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Braves Flashback/Recap: June 21

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Hey, I saw this one in person too. It ended really abruptly.

Oakland Athletics v Boston Red Sox Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

This game happened less than a month after we had moved to Boston. It wasn’t my first game at Fenway, as we had also gone to the Saturday game before this one — which was a worse experience as the Braves got shut out for nine innings by Josh Beckett — but it didn’t end with a better outcome, even if it was more competitive. What I remember about this game more than most of the actual game action (except the end) was that I felt kind of bad the entire time because I was unemployed at the time (hi Great Recession), and since even the not-so-good seats at Fenway Park aren’t cheap, this was doubling down on spending money in a potentially unwise way. But hey, still, baseball!

The gist: Brian McCann’s two-run double gave the Braves a short-lived lead in the first, but the Red Sox immediately came back with three off Jair Jurrjens, including a two-run go-ahead homer by David Ortiz. In the seventh, back-to-back singles by Gregor Blanco and Nate McLouth knocked Boston starter Tim Wakefield out of the game and knotted the score at 4-4. Both teams converted leadoff doubles into runs in subsequent frames to tie the game at five. The Braves wasted a bases loaded situation in the ninth when Matt Diaz struck out against Jonathan Papelbon, and on the first pitch of walkoff territory, former Brave Nick Green took Jeff Bennett deep to end the game.

Box scores: Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs

The set-up: The 2009 Braves were still fairly ineffectual at this point — 32-35, in fourth place, yet somehow only 4.5 games back in the division. They were 6-11 in June coming into this game, including splitting the first two with the Red Sox. They hadn’t actually won a series since their last set in May, but there was at least one reason to be optimistic: the pitching was really good. A rotation threesome of Javier Vazquez, Derek Lowe, and Jair Jurrjens had vaulted the team’s pitching staff to fourth in MLB by fWAR. Jurrjens, the scheduled starter in this game, had 1.6 fWAR in 15 starts so far, with a 70 ERA-, 83 FIP-, and 106 xFIP-. In true Jurrjens fashion, he was running a teeny-tiny HR/FB, which was a big reason for his success to date.

The 2009 Red Sox were, by contrast, not ineffectual at all. They had the AL’s best record and were one of only two teams with 40 wins at this point (41-27), holding a three-game lead in the AL East. They had their own great top three, Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and Tim Wakefield, the latter of which would be their starter in this one. That gave them the majors’ third-best pitching by fWAR, a smidgen ahead of the Braves. The difference between the two teams, of course, was their position players — the Braves were solidly below-average in that regard, the Red Sox solidly above average.

Wakefield, the veteran knuckleballer, was basically a known quantity in his 15th year with the Red Sox and 17th season overall. Still, he came into this game with already 1.9 RA9-WAR. One thing I’ll say about this — watching a knuckleballer from the stands honestly isn’t that fun. Probably more fun than facing him, though.

How it happened: The first thing to say about this game was that this was one of those random “how is it this weather in June?” 60-degree rainy days in Boston, which combined with the fact that Wakefield was throwing knucklers everywhere made for a pretty non-ideal gameday viewing experience. I’m pretty sure that Jen’s attitude was like, “Okay, I know it’s the Braves, but can we just go home?” No, Jen, no we can not. We paid way too much for these tickets and we are going to watch knuckleballs from really far away while it mists everywhere if it kills us. With that said, the first inning was pretty pleasing, until it wasn’t.

Nate McLouth and Yunel Escobar started the game with singles through the soggy infield, kicking up water as they trickled through. Wakefield struck out Chipper Jones on a knuckler the latter thought was low, but McCann came through and nearly got himself a cheap three-run homer:

That was all the Braves got, though Casey Kotchman also came close to taking Wakefield deep, flying out to deep right for the third out.

That two-run lead was fun while it lasted, which wasn’t too long. Dustin Pedroia led off with a double down the left-field line, and after Jurrjens caught J.D. Drew looking at a fastball for strike three, he bungled a comebacker to put runners on the corners with one out. Jason Bay followed with a sacrifice fly to right, and then David Ortiz overcame Jurrjens’ apparent homer suppression and the Green Monster:

Just like that, the Braves were behind. Former Brave Mark Kotsay singled to extend the inning before Jurrjens finally got out of it, having thrown 31 pitches to seven batters.

