I ended up not going to this game because of the weather. Mostly, I just didn’t feel like getting home at midnight or later, because this Friday night series opener was delayed by rain for over an hour. In retrospect, I kind of wish I had — not that I knew it at the time, but this was one last hurrah for Jair Jurrjens.
The gist: Jair Jurrjens returned from Triple-A to throw what was basically a gem against the Red Sox. The Braves tagged Jon Lester for a couple of runs in the fourth, and that was basically all they needed, as Jurrjens, Chad Durbin, and Craig Kimbrel combined to allow just one run and five baserunners to the Red Sox.
The set-up: This game was a little bit of a flip from the game we covered yesterday, where the 2009 Braves came in pretty meh while the Red Sox were the cream of the MLB crop. In this series, the Braves had just toppled the mighty Yankees in a three-game series on the road, but were just 37-32, in third place and 3.5 games back in the division. They had strung together back-to-back wins for the first time since June 8-9. The Red Sox, meanwhile, were a similar 36-33, in fourth place and 5.5 games back despite the above-.500 record. They had started June 3-7, but had won seven of eight since, including five in a row.
Both teams were coming off dreadful September 2011 collapses, each of which featured elimination from postseason contention on the final day of the season. The Red Sox’ fall from grace was more dramatic, featuring the departure of manager Terry Francona, who had apparently lost control of a team that spiraled into “chicken and beer” overindulgence. One of the implicated players was Jon Lester, who was just average in 2011 after three straight elite seasons. Just like the Red Sox weren’t quite recovered from their implosion, neither had Lester fully bounced back — his 107 ERA-, 90 FIP-, 90 xFIP- line coming into this game was good, but closer to his 97 FIP- from 2011 than his combined 79 FIP- from 2008-2010.
Greater intrigued rested with the Braves’ side of the pitching ledger, however. Jair Jurrjens was being called back up to the big league team to make his first start in two months. Speaking of falls from grace, Jurrjens a great young starter (7.2 fWAR in 2008-2009) who rarely allowed longballs, to an injury-prone, underwhelming producer once the flies started leaving the park with regularity (1.8 fWAR in 2010-2011). Jurrjens had been brutal to start 2012, as he attempted to pitch through a groin injury. After four starts that were basically identical on how bad they were and how each game got away from him, he was sent to Triple-A to figure things out. Two months later, fellow starter Brandon Beachy was down for the year with Tommy John Surgery, and here was Jurrjens, thrown right back into the mix.
How it happened: An unexpected but lingering Boston summer storm cell delayed the start of this game. (As it happens, one of those is happening in the skies above me right now as I type this.) What didn’t linger was this game, which flew by.
Both pitchers allowed just a two-out single in the first. Lester struck out Michael Bourn (swinging) and Dan Uggla (looking) to bookend his inning, while Jurrjens struck out Daniel Nava to herald his return to the majors. Jason Heyward had a two-out single in the second that amounted to nothing, while Jurrjens went 1-2-3 in the bottom half.
The Braves managed to string together back-to-back hits with two outs in the third, as Martin Prado and Brian McCann both got balls into center. Uggla, though, hit one off the end of his bat into right to end the inning. The Braves were making Lester work, forcing 58 pitches through three innings, but had little to show for it. The case for Jurrjens was similar, who briefly reverted to one of his prior bugbears by giving up a random two-out walk to Nava after eight pitches in the bottom of the inning, but then got out of it when Dustin Pedroia grounded out. Jurrjens, too, had thrown 53 pitches through three innings.
Finally, in the fourth, the Braves’ work paid off. Freddie Freeman started the inning with a strange single inside the line past first — his swing was awkward and he initially thought the ball was foul, but it bounced past the bag in fair territory before caroming off the wall straight to Cody Ross in right field. After Chipper Jones lined out to Ross, Heyward crushed one about halfway up the Green Monster, doubling and pushing Freeman to third. Matt Diaz followed with a weak grounder to short that scored Freeman, opening the scoring. Andrelton Simmons followed with something a little more forceful to tack on a second run: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytQaCLxv07Y. (Lol no embeds for 2012, I hate you, MLB.) Lester, visibly upset with life after this sequence, struck out Bourn looking to end the frame.
