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Braves Flashback/Recap: May 31

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I didn’t watch this game, and maybe that was for the best

Atlanta Braves v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Most of the games we’ve covered so far through two-plus months of play, I saw as they were happening. Maybe a few, I watched on some kind of replay (probably MLB.tv) afterwards. This game, though — I didn’t. Or, rather, I didn’t, except for about two batters. I won’t get into a long personal story here (though there is one), but suffice to say, here was my set-up for this game: when it started on a Saturday afternoon during 2008 in Cincinnati, I was on a flight from LAX to Santiago to visit my girlfriend, who was living in Chile at the time. Beyond that, though, I happened to get super sick that day, and spent most of that long flight in a pseudo-quarantine at the back of a fairly empty plane because the flight attendants didn’t want me to frighten the other passengers (or possibly infect them? they did pity me enough to bring me free food, though). In any case, much of that day is a blur, but I distinctly remember a very specific part of it, the part where (of course, because it’s me) the first thing I did after we got back from the airport and to my hotel/hostel thing was to scramble to get internet and load up MLB.tv to watch the Braves game. Actually, I kind of figured that I had missed the game entirely, so I was really excited when the MLB.tv readout indicated that it was still happening.

So, this is pretty much what happened. First, a lot of buffering. Then, when it finally loaded, with all the choppiness of a hostel internet connection and 2008-era MLB.tv, I glanced at the on-screen graphics showing the bottom of the 10th and a tie game, and figured, “Hey, I’ll get to watch some Braves today!” And then, basically right after, Jay Bruce hit homer for the first time in his major league career, which happened to be a walkoff homer. Welp.

The gist: After a ton of scoring early, both starters were knocked out having allowed six runs each. The Braves went ahead on a Jeff Francoeur solo homer in the seventh, but Rafael Soriano blew the save in the ninth when he failed to look a runner on third back before throwing to first, allowing the tying run to safely advance and cross the plate. Bruce’s walkoff homer ended it, continuing an absolutely miserable streak for the Braves in close games to start the 2008 season.

Box scores: Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs

The set-up: The Braves were coming off a couple of disappointing seasons, but were still expecting to compete in 2008. April had been a step in the wrong direction, as they came into May just 12-15, but they had gone 17-11 over their last 28 games to head into this game with the Reds at 29-26, three games out of first and two games out of a playoff spot, with the third-best run differential in the NL. The team had some weird splits — it had close to the NL’s best home record, but its worst road record. It also had a 2-16 record in one-run games, and had lost every extra-inning game so far. The thing is, it wasn’t like the bullpen was terrible — it was below average but not awful in either fWAR or WPA. It was just one of those weird things that happens over a third of a season. More to the point: the Braves had dropped the first game of this series 3-2, as the Reds walked off on an error by Chipper Jones at third base.

The Reds at this point were still puttering around. There hadn’t been a winning season in Cincinnati since 2000, and no playoffs since 1995. They came into this game 26-29, in fifth place (out of six teams), eight games out of first.

Starting for the Braves was Jair Jurrjens, then in his first season in Atlanta after being acquired in the offseason in a swap for Edgar Renteria. Jurrjens had been awesome to start his first full season, having allowed more than three runs just once in 11 starts to go with a sparkly 68 ERA-, 75 FIP-, and 91 xFIP-. The Reds were countering with journeyman Josh Fogg, who had been annihilated in three starts to begin the year, shifted to long relief where he was better but not good, and was now returning to the rotation.

How it happened: Again, I have no actual memory of much of this. This is mostly a reading of the play-by-play, with embellishment, as there isn’t good video footage of much of this game.

For Fogg, struggling was pretty much the norm. For Jurrjens, though, it was his first problematic start of 2008. In the first, Fogg gave up back-to-back two-out singles on liners to center, but got Brian McCann to ground out to end the inning. Jurrjens, though, fared much worse from the outset. After a one-out groundball single to center by Jay Bruce, Ken Griffey Jr. jumped all over a 3-1 pitch and swatted it to right for a two-run homer, the 599th of his career. Brandon Phillips followed suit into the left-field stands, and just like that, the Braves were down 3-0. and Jurrjens had doubled the number of homers he’d allowed on the season. Jurrjens went on to walk three of the next four hitters he faced, allowing the Reds to bat around in the inning. Fogg grounded out to end the frame with just the three runs on homers on the board.

