking out Bruce on three pitches afterwards. Things got momentarily less comfortable as Fred Lewis bounced one through the right side, but Kimbrel was overpowering once again to end the game:

Game MVP: It’s hard to pick between the guy who hit the go-ahead homer that accounted for all the team’s runs and threw out the tying run at the plate (Prado) and the guy who threw eight innings of one-run ball.

Game LVP: Ramon Hernandez. He wasn’t the only Red to go 0-for-4 in this game, but he grounded out with the tying run on base in the seventh, and then struck out with two men on to end the game.

Biggest play: Prado’s go-ahead homer, of course.

The game, in context of the season: The Braves improved to 30-24, moving to 3.5 games back, though still in first place. The team went on a pretty good run over the summer, but the Phillies were just too far ahead, and we all know how terribly that season ended. Let’s not dwell on it.

The Reds fell to .500 for the first time since May 4, and five games back for the first time all season. They’d never get closer than third place or two games back afterwards, and went 12-17 in late August and September to end the season with 79 wins.

Cueto, who threw a complete game with just the two runs on ten baserunners and five strikeouts, had his best season yet in 2011. It was also the start of his FIP-defying streak, which still hasn’t really ended — in 2011, he put up a 60 ERA- and 87 FIP- (101 xFIP-); from 2011 through the present, he has a 77 ERA- and 90 FIP- (93 xFIP-). This was his second career complete game, and first in over a year; he’d collect two more in 2011. This was the start of a great run for him (again, see FIP outperformance) in which he’d allow 10 runs in seven starts, which really drove his overall 3.0 fWAR season.

Jurrjens, meanwhile, had an enigmatic 2011. He missed much of the latter third of the season with a knee injury, but had shed a ton of his production by that point. Through this start, his pitching minus stats triple slash was 40/80/95. In June and July, it was 87/106/109. He largely got shelled in his attempts to return to the hill in August, giving him an overall 79/106/110 line on the year, with just 0.9 fWAR, but 3.3 RA9-WAR. He’d never put up positive RA9-WAR again, and would substantially underperform his peripherals over the next 13 starts (spanning three seasons) of his career.

Despite his heroics, Prado had a substantially down year in 2011, finishing with 1.2 fWAR. It was his only year with a sub-100 wRC+ between 2008 and 2016, driven by an August and September collapse that more than counterbalanced a really strong May and June.


Condensed game:


TC Recap:

TC Game Thread:

TC Commentariat Zeitgeist: The NL East is very tough, but Jurrjens, Prado, and even Jordan Schafer are awesome. (Those three players would combine for just 2.6 fWAR in 2011, and Schafer would get traded midseason. Oy.)

Anything else? This game featured two guys that at one point or another during the 2011 season held the NL ERA title. Neither finished with sufficient innings to qualify in the end, but Jurrjens held it through June, and Cueto took over in July and held it through August. By mid-September, though, Kershaw passed Cueto, and Cueto ended up missing the innings cutoff by just a few frames anyway.

Jay Bruce led the NL, at this point, with 15 homers. He’d lose that lead in early June to Matt Kemp, who ended up winning the NL homer crown that year.

This game completed a horrendous 2-8 road trip for the Reds.

Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about May 29: In 1953, this was the date of Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay world-first ascent of Mount Everest.