2010 was quite a year for Brooks Conrad. You already know all about his ridiculous May 20 grand slam, and who could forget it? But did you know that not much later, on June 12, he did something completely different? Namely, he had a game-winning bunt. This is that game.
The gist: The Braves and Twins were mostly held in check by Derek Lowe and Nick Blackburn. In the fifth, Melky Cabrera (yes, really) hit a game-tying homer, and Brooks Conrad followed with a go-ahead double later in the inning. A Joe Mauer double tied it back up, and the game was tied heading into the ninth. With runners on the corners and one out, Brooks Conrad surprised everyone by dropping a perfect 0-1 suicide squeeze, in which everyone was safe and the go-ahead run scored. The Braves won when Billy Wagner shut the Twins down in the bottom of the inning.
The set-up: This is the third straight Braves-Twins game covered in this series, and like the other two, these teams came in pretty evenly-matched. The Twins had won the first game of this weekend set by a lone run, putting them at 36-25 and the Braves at 35-27. The Twins had a 4.5-game lead in their division; the Braves were hanging on to a slim 1.5-game lead of their own. However, the Twins had a large WAR advantage, with the second-best staff in baseball to this point and a top-10 position player crew. The Braves were above-average in the latter, but horrid in the former, largely due to a rotation where only Tommy Hanson was pitching well.
Tommy Hanson was not starting this game for the Braves. Instead, that would be Derek Lowe, who brought an underwhelming 126 ERA-, 108 FIP-, and 103 xFIP- into this game. Lowe had been crushed in his previous outing (seven runs in four innings), which was his first bad start in a month, so it remained to be seen whether he could start righting his ship. On the flip side, the Braves would get to take their hacks against the soft underbelly of a startlingly-good Twins rotation in this game: Nick Blackburn. A third-year starter coming off two average seasons, pretty much everything was awful for Blackburn in 2010. He had allowed 10 runs in his last two starts, which ended a decent five-start stretch, and was basically a replacement-level starter to this point: 125 ERA-, 125 FIP-, 119 xFIP-.
How it happened: Though neither Lowe nor Blackburn were having particularly good seasons to this point, both pitched very effectively in this game. This was particularly impressive given that both offenses were good (top 10ish in MLB). Sometimes that sort of thing just happens, though.
Blackburn worked around a two-out walk in the first by getting Brian McCann to pop out. Lowe countered with a perfect inning; Blackburn followed by sandwiching another walk with a couple of looking strikeouts and then getting a groundout.
The first run of the game scored in the bottom of the second. After a groundout, Michael Cuddyer socked a first-pitch grooved sinker to the fence in center for a double. Lowe responded with a strikeout, but then left a hanging first-pitch changeup for Delmon Young to smack into left, easily scoring Cuddyer given the disinterested presence of Melky Cabrera in the outfield:
Brendan Harris had the same idea and also jumped on Lowe’s first pitch, another middle-middle sinker, and hit it hard, but Jason Heyward easily flagged the ball down on the warning track in right field.
There was very little action for the next two innings. Blackburn collected two more looking strikeouts in the top of the third as part of a perfect inning. Lowe responded by getting three straight groundouts on nine pitches. A one-out single was all the Braves could muster in the fourth, and Lowe once again got three straight groundouts, this time on eight pitches, to wrap up that inning.
In the fifth, Blackburn finally faltered. It started with Cabrera hitting his first televised homer as a Brave (remember, his first overall homer came during the non-televised Braves-Pirates game we covered earlier):
Two batters later, Martin Prado shot one down the right-field line for a double. Brooks Conrad then let Blackburn get himself into trouble with a 3-1 count, got a fastball to his liking, and did this:
Just like that, in the span of nine pitches, the Braves went from trailing to leading. The turnaround was an interesting one in that they started going after Blackburn early in the count — through the first four innings, they saw two pitches or fewer in just four PAs; they did so three straight times between Cabrera’s homer and Prado’s double.
