Quick, name a memory from the 2013 season! You said, “Craig Kimbrel with his arms crossed in the bullpen,” didn’t you? Of course you did! But what if I told you that there was a precursor with much lower stakes, in late June? This game didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but the salt was strewn far and wide as a result.
The gist: Mike Minor gave up a leadoff homer to Alex Gordon and then another run in the first; the Braves trailed 3-0 after the third and couldn’t do anything at all against completely nondescript starter Luis Mendoza. Only when Mendoza exited the game in the seventh did they tie it back up, with RBI singles from pinch-hitter Reed Johnson and Justin Upton. After letting Gerald Laird hit for himself with two on and one out in the tenth, resulting in a double play, the Braves elected to pitch to Gordon instead of Alcides Escobar with the winning run on second, which promptly ended the game via walkoff single.
The set-up: The Braves were pretty good! They came into this game 45-33, with a six-game lead in the division, having won the prior game in this two-game set in Kansas City. Their scheduled starter, Mike Minor, was also pretty good! He had a 78 ERA-, 93 FIP-, and 92 xFIP- coming into this game, as part of his breakout 2013 season.
The Royals were... okay? They were 35-39, in third place, 6.5 games back in the division. They’d gone 11-4 to start June, but had lost consecutive series since. Starting for them was Luis Mendoza (107/117/112), who was a replacement-level swingman type until a randomly-average-ish, third/fourth-starter-type season in 2012.
How it happened: The Braves had a lot of trouble with Mendoza in this game, for some reason. The Royals did not have the same trouble with Minor. This was fairly evident in the first, as Mendoza worked a 1-2-3 frame, striking out both Jason Heyward and Justin Upton.
Meanwhile, the Royals and Alex Gordon started their offensive night like this:
A few batters later, Billy Butler doubled into the right-center gap, and scored on Salvador Perez’ liner into left.
The Braves actually had a great chance to come right back. Freddie Freeman singled and Gerald Laird doubled on a grounder down the left-field line to start the second. After a soft liner to right from B.J. Upton resulted in an out, Mendoza walked Dan Uggla to load the bases. However, the Braves were stymied. Chris Johnson went down swinging, and Andrelton Simmons grounded to third.
Both pitchers then exchanged perfect innings, but Minor once again faltered in the third. Gordon led off the inning with another hit, this time a single into left. Alcides Escobar followed with a liner up the middle. The Braves caught a break when Eric Hosmer lined a ball right to short, getting Escobar doubled off at first, but then un-caught one on Butler’s flare into right that allowed Gordon to score. Another run nearly scored as Perez doubled to deep center on the next pitch, but Butler wasn’t fast enough and Minor got out of it on a foulout by Lorenzo Cain.
After that, Minor mostly settled down, but the Braves kept getting frustrated by Mendoza. Both pitchers faced the minimum in the fourth (a leadoff hit from Mike Moustakas was erased on a caught stealing). A Chris Johnson single was the only hit in the fifth, and Justin Upton getting plunked with one out in the sixth also didn’t lead to much. Minor gave up yet another hit to Perez in the sixth, but stranded him there. His final line was six innings of three-run ball, with four strikeouts, zero walks, and the Gordon homer. It was an okay start; he’d done better earlier in the season against the Royals when he held them to one run.
It was only when Minor had pitched his last that the Braves finally did something. Uggla and Johnson hit back-to-back one-out singles, and Uggla moved up on a force at second from Simmons. That was it for Mendoza, who had thrown 101 pitches through 6 2⁄3 with a 6/1 K/BB ratio, one of his best starts of the season. Earlier in the game, Jordan Schafer had fouled a ball off his ankle. He stayed in the game afterwards, but at this point, with former Brave lefthander Bruce Chen coming out of the bullpen, the Braves swapped him with Reed Johnson. That Johnson too came through, slamming one up the box to plate Uggla. Heyward then drew a walk, loading the bases. Chen left after retiring neither of the batters he faced, giving way to Luke Hochevar. Justin Upton followed suit with the Braves’ third single up the middle of the inning, tying the game:
Heyward getting thrown out at third would perhaps loom large in this game.