Fortunately for the Braves, they were facing Fogg, and Great American Ball Park is a pretty good place to strike back with runs. Jeff Francoeur lined a single to start the inning, and Greg Norton, acquired from Seattle on May 5 and making just his fourth start as a Brave, connected for a two-run homer of his own.

Unfortunately for the Braves, Jurrjens’ first-inning struggles were not a blip, and he couldn’t hold the Reds to their three-run first. Two straight singles and a safe call at third base put runners on second and third with none out in the bottom of the second. Griffey followed with a liner into center that went for a sacrifice fly. The Braves caught a break when Phillips’ liner was snared by Kelly Johnson at second, but the chance to get out of the inning having allowed just one run fell through when Edwin Encarnacion singled home Bruce after an intentional walk to Adam Dunn. After another intentional walk, this time to Joey Votto, Jurrjens got David Ross to ground out to end the inning. He had allowed five walks in two innings, after walking just four batters over his last two starts.

Once again, though, the Braves came right back. A double by Johnson and a walk to Chipper brought the tying run to the plate in the form of Mark Teixeira, and he did just that, obliterating a Fogg pitch into center for a three-run homer. Fogg walked McCann to give the Braves a four-man non-out streak, but the bottom of the order couldn’t do anything else. Jurrjens then had a good inning, going 1-2-3 on two flies and a grounder against the 9-1-2 hitters, finally retiring Bruce on a deep opposite-field fly ball. He needed just nine pitches to get through the frame, throwing just one ball.

That good inning set the Braves up to take their first lead, courtesy of Jurrjens himself. Leading off the fourth against Fogg, Jurrjens lined a ball down the right-field line and motored around the bases, ending up on third by the time Bruce could throw the ball in. It was Jurrjens’ first extra-base hit of his career, and remains the only triple he ever hit. (Jurrjens also never homered in his career, though he did have three doubles in 271 PAs.) Leadoff hitter Yunel Escobar couldn’t score Jurrjens as he grounded out to third, but when the Pirates lifted Fogg in favor of southpaw Jeremy Affeldt to face Johnson, the latter singled through the infield, scoring the go-ahead run. Affeldt then gave up a pop-up single into left to Chipper, but struck out Teixeira and McCann, the latter on three pitches, to end the inning. For Fogg, it was another horrendous start: six runs in 3 13 innings, with an 0/2 K/BB ratio and two homers allowed. It was his worst start by FIP and xFIP in the worst season of his career. (Though, it wasn’t his worst start ever, as in 2003, Fogg had allowed five hits and a walk, including two homers, to the first six batters he faced, and was promptly pulled. He also once allowed four homers in three innings, among other awful outings.)

After his sprint around the bases, Jurrjens once again had an easy inning, this time against the heart of the Cincy order now batting for a third time. Griffey grounded out on two pitches, Phillips flew out to center on three, and Dunn flew out near the left-field foul line on two. The Braves got a couple of one-out walks against Affeldt in the top of the fifth, and Jurrjens bunted the runners over, but Escobar grounded out to keep the lead to a lone run. That mattered, because Jurrjens would falter again in the bottom half of the inning.

Encarnacion started the inning by ripping a single into center. After Votto struck out swinging (just Jurrjens’ second strikeout of the game), Ross rolled a groundball double down the left-field line, putting the tying run on third. Jurrjens then walked pinch-hitter Andy Phillips with the ol’ UIBB (unintentional intentional walk) on four pitches to set up a double play. He then went fishing for a groundball with leadoff man Jerry Hairston Jr. The move worked in so far as he got a grounder; it didn’t work because Escobar wasn’t able to convert the ball into even one out, much less two; Encarnacion scored the tying run on the play. That was it for Jurrjens, as he departed in favor of LOOGY Royce Ring. Two pitches later, Bruce did hit into a 4-6-3 double play to end the inning tied six-all.