After this, the game really clipped along, despite Wakefield wafting it up there every time. The Braves wasted Martin Prado’s leadoff double to right in the second, giving Wakefield a ten-pitch inning across four batters. Both Gregor Blanco and McLouth hit it hard, but too close to a fielder to score Prado. Jurrjens bounced back with a 1-2-3 inning, and then Wakefield did the same, allowing a leadoff bunt single to Yunel Escobar but then getting McCann to bounce into a 3-6-3 double play to end the inning. In the bottom of the third, Jurrjens gave up a one-out single to Kevin Youkilis, but then got two outs with one pitch by striking out Bay as David Ross (catching, McCann was the DH) threw Youkilis out at second. After Wakefield had another easy, quick, perfect inning in the top of the fourth, the Red Sox extended their lead, thanks to some Barves baseball.

Ortiz started the inning with a routine infield pop. Chipper thought Escobar was going to get it, Escobar moved towards it and then stopped, and the ball ended up dropping about two steps from both of them. This wasn’t a case where one player ran for it and then broke off because he thought he was being called off — instead, neither Chipper nor Escobar moved for the last few seconds of the ball’s descent. (Both looked pretty disgusted with the other afterward, at least on replay. Not like I could tell from the nosebleed seats.) A groundout moved Ortiz to second, and Jacoby Ellsbury’s single in front of Blanco in right moved him to third. Jurrjens’ first pitch to Nick Green, who made his debut as a Brave in 2004 and had played for four teams in four seasons since, ended up grazing Green on the leg, loading the bases. Rookie backup catcher George Kottaras, entrusted with “attempt to corral Wakefield’s pitches” duties in this game, fell behind 0-2 but made off-balance, yet strong enough contact to drive a pitch a few steps shy of the Monster, allowing Ortiz to tag up and score a fourth Boston run. Pedroia flew out to end the inning.

The Braves, meanwhile, were still being stymied by Wakefield’s butterflies. Ross led off the fifth with a single through the infield, but Blanco hit a sharp bouncer right to short, getting doubled up despite his speed. McLouth almost homered into the right field corner but ended up just flying out on four pitches, giving Wakefield his third inning of 10 pitches or fewer in five tries. At this point, the game was really feeling like it was just some HR/FB variation from breaking any which way. Jurrjens then had a really strange, almost-immaculate inning. He struck out three batters in the heart of Boston’s order on nine total pitches (Drew, Youkilis, Ortiz)... but also mixed in a four-pitch walk to Bay in there with two outs. Not sure I’ve ever seen anything like that in baseball, ever. Wakefield followed with another nine-pitch effort, making him 4-for-6 in getting innings of 10 pitches or fewer. Jurrjens then had a 1-2-3 inning of his own, allowing a leadoff single to Kotsay but getting Green to hit into a 3-6-3 double play for the second and third outs.

Finally, in the sixth, the Braves scored again. Garrett Anderson (FUGA!) led off the inning by dunking one into right between Pedroia and Drew. Prado followed with a ripped one-out single into left. With two outs, Blanco brought the Braves within a run by bouncing one that sneaked into the outfield to the right of second base. At that point, the Red Sox decided to pull Wakefield (83 pitches through 29 batters, two strikeouts, zero walks) in favor of Ramon Ramirez, a guy who was a dominant set-up man in two of the last three seasons (injured in the third), but wasn’t doing quite so hot in his first season in Boston. (The cost to acquire him was a season of Coco Crisp, which still seems weird in retrospect.) McLouth, who had the platoon advantage, greeted Ramirez with a single into right in front of Drew, tying the game. Escobar absolutely killed the very next pitch from Ramirez down the left-field line, but Youkilis somehow came up with it on a dive and made it to third ahead of Prado to steal a lead and end the inning.

And, just like in the first, the celebratory mood was short-lived. Kottaras led off the seventh against Jurrjens and once again just kind of flicked a pitch into left. Last time, it went for a deep sacrifice fly; this time, it bounced off the Monster, and Anderson’s misplay (he dropped the ball after picking it up) let Kottaras reach second safely. After a shallow fly to center, Jurrjens departed. He did allow a homer, but overall, it was another solid outing — 6 1/3 IP, 6 K, 1 BB. It definitely checked all the Jurrjens FIP/xFIP outperformance boxes, as three of the runs he allowed were unearned.

