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Braves Flashback/Recap: May 3

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This game makes me think about the three-batter minimum rule.

Philadelphia Phillies v Atlanta Braves Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

So, we’ve had some fun at the expense of the Phillies already in this series, most recently culminating in yesterday’s epic 2012 slugfest. (Actually, though, we’ve covered nine games against the Phillies so far, with only three Braves wins.) But, here’s a game where the Phillies had some fun at the expense of the Braves. There was nothing particularly epic about this game, but in scanning over it, I thought about the incipient three-batter minimum rule. In short, the Braves lost on a late two-run homer that maybe could have been avoided if matchups were always played. Them’s the breaks.

The gist: The Braves fell behind 3-0 and then rallied to tie the game in the middle innings. After pulling ahead by a run, southpaw Mike Remlinger came in to face L-R-L-L and gave up a homer to the R, sinking the Braves.

Box scores: Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs

The set-up: The Braves were trying to stretch their division title streak to 15 seasons, but April hadn’t really complied (10-14). The Braves hoped May would go better, and it did — they swept the Rockies in a two-game set to start the month, climbing back within five games of the division lead, before heading out to a three-city road trip. The first stop was this game, in Philadelphia. The Braves would be starting John Smoltz, whose April had been pretty good, but not quite Smoltz-esque (minus stats in the 90s, as opposed to the usual 70s). The Phillies were coming off three consecutive seasons of high-80s win totals and were trying to get back to the postseason for the first time since 1993. They came into this game in basically exactly the same place as the Braves: 12-14, having gone 10-14 in April and sweeping a two-game set in Miami to cap a brief, 3-2 road trip. Their scheduled starter was Brett Myers, who had put together a 3-plus-win season in 2005 and had only allowed 11 runs in five starts, with slightly-worse-but-still-notably-above-average peripherals.

How it happened: With Smoltz and Myers on the hill, hitters were on notice that runs could be at a premium, and they sorta were. Myers started the game with two strikeouts before walking Chipper Jones on five pitches. Andruw Jones saw a 3-1 pitch he liked, but hit a routine fly into left center to end the inning. Smoltz got stung on his very first pitch, as Jimmy Rollins knocked a ball over Andruw’s head for a leadoff double. But, two strikeouts and a groundout neutralized that threat. Both batters faced the minimum in the second: Myers went 1-2-3 while Smoltz allowed a leadoff single to David Delucci, who was later gunned down trying to steal by Brian McCann to end the inning.

After another 1-2-3 Myers inning, though, the Phillies rallied against Smoltz. Abraham Nuñez, whose 0-2 count was cleared by Delucci’s caught stealing, reached on an infield single hit near Chipper. Brett Myers failed to move him to second, striking out on a bunt attempt, but that happened anyway when Smoltz plunked Rollins with the next pitch. Chase Utley and Aaron Rowand then shot consecutive balls up the middle. Utley’s scored Nuñez and moved Rollins to third; Rowand’s scored Rollins. Bobby Abreu lined one into right to load the bases, and Ryan Howard hit into a 6-4 forceout with no double play, scoring a third Phillies run. Smoltz struck out Delucci, but the Braves were in a hole.

Nor did Myers make it easy for them to climb out of said hole. The Braves managed just a two-out single in the top of the fourth, and after Smoltz stranded Mike Lieberthal following a leadoff double, the Braves bungled their chance for a big inning. Leading off the fifth, Jeff Francoeur hit a grounder to Nuñez at third, who threw the ball away. With Francoeur on second, McCann lined a 3-1 pitch into right center. Ryan Langerhans then battled Myers into a walk, loading the bases with none out. Smoltz took the first pitch from Myers, but then swung away on the second, hitting into a 6-3 double play that scored Francoeur from third. Marcus Giles then flew out, and the Braves had just a measly run to show for their rally. But, Smoltz threw a 1-2-3 inning after his double play, and the Braves struck to tie it back up quickly thereafter. Edgar Renteria led off the sixth with an infield single to Nuñez at third. Chipper cranked the first pitch of his PA to center, but Rowand came down with it for the first out. Andruw then did Chipper one better, smashing the very next pitch into the left-field stands for a game-tying, two-run homer. (Third time through the order, bruhs.) Adam LaRoche followed with a single, but Myers recovered to get groundouts from Francoeur and McCann to keep the game tied.

Smoltz, who had previously thrown a nine-pitch inning, followed up with an even easier, seven-pitch affair, unfazed by Phillies hitters getting a third wave of hacks at him. Both Myers and Smoltz would throw 1-2-3 sevenths to end their nights. Both finished with three runs allowed in seven frames, with five strikeouts. Smoltz had zero walks but hit a batter; Myers walked two, but one of the runs charged to him was nominally unearned.

With Myers gone in the eighth, the Braves took advantage of Ryan Franklin, the longtime (and not very good) Mariners starter who was playing his first season not in Seattle, and had transitioned into a relief role. With one out, Chipper split the right-center gap for a double. Andruw struck out looking, and Franklin walked LaRoche to set up a righty-righty matchup with Francoeur. But, that stratagem backfired, as Francoeur lined one up back up the middle to score Chipper, giving the Braves their first lead of the night. With two lefties due up, the Phillies swapped Franklin for 39-year-old LOOGY Rheal Cormier (who had at one point been a starter, and then more of a longman, but was really just a lefty specialist at this point). Cormier plunked McCann, but got Langerhans to roll one to short to end the inning.