Through five innings, these two teams had combined for 12 runs, 18 hits, 10 walks, and four homers. Both starters departed; Jurrjens had his worst start of his season (definitely) and of his career to date (likely), with a grotesque six runs in 4 13 innings, with a 2/6 K/BB ratio, two homers allowed. By FIP, he’d only have two worse starts later in his career; by xFIP, this was his worst start ever, of all the starts that came before and after.

New reliever Bill Bray worked around a one-out walk to Chipper to keep the Braves stifled in the sixth. Ring carried on into the bottom half of the inning and gave up a leadoff double to Griffey (not good LOOGYing), but stayed in and got the next three outs, though the righty-batting Encarnacion put a charge into one with two outs that was flagged down by center fielder Gregor Blanco in the left-field gap.

David Weathers came on for the seventh and immediately gave up the tie, as Francoeur tagged him for a homer to start the inning. Weathers got into more hot water as Dunn bungled a Blanco fly into left for a two-base error, but after a walk to Escobar, he escaped the inning by striking out Johnson. The Braves survived a Jeff Bennett outing in the bottom half of the inning — Bennett was actually quite effective in needing just 11 pitches to go 1-2-3, and had a career year in 2008 (which isn’t saying much, he finished his career at -0.5 fWAR despite 0.4 fWAR in 2008). New Reds reliever Mike Lincoln set down Jones, Teixeira, and McCann in order in the eighth. The Braves then played matchups in the bottom half. Bennett started and got an out; Ohman came on and walked Bruce, but struck out Griffey. Blaine Boyer then came on for Phillips and got him to hit a comebacker. After Lincoln again carved up the Braves, it was time for the bottom of the ninth, and Rafael Soriano.

This was only Soriano’s sixth outing of the year — he spent most of April and May on the shelf, and this was just his second outing, and first save situation, since returning. Unfortunately, poor fundamentals cost him a shutdown and the Braves a win in this one. The inning started in an unfortunate way, with Dunn working a leadoff walk. The Reds immediately pinch-ran for him with the generally-speedy Ryan Freel. Soriano struck out Encarnacion, but Votto hit a first-pitch liner into right, and Freel was able to dash to third despite the ball being hit fairly well. Then, came one of the fateful PAs of the game. In a 1-2 count, Ross hit a comebacker to Soriano. The Atlanta closer had plenty of time to grab the ball, look Freel back to third, and throw out the Cincinnati catcher, but forgot to do the middle part of that sequence. With Freel already well off the bag, he broke for home when Soriano threw to first, and was able to slide in safely ahead of Teixeira’s throw home, tying the game. Bobby Cox, of course, got ejected after vehemently arguing that Freel should have been called out. (Replays showed that Freel was safe, not that the replay system was in use yet.) Had Soriano just looked him back, the game could have ended in a victory for his team, as he struck out pinch-hitter Paul Janish to end the inning. Instead, it was time for extra innings once again.

In the tenth, the Braves got a leadoff single against Cincy closer Francisco Cordero from Josh Anderson, who had pinch-hit earlier and came in to play left for Norton. After Cordero struck out Escobar and Johnson, Anderson stole second, prompting the Reds to walk Chipper to face Teixeira. The move worked out in the end, as Teixeira lined the ball into a the third out.

It was around this time that I was getting internet set up in the hostel. If I had done it a few moments earlier, I would have had time to groan when I realized the Braves were inserting Manny Acosta (aka, Manny “I’ll Cost Ya”) to pitch the bottom of the tenth. Acosta had been basically replacement level in 2007 despite a good ERA, and had been putrid so far in 2008, but the Braves had already used five other relievers in the game, and Acosta was definitely not just a one-inning guy (even though he was bad). I didn’t catch the first out of the inning, when Acosta struck out Hairston. I did, however, gaze upon this:

Game MVP: Jay Bruce, who continued his charmed first few games in the majors by hitting a walkoff homer in his fifth contest. Bruce also had two singles and a walk in the game. It was his third time in those five games collecting three or more hits; he had a 308 wRC+ through these five games despite an 0-for-3 with a HBP in his third game. Bruce’s spree wouldn’t last too long, as he had four homers and a 189 wRC+ through June 18 in his first 79 PAs, but then managed just a -21 wRC+ over his next 59 PAs.