The next sequence was definitely surreal. Eric O’Flaherty, at this point mostly a LOOGY rather than the dominant reliever he’d become, was in his first season with the Braves, and came on to face Drew. Basically, I just need to include this image:

What ended up happening is that after “ball one,” Drew smacked one off the Monster, allowing Kottaras to score the go-ahead run. After that had happened, O’Flaherty, Bobby Cox, and Chipper all flipped their collective lids at home-plate umpire Bill Hohn, with each of them getting tossed. (Chipper had to be restrained by Terry Pendleton.)

Peter Moylan came in and got the next two outs, but this stung for multiple reasons. Not only were the Braves down in the game once again, but Chipper was due up first in the eighth.

But somehow, it turned out okay, at least temporarily. The Red Sox gave the eighth inning to Hideki Okajima, who, like Ramirez, was far more of a shutdown reliever previously than he was in 2009. The lefty-throwing Okajima was in to face four straight lefties now that Kelly Johnson was in for Chipper, which seemed problematic for Atlanta. But, Johnson led off the inning with a double high off the Monster, and after McCann’s fly to center moved him to third, Anderson came through with a rare positive outcome in a Braves uniform, hooking an Okajima splitter into right to tie the game. Prado later singled to put two on, but Ross flew out to a well-positioned Ellsbury in left-center. The Braves had a new lease on life in the game, despite the blown call, the ejections, and everything else.

Mike Gonzalez came on for the bottom of the eighth and quickly churned through Ortiz, Kotsay, and Ellsbury. That prompted the Red Sox to deploy closer Jonathan Papelbon, who at this point was still known more for being super-good at retiring batters (8.2 fWAR in 230 innings, almost entirely in relief, over his first four seasons in the majors) than saying a bunch of bizarre, inappropriate stuff. This time, though, Papelbon’s inning was an adventure. With one out, he walked McLouth. Escobar followed with a screaming liner past short, and after a Johnson groundout, McCann walked to load the bases. The Braves had Matt Diaz, who had pinch-run for Anderson in the eighth up, and Papelbon bested him to leave the bases loaded and the Braves’ hopes unfulfilled:

“Fun” fact: that last pitch to Diaz was so high that it wasn’t even captured by the pitch-tracking software MLB was using at the time. Not a great showing for Matty D, there.

On came Jeff Bennett, who was an okay swingman for the Braves in 2008, and had been doing pretty well for the Braves in some respects in 2009 (67 ERA-, 91 FIP-) but not in others (slightly negative WPA, 113 xFIP-). Due up first for the Red Sox was Green. This game, despite all the commotion, had really flown by — to this point, it hadn’t even been three hours, which may have been a good thing given that I’m not sure how damaging a disagreement about whether we sit through multiple wet extra innings would have been to my relationship at that point. And, it wouldn’t last three hours, because on Bennett’s very first pitch, Green did this:

Game MVP: Well, yeah, Nick Green. He didn’t do anything else in this game other than get grazed by a pitch for a free base, but this cheap-o homer was plenty. To this point, Green was an amazing story for the Red Sox. A non-roster invitee that had grabbed a roster spot in Spring Training, Green’s career to date was 0.8 fWAR in 799 PAs coming into 2009. He’d played for five different organizations, including two stints with the Yankees, and had gotten only seven PAs in the majors in 2007, spending all of 2008 in the minors. Both Julio Lugo and Jed Lowrie were injured for much of 2009, forcing Green into the starting shortstop role, where he did pretty well! After this game, he had a 107 wRC+, doubling his career fWAR in just an extra 171 PAs. Unfortunately for him, the fun kind of stopped right there — he only had two more hits in June, ten more hits through July, and just 19 more hits through the end of the season, putting up a collective 24 wRC+ after this game. That dropped his overall line to replacement level for the season, which was a shame given his start. In mid-August, the Red Sox acquired Alex Gonzalez (the same one that would later play for the Braves) in a waiver trade deal, mostly curtailing Green’s playing time for good.