Now pitching with a lead, Jurrjens stopped his array of long-but-scoreless innings, though in a different method than Lester, who just had a long-but-non-scoreless inning instead. He breezed through the fourth on ten pitches, with Ross flying out to the warning track in center to end the inning.
The Braves forced Lester into another long inning in the fifth. Prado led off with a single, and a pitch that would’ve been a two-out ball four to Freeman hit him. Chipper popped out to end the inning, but it was another 21 pitches for the Boston left-hander. Meanwhile, Jurrjens was still cruising, needing just 12 pitches to retire the Red Sox despite a one-out hit batsman of his own.
Heyward’s leadoff double in the sixth turned into a third Atlanta run as flies from Diaz and Simmons brought him home. Lester only threw eight pitches in the inning, making it his fastest by far despite it being one where a run scored. The run could have maybe been avoided had Ross taken a better ball to cut the ball off in right, but in the end, it didn’t matter anyway. All three balls that resulted in Heyward scoring were hit to Ross, and both of his throws were horribly off to allow him to move around the bases. Jurrjens, well, he was just Jurrjens-ing. It was a seven-pitch sixth for him.
Lester had thrown well over 100 pitches at this point, but the Red Sox stayed with him. Prado connected for another leadoff double in the seventh, this time as a result of a roller hitting the third-base bag and shooting skyward before coming down in foul territory. McCann’s groundout moved him to third, but an intentional walk to Uggla and a double play ball from Freeman kept the score at 3-0. Not that it mattered with how dominant Jurrjens was at the moment. It was another seven-pitch inning for him in the seventh, despite it being the third time through the order for a second consecutive inning. He struck out former Brave Jarrod Saltalamacchia on three pitches to send the game to the eighth.
Mark Melancon, whose worst season ever came in 2012, his only year in Boston, countered with a seven-pitch eighth of his own, despite a Chipper leadoff single. Lester’s book was closed with 118 pitches in seven frames, with 12 baserunners (one walk) and five strikeouts. It was pretty impressive that he pitched as well as he did in the end, given that he actually faced half of the Atlanta lineup four times.
The Red Sox finally got on the board in the eighth, though it wasn’t nearly enough. Jurrjens started the inning at just 89 pitches, facing the bottom of the order a third time. This time, though, he wouldn’t cruise through. Middlebrooks started the inning by banging one off the wall in center for a leadoff double. After a couple of outs, the Braves let Jurrjens face Nava for a fourth time, and that spoiled the shutout, as Nava sliced one off the Monster, scoring Middlebrooks. Chad Durbin (yes, Chad Durbin, again, surprisingly not awful yet) then relieved Jurrjens and got Pedroia to ground out to end any further threat in the end inning.
For Jurrjens, it was the resurfacing he and the Braves could have only dreamed of. It was his best outing in nearly a year, when he one-hit the Orioles on July 1, 2011, with an 8/1 K/BB ratio. By Game Score (v2), it was a top-ten start for him in his career, and that it came not during one of his dominant seasons, but in his return from Triple-A during what was essentially a nightmare, career-ending campaign for him was pleasantly bewildering. In all, Jurrjens went 7 2⁄3 with just five baserunners (one walk) and four strikeouts.
The Red Sox clearly intended Melancon to just finish out their side of the game barring a comeback, but his nightmarish season continued in the ninth. Bourn started the inning with a single back up the box, moved to second on a groundout, moved to third when the Red Sox botched a double play (McCann had been walked intentionally to set it up) as Middlebrooks bobbled Uggla’s grounder, and scored on a patented Freeman liner to left-center, just out of the reach of the shifted shortstop. That forced the Red Sox to go get sub-replacement long man Clayton Mortensen to keep the game semi-close, which he did by retiring Chipper.
It was a no-drama ninth for Craig Kimbrel. A groundout, a flyout, and a strikeout of Ross ended the game.
Game MVP: Let’s give it up for Jair Jurrjens and his sole shining moment in 2012. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much else. He had four more decent starts, including a strong seven-inning, three-run effort against the Phillies (4/1 K/BB, one homer allowed), but then completely fell apart again, losing his rotation spot by late July and then hitting shelf with the same groin issue that plagued him in April. He finished 2012 with a dreadful -0.5 fWAR in just 48 innings, and only made four major league appearances afterwards. Still, this game — it was a great one.