After the tie happened, neither team could get it going in regulation to break it. Luis Avilan and Jordan Walden were both quality relief options in 2013, and threw three scoreless frames between them. Walden allowed a hit with two outs in the ninth, but promptly picked off pinch-runner Elliot Johnson (who would be traded to the Braves later in the year). The Royals got a similar shutdown performance from their relievers. After giving up the lead in the seventh, Hochevar issued a leadoff walk to Laird in the eighth, but then got two foulouts and a strikeout. Greg Holland came on and destroyed the Braves in the ninth, throwing 11 pitches, two balls, and getting three swinging strikeouts.
The tenth was the final inning, and had two key moments of controversy. The Royals replaced Holland with Aaron Crow, who was replacement level-ish in 2011, dominant in 2012, and really struggling in 2013. It seemed like the Braves were getting a break. Heyward started the inning with a single, and taking off for second on a 3-2 pitch kept the Braves out of a double play when Justin Upton hit one to short. The Royals responded by walking Freeman, bringing Laird to the plate. The backup catcher was actually hitting well on the season (125 wRC+), but was rarely used (65 PAs so far). The Braves had a golden opportunity to pinch-hit Brian McCann and gain the platoon advantage, but did not. That wouldn’t have been a guarantee of success, but it couldn’t have gone worse than what happened with Laird at the plate:
For the bottom of the 10th, the Braves inserted rookie Alex Wood, who had been dominant in relief thus far, but had also been up for less than a month. Why not Craig Kimbrel, you ask? Well, refer to the words in the paragraph at the very top of this post. David Lough greeted Wood with a single up the middle, and the Royals bunted Lough to second. That brought Gordon to the plate, and gave the Braves a choice. Gordon was 2-for-4 with a homer in this game, was killing lefties in 2013 (172 wRC+, but .400+ BABIP), and was generally a rare lefty hitter who didn’t really struggle against left-handed pitching. Behind him was Alcides Escobar, 1-for-4 with a strikeout in the game, a notably below-average righty who didn’t hit lefties any better. (Escobar was actually hitting lefties pretty well in 2013, but he was struggling mightily overall on the year with a wRC+ below 70.)
In any case, you can see where this is going — in something that was re-litigated over and over post-game, the Braves elected to pitch to Gordon instead of Escobar. Gordon followed with something perhaps predictable:
Game MVP: Gordon, of course. Along with Perez, he led the game with three hits, drove in and scored half of his team’s runs, and of course, won them the game. Gordon’s 2013 was a down year for him offensively during his peak (104 wRC+), but still another season where he put up over 4 fWAR, his third such season in a streak of four.
Game LVP: Nominally, Alex Wood, for giving up both the leadoff hit and the game-winning hit. Should he really have been there? Should he have pitched to Gordon? Wood was a quality option in 2013 as both a starter and reliever. That basically continued for his entire career, where he was very effective when healthy. Seriously, the guy has an 88/89/89 pitching line for his career.
Biggest play: The Gordon walkoff hit, of course.
The game, in context of the season: This game had little effect on the standings. The Braves’ lead fell to five games, but it never fell below four games afterwards. The Braves blazed into a 96-win season that ended in another game where Craig Kimbrel was notably absent. The Royals were actually really picking it up at this point, going 63-44 after a 23-32 start to the season. Still, though, they ended in third place with 86 wins, which was still their first above-.500 season since 2003, and their best season since the strike-shortened 1994 campaign.
Minor finished 2013 with 3.4 fWAR, which sat as a career high until his 2019. Mendoza, meanwhile, finished the season with just 0.2 fWAR. This outing was one of his three best starts of the year, but he got shelled in the two after, lost his rotation spot, made a few bullpen appearances, and then never made it back to the majors.
Weirdly, no condensed game for this one that I could find.
TC Commentariat Zeitgeist: Yep, it was all just litigating the tactical decisions. Who knew what awaited the Braves just a few months later, in much the same vein?
Anything else? Gordon’s homer was his first since May 9.
Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about June 26: The first scan of a Universal Product Code barcode happened on this date in 1974. The item purchased was a pack of Wrigley’s gum, the location was a supermarket in Troy, Ohio.