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Braves Flashback/Recap: June 6

The Drop, the throw, and apparently the season?

Philadelphia Phillies v Atlanta Braves Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

When I do these, I take a walk through media coverage of each game, to see how said coverage has held up in retrospect. The coverage for this game, especially retrospectively, is kind of weird — very narrative-driven. To that end, I’m wondering to what extent people remember this game, rather than the two big events that happened in it, so I won’t give it away here. Skip past the next paragraph if you want to see where your memory catches up to the description.

The gist: [seriously, skip this if you’re trying to avoid spoilers] The Braves and Tim Hudson played down to the Phillies and Jamie Moyer for most of the game, until a two-run homer by Brian McCann put them on top in the sixth. What followed was two of the craziest ways to lose a baseball game: first, Kelly Johnson dropped a pop-up with two outs in the ninth, allowing the tying run to score. Then, after the really bad part of the bullpen gave up two runs in the tenth, Yunel Escobar hit a two-out single with men on second and third that seemed like it would tie the game... but Shane Victorino’s throw from center cut down Gregor Blanco to end the game.

The set-up: The 2008 Phillies were in the midst of their one good run since the late 70s and early 80s. The earlier iterations of the team in the mid-2000s had won 85+ games four times in a row without making the playoffs, and the team finally won the division for the first time since 1993 in 2007. Coming into this game, the Phillies seemed to be doing fine in their division title defense, with the NL’s second-best record at 36-26 and a 2.5-game lead in the division.

The Braves were kind of the opposite, having had two underwhelming seasons in 2006-2007 after their legendary division title streak. The 2008 team was hanging around at this point, 32-29 and 3.5 games back of the Phillies, but in third place. Still, a lot of people were hopeful that it could go on a run, because coming into this game, it was the best offensive team in the league. The pitching was below average but not horrible, so if it got straightened out, you could see the potential.

Given that, the Braves probably felt pretty good about this game, at least based on the matchup. They had Tim Hudson going, and the right-hander was coming off a resurgent 4.9 fWAR season, his best as a Brave in three tries. His season was also going very well to date: 71 ERA-, 87 FIP-, 83 xFIP-. The Phillies, meanwhile, were relying on 45-year-old Jamie Moyer, somehow still eating innings at a league-average rate. Moyer had a 107 ERA-/FIP- coming into this game, but amazingly, a 97 xFIP-. Still, it wasn’t quite up to Hudson’s level,

This was only the second series of the season between the two teams; the Phillies had won the earlier one 2-1.

How it happened: The Phillies wasted very little time getting on the board. Eight pitches into the game, Shane Victorino popped one deep into the right-center gap and ended up on third by the time the ball got back into the infield, as center fielder Gregor Blanco dove but didn’t come down with the ball. Chase Utley followed with a first-pitch grounder to second, and the Phillies were on the board. Ryan Howard followed with a very loud first-pitch flyout that nearly left the park, and we were off with the Braves already in a hole. They’d stay there for quite a while.

Up until the sixth, the game was mostly just grounders. The Braves got a two-out single in the first and a one-out walk in the second, but also had five groundouts in those two frames. Two groundouts and another loud first-pitch flyout, courtesy of Geoff Jenkins, ended Hudson’s second inning. His third was a little dicier, as catcher Chris Coste reached on a weak roller to third, followed by a bunt and a walk. However, both Victorino and Utley followed by hitting the ball to first, so no harm done. The Braves had a great chance to score some runs with a two-out rally (walk, ground-rule double, walk) in the bottom of the third, but a deep Jeff Francoeur flyout couldn’t find a good place to land.

Hudson erased a leadoff infield single by Howard with an inning-ending double play in a brief fourth. Moyer plunked McCann to lead off the bottom of the fourth, but three straight outs rendered that meaningless. Both pitchers had 1-2-3 fifths, and Hudson walked Victorino with one out in the sixth, but still ended the inning having faced just three batters as Victorino was caught stealing second with two outs.

Mark Teixeira, facing Moyer for a third time to start the bottom of the sixth, hit a hot shot to short that Jimmy Rollins couldn’t convert into an out. Francouer followed with a pop-out, and McCann then got into an extended lefty-lefty battle with the ageless Moyer. After a mixture of four fouls and three balls, McCann finally got something in the lower part of the zone he kept fair, and then some — crushing it for a two-run, go-ahead homer into right. Omar Infante followed with a triple into the left-field gap, and Charlie Manuel got Moyer out of there posthaste, in favor of Chad Durbin. It was a fairly weak outing for the Mephistophelian lefty, as he allowed only two runs in 5 13, but they came on a homer and his K/BB ratio was just 4/3.