It’s also worth mentioning that while the 2012 Red Sox really fell apart eventually (see below), this wasn’t Jurrjens getting one over on a weak offense. Coming into this game, the Red Sox had the league’s fourth-best offense; five of the batters that Jurrjens carved up over the course of the game had wRC+s of 129 or higher on the season.
Game LVP: Honestly, no one really warrants it, but let’s go with someone not yet mentioned — Ryan Kalish. The young outfielder was horrific in 2012 in general (-0.4 fWAR, 42 wRC+) and went 0-for-3 in this game from the eight spot. Two of his outs came after Middlebrooks reached base ahead of him, and the other was a leadoff out.
Biggest play: Simmons’ double in the fourth that pushed the lead to 2-0. Simmons had been called up to the majors earlier in June and was rolling at this point, with a 132 wRC+ through his first 68 PAs. He finished the 2012 season at 103, missing two months with injury but still managing to accumulate 1.8 fWAR in just 182 PAs. Until 2018, where he posted a 108 wRC+, those 182 PAs constituted his best offensive season.
The game, in context of the season: The Braves moved to 38-32, still in third place, but now just three games back. The Red Sox fell to 36-34, remaining 5.5 games back. Despite this win, though, the Red Sox won the next two games, finishing June with a 15-12 record, their best calendar month of the season. The collapse came swiftly thereafter, with the team falling to .500 in early July, below .500 by late July, and then completely falling apart with an 18-42 finish. In the end, the 2012 Red Sox won just 69 games, their worst performance since 1965, and their first last-place finish since 1992. They’ve finished fifth a few times since, but have never been quite as bad as they were to finish out 2012.
The Braves, though, picked it up just as the Red Sox were falling apart. June was just okay for them at 13-12, but they rode an 18-8 July and 20-10 finish into the playoffs.
Lester finished 2012 with just 2.4 fWAR, his lowest total since a partial season in 2007, despite 33 starts and 205 innings. In particular, July 2012 was essentially his worst month to date (-0.4 fWAR, only one worse month in his career by FIP), and though he bounced back afterwards, it still ate a huge chunk of his value.
Condensed game: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izGOHVMGgXc
A video of Jurrjens being awesome: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5Z3-YrXYtw
TC Commentariat Zeitgeist: Everyone was, of course, pretty excited about the return of an effective Jurrjens (sigh). Heyward, Prado, and Simmons were also singled out for offensive excellence.
Anything else? From the Red Sox perspective, this loss was also part of the saga of Kevin Youkilis, who was ridiculously good from 2006-2011 (4.6 fWAR/600, 26.6 fWAR total across those six seasons), but faltered to play replacement-level ball to start 2012. With Will Middlebrooks knocking loudly on the door and then some, Youkilis lost playing time, and two games after this one, ended up being traded to the White Sox. Youkilis actually resumed his above-average play after being traded, but retired after a sub-replacement 2013 with the Yankees. Middlebrooks, meanwhile, had 2.0 fWAR in just 286 PAs in 2012. But, come 2013, he was more a role player than a piece to build around (0.5 fWAR in 374 PAs), and he got far worse, well below replacement, afterwards. Not that the Red Sox should have held on to Youkilis or anything, but sometimes, all the options are bad after a while.
Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about June 22: This date in 1986 marked the occurrence of perhaps the most famous game in international soccer — the England v. Argentina quarterfinal in the FIFA World Cup, played in Mexico this time around. Diego Maradona’s goal to open the scoring at 51 minutes was clearly actually knocked in by his hand, something missed by the line judge and only confessed by Maradona nearly two decades later (though photographic evidence made it clear what had happened). The goal is now referred to as the “Hand of God” goal. Four minutes later, Maradona delivered a coup de grace with what is now termed “The Goal of the Century,” a 60-year, 10-second dash that had him outplay four Englishmen (one twice) and goaltender Peter Shilton. Argentina won the game 2-1, and went on to win the tournament.