Game LVP: The flip side of the coin, Jeff Bennett threw one pitch, and lost his team the game. Bennett wasn’t aggressively bad to this point, just pretty replacement level-y. It happens. After another bad outing where he gave up the lead a few days later, Bennett punched a wall in the clubhouse and broke his hand. The Braves suspended him without pay, which led to a grievance from the MLBPA. The grievance gave the Braves two choices — either pay Bennett his owed salary, or release him. The Braves chose the latter; Bennett went on to have 11 dreadful appearances with the Rays to close out the season, and never appeared in the majors again.

Biggest play: The walkoff homer, of course.

The game, in context of the season: The Braves dropped this game and series, ending the day at 32-36, still 4.5 games back and in fourth place. They wouldn’t win their next couple of series, either, including dropping another to the Red Sox in Atlanta. This 2009 team’s good run would wait until July, when they went 50-32 over the next three calendar months. It was dropping the final four games of the season in October that kept them out of the playoffs. June was the worst single calendar month for the Braves at 11-15.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, extended their division lead to a season-high four games with this lead. This was the second game of a four-game winning streak for them, after which they had a five-game lead in the division. June was the team’s best month at 18-8, but after that, they kind of wallowed a bit, going just 44-37 over the next three months. In opposite fashion to the Braves, they won their four games in October, though it didn’t really matter for them — the Yankees had overtaken Boston in the AL East race and finished eight games ahead (103 wins to 95), but the Red Sox finished eight games ahead of the closest Wild Card challenger. They were swept out of the ALDS by the Angels.

2009 was Jurrjens’ career year, with 3.5 fWAR, despite a wild 63 ERA-, 78 FIP-, 101 xFIP- finish. That homer suppression really came in handy, even if it didn’t in this start. Jurrjens maintained gaps like this throughout his career, though they were generally less pronounced than the one this year. June was arguably his best month of 2009, the only one in which his strikeout rate exceeded 20 percent.

Wakefield, meanwhile, cruised to another 2.3 RA9-WAR (1.8 fWAR) year, his third consecutive with at least 2.0 RA-9 WAR, and his ninth consecutive with at least 1.0. Injuries to his back and calf shortened his year and kept him to just 21 starts, and he wasn’t really “right” when he came back in September. In 2010, he resumed a swingman role for the first time since 2002, and his effectiveness took a hit, and he was sub-replacement by RA9-WAR. After a second similar season in 2011, the 45-year-old Wakefield called it a career, having compiled over 25 fWAR and 35 RA9-WAR across 19 seasons, and being the subject of an in-season documentary, KnucklebalI.

Video:

Condensed game:

Recap:

TC Recap: https://www.talkingchop.com/2009/6/21/920415/game-67-recap-braves-5-red-sox-6

TC Game Thread: https://www.talkingchop.com/2009/6/21/919892/open-thread-6-21-braves-at-red-sox

TC Commentariat Zeitgeist: Fire and brimstone to be heaped upon the home plate umpire, for sure. Other discussion was minor (is Jeff Benett horrible, or not horrible) in comparison. Also, there was a lot of grousing that Kris Medlen was on the roster and in the bullpen, but rarely used by Cox. This was fairly well-justified, as Medlen ended up being pretty solid once he started getting regular usage a few days later.

Anything else? Green’s only other career walkoff actually came with the Braves... against the Red Sox. He hit a three-run homer in the 12th to beat Boston in July 2004.

2009 was David Ortiz’ weird off season, where he managed only a 0.3 fWAR and a 100 wRC+. His prior low with Boston was 1.8 / 124 (the prior year), his subsequent low was 2.2 / 134 (2014). However, most of this was just the result of a very slow start, as he had a 206 wRC+ between June 6 and June 26, and an overall 128 wRC+ after May ended.

With his ejection, Bobby Cox expanded his history-leading ejections total. It stood at 145 after this game, second place was John McGraw with 131.

The much-maligned Garrett Anderson finished 2009, his only season with the Braves, with -1.1 fWAR. This was arguably his best series to date, and one of his best three series of the season... even though this series was a good but not particularly remarkable 4-for-8 with a walk, a double, and a homer.

Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about June 21: The official naming of Pluto’s recently-discovered moons (Nix and Hydra) happened on this date in 2006.