The veteran Durbin was with his fourth team in four years (and fifth overall), and was now purely a reliever after an awful attempt at starting in 2007. 2008 was his only good relief season (and one of only two even decent seasons for him overall, it’s not clear why he was given so many chances, including with the Braves), and he “came through” here — Blanco’s suicide squeeze in front of the plate got Infante thrown out trying to score, and Hudson followed with a deep fly into center that wasn’t quite deep enough.

The Braves left Hudson in for the seventh, and he nearly imploded. Howard again started the inning by nearly homering on the first pitch, but again, the ball didn’t quite get out and was caught by Blanco instead. A weak grounder on a 3-1 count put Pat Burrell on first, and Jenkins followed with a ground-rule double sliced to left. Hudson intentionally walked Pedro Feliz to bring up Coste, and that move worked out wonderfully, as Coste hit into a 6-4-3 twin killing to save everything but his own WPA.

That sort of aborted rally then happened to the Braves in similar fashion in the bottom of the inning. Durbin issued a leadoff walk to Yunel Escobar, and was replaced by LOOGY type J.C. Romero. Kelly Johnson bunted Escobar to second, which was lame because it just caused Romero to intentionally walk Chipper. It was less lame because Romero lost his control and hit Teixeira on the very next pitch, loading the bases with one out. But, like the Phillies, the Braves pooched it — with Francoeur coming up, the Phillies inserted 39-year-old former Brave Rudy Seanez, still providing decent relief work in the last season of his long career. Francoeur hit one to left, and Burrell, who was a tremendously bad fielder but actually had a very good arm, threw out Escobar tagging up and trying to score.

Hudson got two more outs in the eighth, but after a walk to Victorino, he was sent to the showers. Lefty Will Ohman came on and got Utley to ground out to put the Braves three outs away from a victory. It was a weird outing for Hudson, overall, with 7 23 innings pitched and just five hits, but four walks to just three strikeouts.

The Braves also ran themselves out of the eighth. Ryan Madson got the first two outs quickly (McCann tried to bunt his way on, it didn’t work), but Blanco followed with a single, and as evidence of something very, very random, Madson somehow walked Ohman, who was batting for himself so that he could pitch to Ryan Howard in the ninth. (The Braves had no closer and a shredded bullpen at this point, which is going to loom large in just a bit. John Smoltz was lost to season-ending shoulder surgery two days before, having pitched his last inning as a Brave earlier in the week. Michael Gonzalez wouldn’t return from injury until later in the season, and Rafael Soriano had a wonky elbow that made him perpetually day-to-day and eventually cut short his season.) With Escobar at the plate, Madson threw a pitch that got away from Coste. Blanco easily moved up to third, but Ohman, unaccustomed to running the bases, didn’t get a good break and was thrown out at second, ending the inning.

All of this, including that baserunning gaffe and the double play in the seventh, collapsed on the Braves in spectacular fashion in the ninth. Ohman stayed in, and did the job he was intended to do, striking out Howard. The Braves then went to Blaine Boyer, who had been quite good so far in 2008. With the righty-righty matchup enforced, Boyer got a groundout from Burrell, and the Braves were an out away. But, Boyer lost control and walked Jenkins on four pitches. Pinch-runner Eric Bruntlett came on and stole second, which ended up not mattering because Boyer walked Feliz as well. So, two outs in the ninth, up by a run, tying and go-ahead runs on base, and Coste at the play. Ladies and gentlemen, it is with sincere regret that I present to you: The Drop.

Pretty much the only positive thing about any of this is that at least Johnson threw out Feliz trying to score. The rest? Just an utter disaster.

It’s not like the Braves didn’t have a chance to just end the game in the bottom of the ninth, anyway. Tom Gordon had gone from extremely dominant reliever to just playing out the string at this point, and Johnson tried his best to make up for his grievous blunder by notching a one-out double down the right-field line. Gordon intentionally walked Chipper, and once again, Teixeira and Francoeur couldn’t come through. The former struck out and the latter popped out to first — Howard didn’t mess up a pop-up, and the game extended into extras.

Once the Braves put Manny Acosta in, there was a good chance you knew what was going to come next. (This is a little unfair, but only a little. Acosta wasn’t good in 2007 and had a terrifying FIP thus far in 2008, though his xFIP was better.) The Phillies had gotten chances and capitalized, they’d given the Braves chances and didn’t pay for it, and now they were hitting Acosta like they were some kind of baseball sharks and he was bleeding on the mound (which, well, he was). Pinch-hitter Chris Snelling, in one of his four PAs in his last season in the majors, started the inning with a 3-1 double into the right-center gap. Rollins bunted him to third, but that was irrelevant, because Victorino connected on a 3-1 pitch of his own to mash a triple into more or less the same place that he hit his first-inning version. The Braves frantically inserted LOOGY Royce Ring to face the Utley-Howard contingent, but that didn’t do much either. Utley doubled, and the Braves were now down by two. Ring and Buddy Carlyle finally finished off the Phillies, but things were looking grim.