Game LVP: It’s tempting to point the finger at Acosta, but really, it was Jurrjens. 2/6 K/BB with the two first-inning homers is just awful, and despite those two bounceback innings, he was just playing with fire given that he wasn’t missing many bats all afternoon. Jurrjens would only have six walks in one other game in his career, and, as mentioned, this very well could be picked as his worst start ever.

Biggest play: Bruce’s walkoff homer. Amusing, though of little consolation, is the fact that Bruce had the single biggest positive WPA play of the game (his walkoff homer) and the single biggest negative WPA play of the game (his double play against Ring with the bases loaded, after the Reds had just tied the game). According to postgame interviews, Bruce indicated that he had never hit a walkoff homer at any level of competition before. That’s a pretty fun way to get your first dinger ever, even if it made me almost smash my laptop in disgust.

The game, in context of the season: The Braves fell to 29-27, and the Reds swept them the next day. Though the Braves would go on to win their first extra-inning game of the season right after, by June 10, they were under .500, and would never climb back to that threshold, finishing with 72 wins. The team finished 3-10 in extra-inning games and an unthinkable 11-30 in one-run games, despite an okay-if-not-good bullpen. The home/road split also persisted, with the Braves going 29-52 away from Turner Field but 43-38 at home. On the season, the Braves had the league’s worst extra-inning and one-run games record (the latter by very far), and the league’s sixth-worst road record, along with the league’s third-worst record against sub-.500 teams. 2008, unlike many seasons here, was not a fun time for the Braves. The Reds finished with 74 wins. Ho-hum. April 12 was the last time they ended a day with a .500 record.

Jurrjens, despite this outing, was great in his Braves debut, putting up 3.3 fWAR in 188 innings. Fogg was awful, with -0.5 fWAR, in his only season with the Reds. He had the worst ERA and third-worst FIP among all pitchers with anywhere close to as many innings as him.

Bruce finished his rookie season with just 0.8 fWAR and a 97 wRC+ in 452 PAs despite his torrid start, which many saw as a fairly disappointing debut given that he was a top two-ish prospect in baseball coming into the season. He was better but injured a lot in 2009, putting up 1.8 fWAR (2.8 fWAR/600) in 387 PAs. He really broke out in 2010 and had a nice four-season run (14.4 fWAR, 119 wRC+) from 2010-2013, but has essentially been a replacement-level player since. He provided a lot of power but didn’t really have the OBP to match, and his defense has been inconsistent year-to-year, and a gigantic value suck when it’s been bad.

At this point, Griffey could still hit, but he could no longer field, making him unplayable — not that the Reds cared. Griffey finished 2008 with -0.5 fWAR, his third consecutive sub-replacement-level season, despite a 105 wRC+ in those games. He was traded to the White Sox partway through the 2008 season, before returning to the Mariners, at which point the hitting started to slide as well. He collected homer #600 on June 9, and only 30 more in the three-plus months and two seasons afterwards. After 2005, he shed 2.5 fWAR despite a 100 wRC+.

Video? For some reason, the walkoff is recorded for posterity, but not much else.

Anything else? I think this game started the going-on-for-13-years-now phenomenon of my wife being somewhat annoyed at me for how much baseball I consume, and how much it interferes with (and encroaches on) everything else. I don’t know if she coined the term “baseball widow” or got it from somewhere, but you get the idea.

The Braves were swept by the Reds in this series. They swept them in Atlanta earlier in the year. The Braves hadn’t been swept by the Reds in Cincinnati since 1996 before this series, back when the Reds were still playing at Riverfront Stadium (which was renamed Cinergy Field at the start of the 1996 season). Since then, the Braves were also swept in Cincy in 2012.

In this game, Chipper collected two singles. This tied Ralph Garr’s Atlanta Braves record of 81 hits through May 31.

The Braves tied an NL record in losing 20 straight road one-run games (how’s that for esoteric) with this loss, dating back to August 2007.

Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about May 31: A couple of monumental (ha) things here. In 1879, this was the date of the opening to the public of Madison Square Garden, which at the time was an open-air arena. Note that the current Madison Square Garden is actually the fourth iteration of a building bearing that name, and not in the same place as the original. Meanwhile, in 1859, the clock tower that houses Big Ben in London was completed, and began keeping time.