Now pitching with a lead, Lowe’s streaks of grounders (six) and batters retired (seven) were immediately snapped by Jason Kubel’s leadoff single, a soft liner over Prado at second. Lowe got the next three batters on nine pitches, though, and we were off to the sixth.
The Braves couldn’t replicate their fifth and chase Blackburn. Eric Hinske connected for a two-out double, but was stranded when Yunel Escobar grounded out to third. With that chance blown, Lowe would soon give up the lead, with the Twins again jumping on him early in the count. Denard Span led off the bottom of the sixth by lining an 0-1 pitch into right for a single. Trevor Plouffe bunted him to second, and on an 0-1 pitch, Joe Mauer tied the game:
The Braves then intentionally walked Justin Morneau to set up a double play with Cuddyer... which they got in a very different fashion than the one they were playing for:
(Seriously, what were the Twins thinking there?)
Blackburn and Lowe both fired scoreless sevenths, each allowing a baserunner but nothing else. Blackburn allowed a two-out infield single, while Lowe’s blemish was a one-out walk. Blackburn allowed two runs in seven innings on just eight baserunners, in a welcome development for the Twins righty. He walked two and struck out five, which was a season high for him. He had more strikeouts in this game than in his prior four starts combined.
After Blackburn departed, the Twins gave Brian Duensing and Matt Guerrier eighth-inning duties. Duensing faced the two lefties due up (Heyward and McCann) and departed with one out and Heyward on first due to an error by the shortstop. Guerrier came on and immediately allowed a “single” to Troy Glaus on one of those embarrassing pop-ups that drops due to fielder miscommunication, but preserved the tie after Hinske popped out and Escobar lined out to short.
Lowe started the eighth, but couldn’t complete it. Span once again tagged him for a leadoff single on the second pitch, this time on a grounder to left. Plouffe once again bunted him to second (eerily, the two bunts were almost identical in every respect). This time, though, the Braves weren’t taking any chances with Mauer: Lowe walked him, and then departed the game in favor of Eric O’Flaherty. For Lowe, it was another good outing in an inconsistent and ultimately disappointing season — 7 1⁄3 IP, 4/3 K/BB ratio, two runs, nine baserunners.
Having entered the game to try to get a double play off Morneau’s bat, O’Flaherty didn’t quite succeed. Morneau hit it quite hard, lining it to the warning track, but once again, Heyward was there. With the righty-hitting Cuddyer due up, O’Flaherty was done after a single batter, replaced by Peter Moylan. The Aussie sidearmer actually had Cuddyer struck out on a full-count pitch, but a brutal blown call by the home plate umpire let him walk to first. The Braves made yet another swap, this time for Jonny Venters to face the lefty-hitting Kubel. Their fourth pitcher of the night engaged in a lengthy, eight-pitch battle with Kubel, but ultimately prevailed:
That was a 94 mph sinker a bit outside that Kubel got blown away on.
So, onto the fateful ninth. Guerrier, a longtime Minnesota reliever with a pretty nondescript career, stayed in after finishing the eighth. He got a first-pitch out, but then walked Gregor Blanco on four pitches. The Braves then unleashed small ball hell on the Twins, in the span of two batters. The first blow came in the form of a first-pitch hit-and-run. Prado got wood on the ball and smacked it through a wide-open left side of the infield (though the shorstop probably wasn’t going to be playing as far over as needed to field the ball had he not been covering second, anyway), allowing Blanco to scooch himself over to third. The Twins then inserted LOOGY Jose Mijares to try and keep Blanco from scoring.
Next up was Brooks Conrad, grand slam hero of just a few weeks earlier, who... bunted? Yes, bunted. We’re talking suicide squeeze:
Everything was executed to perfection, and as an added bonus, Mijares had the ball slip out of his hand, allowing Conrad to reach base safely. That part didn’t end up mattering as Mijares retired the next two batters, but it was still pretty cool to see.
After that, it was time for the very dominant Billy Wagner, who did pretty much what you expected him to. He got a 3-1 pop-out, and despite a one-out single, got the next two batters to ground out weakly to second to end the game. Weirdly, one of those two batters was Jim Thome, whom the Twins used to pinch-hit despite the lefty-lefty matchup.