So, the Braves were now in lead-protect mode. They could have let Smoltz continue, but he had thrown 109 pitches and was into the fourth time through the order. The bullpen had actually been terrible thus far (below replacement), and closer Chris Reitsma was experiencing the year in which everyone hated him. The only bright spot for the entire relief corps was Mike Remlinger — he was literally the only reliever above replacement for the Braves in April (aside from one appearance by starter John Thomson) — and Remlinger had been a non-roster invitee to Spring Training who had won a spot to earn a second stint with the Braves. Things actually worked out somewhat decently in this regard, where this game was concerned: the Phillies had L-R-L-L-L-R due up, starting with Chase Utley in the two-hole, meaning that Remlinger could face the lefties and turn over the bottom of the lineup to Chris Reitsma. Of course, that’s not how anything worked out.

Remlinger fell behind Utley 2-0, and gave up a line-drive single into right. He got ahead of Rowand 0-1, but before you could even say, “Hey, I wonder if maybe they should have used a righty for Rowand,” or “I wonder if MLB will ever limit reliever usage in the future,” or “Is it possible that in the end, no one will end up winning the Jim Thome-Aaron Rowand trade?” Aaron Rowand smashed Remlinger’s 0-1 pitch into right-center for a go-ahead two run homer. Welp. It was the first homer Remlinger had given up in 2006.

Remlinger stayed in to pitch to a few more batters, giving up two more singles after striking out Abreu. The Braves then went to righty-throwing Ken Ray, who would log basically a full year of below-replacement, negative WPA relief work for the Braves in 2006, seven years after his only other major league appearances back in 1999. Ray allowed another single to load the bases, but then got pinch-hitter Pat Burrell to roll into a 5-3 double play to end the inning.

The Braves had one more chance to salvage the game, but they’d have to do it against 38-year-old Tom Gordon, a once-good starter who turned into an occasionally dominant reliever, and got a pretty big deal from the Phillies ahead of the 2006 season to serve as their closer, replacing Billy Wagner, despite his advanced age. They.. did not. Pinch-hitter Wilson Betemit was blown away on five pitches. Marcus Giles hit a first-pitch comebacker. Three pitches later, Renteria was down on strikes, and that was that.

Game MVP: Clearly Aaron Rowand, who went 2-for-4 with the game-winning homer and also drove in a run off Smoltz in the third.

Game LVP: Mike Remlinger. Maybe he shouldn’t have been facing Rowand, but if he were pulled, it’s not clear who would have been put in afterwards to face the other lefties (Chuck James was the only other option...). In any case, it was a bad time for that sort of outcome. The -0.55 WPA for Remlinger was his worst of 2006, which ended up being his last season. The Braves released him in June, even though, at the time of release, he was still the Braves’ most productive reliever by fWAR. (He was dead last, however, in WPA, which explains but doesn’t at all justify the move.)

Biggest play: Rowand’s homer was pretty much the game.

The game, in context of the season: The Braves fell to 12-15, while the Phillies improved to 13-14 by winning their fourth straight game. Neither would factor into the division race much. Even with this win, the Phillies were already five games out on May 3, and despite three calendar months with winning percentages over .600, finished with 85 wins, 12 games back in the division. The Braves had their division streak snapped and finished under .500 for the first time since 1990 with a 79-83 season. Both teams were actually fairly similar, with bad Aprils, good Mays, awful Junes, and strong second halves, but neither was catching the 97-win Mets.

The Phillies would go on to sweep the Braves in the two-game set, and then continue their roll. This was the fourth win of a nine-game winning streak and a stretch where they won 13 of 14.

Smoltz and Myers both had good seasons, essentially replicating what they did the prior year. Smoltz had 5.2 fWAR in 2005 and 5.5 in 2006; Myers had 3.4 in 2005 and 3.5 in 2006.

Aaron Rowand, who had been acquired from the White Sox in the offseason, had a miserable year post-trade. He hit poorly (88 wRC+), didn’t show the elite defense that made him a desirable commodity, and crashed into the center-field wall in August, missing the rest of the season afterwards. He’d rebound with a much better (but very BABIP-driven) 2007, locking in a weird pattern from 2005 through his final season in 2011 where he was much better in odd years than in even ones (3.8, 1.2, 5.4, 0.8, 2.4, 0.0, 0.6).

The Atlanta bullpen was pretty much a liability all season. The Braves eventually traded for Bob Wickman and Macay McBride was good down the stretch after joining the team in May, but it was not a very effective unit altogether. The Braves finished in the bottom 10 in bullpen fWAR; even after being released in June, Remlinger was still the team’s fifth-most-valuable reliever. The Braves had more sub-replacement relief performances (nine) than above-replacement ones (eight), and had to use 21 different relievers to get through the year.

Video? Sorry, too old of a game. That also goes for any TC-related shenanigans.

Anything else? Rowand’s homer came in a stretch where he put up a 144 wRC+ over 85 PAs with five homers and a .304 ISO. After that stretch ended in early June, he hit for a 69 wRC+ with just five homers and a .130 ISO over the remainder of the season, before it ended prematurely due to his center-field collision.

Despite Smoltz pitching great in 2006 as a whole, and pretty well to start the year, the Braves won just one of his first six starts. It would take until mid-May for the Braves to win consecutive Smoltz outings.

Edgar Renteria didn’t really factor into this game (1-for-5 with an infield single), but his hit preserved what would ultimately be a 24-game hitting streak for him, with 23 of those games coming to start the season (the 24th was the last game of 2005). After two mediocre years, Renteria had a complete resurgence with the Braves (7.6 fWAR in two seasons). He was traded to the Tigers after 2007 and completely collapsed immediately afterward. In 2006, Renteria put up a 128 wRC+ through July and then a 72 wRC+ thereafter.

Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about May 3: This was the date of a total solar eclipse for Northern Europe in 1715. While that’s kind of cool in and of itself, the cooler part is that Edmond Halley (you may know him from phenomena such as Halley’s Comet) predicted the timing of the eclipse to within a few minutes of when it occurred. And he didn’t even have computers!