Game MVP: Let’s once again give it up for Brooks Conrad, who found a very different way to give his team the win in this game. Conrad drove in two runs, both go-ahead runs at the time. As we all know, Conrad’s 2010 was a charmed career year (0.8 fWAR in 177 PAs, 118 wRC+, 2.19 WPA)... until it wasn’t.
Two fun facts about Conrad and this game. First, he wasn’t even supposed to play. Chipper Jones was a late scratch with a finger problem that troubled him throughout June, so Conrad got the start by default. Second, he actually had to go find batting gloves in this game, because apparently the dirt at Target Field wasn’t to his liking, because it had been raining in Minneapolis previously and wet dirt wasn’t acceptable as a substitute.
Game LVP: Yunel Escobar, who went 0-for-4 with a strikeout in his team’s win. Really, there wasn’t a great candidate here — Escobar just happened to come up and make outs in relatively key situations in a close game. He was the only Brave that failed to reach base in the game. Escobar’s poor hitting in Atlanta in 2010 (among other things) got him dealt midseason (79 wRC+ through this game, 75 wRC+ before being traded).
Biggest play: The successful hit-and-run that put Blanco on third with one out in the ninth. Usually, those hit-and-runs failed utterly when involving Prado, but they usually came with Prado on base. With him in the batter’s box, it worked gloriously in this one instance.
The game, in context of the season: The Braves won this game and the next to take the series, and as you probably know, stayed afloat atop the division for much of the season until a September collapse knocked them precariously into a Wild Card spot with 91 wins. For the Twins, June was their only sub-.500 month of the year, and they finished with 94 wins, dropping out of first place for a month in July and early August, but then storming back with a bunch of winning streaks to cruise to a division title. (They got swept by the Yankees in the ALDS.) The Twins haven’t won a playoff game since 2004, nor a playoff series since 2002, having been swept in their last four ALDS appearances and one Lightning Round game.
Lowe’s season was ultimately disappointing, with just 1.8 fWAR, but it was nothing like Blackburn’s collapse. Blackburn had combined for a fine 4.3 fWAR over his past two seasons, but managed just 0.1 fWAR in 2010, and a combined -0.4 fWAR over his last three seasons. While he struggled with some injuries in 2010 and on, he also just completely collapsed in general, perhaps driven by what may have been an ill-fated decision to move away from a cutter and towards a changeup to complement his sinker.
Martin Prado played a big role in this game, with three hits. 2010 was his breakout, 3.5 fWAR season in which he established himself as a regular.
TC Commentariat Zeitgeist: People were pretty pumped that the Braves were surviving a potentially brutal road trip (Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Twins) having split the first ten games so far. This matchup was also touted as a possible World Series preview. Heh.
Anything else? The 2010 Braves led the NL in walk rate. They actually led MLB in walk rate in 2012, and wouldn’t finish in the bottom half of MLB in this stat until 2017, giving them nearly a good decade (2008-2016) of somewhere between average and elite walk rates. Over that period, the Braves had over 150 more walks than the next NL team (4,912 Braves, 4,754 Mets).
All five of Blackburn’s strikeouts were looking, and he was apparently aided by a wide zone (yet not one that gave Moylan an appropriate strikeout of Cuddyer in the eighth).
This was Gregor Blanco’s first start of the year. Blanco actually had a perfectly fine 2010 (1.0 fWAR in 269 PAs), and went on to have a pretty good career with the Giants, where he put up 2.2/600 as a platoon-type player across five seasons. The Braves generally had little interest in finding playing time for him, though, and traded him to the Royals as part of a package for Rick Ankiel and Kyle Farnsworth, who basically produced the same value as he did (Ankiel 0.4, Farnsworth 0.2, Blanco 0.4) after the trade.
Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about June 12: This was the date of the “reopening” of the Globe Theatre in 1995. It was actually a reconstruction of the original building, placed less than 1,000 feet from the location of the original building, which was built in 1599, burned down in 1613, was rebuilt in 1614, and then was closed and demolished in 1642.