To win this game, the Braves would somehow have to score multiple runs off of Brad Lidge, who had declined from insane (3.7 fWAR as a reliever in 2004!) to just “good” (0.8 fWAR in 2007), but was on the warpath again in 2008 (he’d allowed just three runs all season and only had one negative WPA outing all season, with great peripherals as well). Lidge struck out McCann to start the inning, but Josh Anderson, who had come in for Infante as a defensive sub in the ninth, blooped one into left. Blanco followed with a successful bunt-for-hit attempt, and Anderson took advantage of the chaos to motor over to third base. With Greg Norton, double-switched into the game with Carlyle, batting with the tying runs on base, Blanco promptly stole second. Norton, though, struck out on just three pitches. (This wasn’t awful 2009 Norton, not yet. 2008 Norton was an okay hitter, with a 108 wRC+ in 202 PAs for the Braves.)

So, it was all up to Escobar. He took strike one, and then — for a moment — things were great. Lidge’s second pitch got lined back up the middle. Anderson scored easily, and Blanco was fast, so fast he got on base with a bunt, so fast he stole second, surely he could score, right? Victorino got the ball and threw home, Blanco came around and slid toward the plate... and when the dust cleared, the call was “out” and the game was over. The Braves bungled a game-ending pop-up, and then had the tying run thrown out at the plate to end the game. What a game. What a brutal game.

Game MVP: Sadly, it has to be Shane Victorino. He hit two triples, was directly responsible for both go-ahead runs, and of course, saved the game with his throw. He also drew two walks, making just one out all game. It was the first, but not the last, two-triple game of Victorino’s career. 2008 was a breakout for him overall, with 4.3 fWAR, his best season to date (he’d have better ones later, too). This game was actually a part of Victorino tormenting the Braves viciously through 2008 — he was a league-average bat overall to this point, but had a 138 wRC+ against the Braves. By the end of his career, his career line and his line against the Braves would normalize to be identical and league average-y, but boy, he was a nemesis. And this game was perhaps the best example.

Game LVP: I know, I know, Kelly Johnson dropped the ball, the bullpen imploded, blah blah blah. But really, let’s talk about Jeff Francoeur in this one. Frenchy went 0-for-5. Those outs included: leaving the bases loaded with two outs in the third; a flyout after a leadoff single, ahead of McCann’s homer in the sixth; flying into the double play in the seventh; and flying out with the winning run on second in the ninth to end that inning. Francoeur compiled -.402 WPA with his “efforts,” the second-worst such mark of his career to date (by percentage points). It was the worst single-game mark for any Brave in all of 2008, essentially matched only by himself later in the year. 2008 in general was just a ridiculously bad year for Francoeur, with -1.3 fWAR and just awful play across the board.

Biggest play: WPA-wise, would you believe that it was McCann’s homer? WPA is weird, man. It wasn’t even close, with the homer providing .324, but the game-ending play providing only .145, and the dropped pop only .222.

The game, in context of the season: This game has kind of taken on a probably-undeserved, mythical aura since it happened. The Braves side of the narrative blames this game on the Braves’ subsequent collapse. After this loss, the Phillies swept the Braves, who would go on to lose six straight. By the time they won a game, they’d fallen from 3.5 games back and three games over .500 to 7.5 games back. They never climbed back to .500 again, finishing with 72 wins, their worst season since before the streak started in 1990. Was the narrative right? It’s hard to say, especially since, losing streak aside, the Braves played .500 ball for the rest of June, pretty similar to their pre-losing streak record. Their real collapse came during a 9-20 August, which was very far removed from Kelly Johnson botching a game-ending play or Gregor Blanco being thrown out at the plate.

I suppose the narrative could maybe work a bit better for the Phillies, who went on to win the 2008 World Series after this improbable victory. But, despite winning seven of eight to start June (including this game, and the subsequent sweep), the Phillies actually went 12-14 in June overall, their only losing month. So, not so much.

What this game did do, perhaps, is set the stage for an insanely lopsided season series between these two teams. The Braves won just four of 18 games against the Phillies that year, their worst performance against a division rival until 2016, where they went 4-15 against the Nats. It was also their worst performance against a division rival to date under the existing divisional structure.

Hudson and Moyer both finished with similar seasons — Hudson with an injury-shortened 1.9 fWAR (2.7/200), Moyer with a full-season 2.5. This was a disappointment for the former and likely a pleasant surprise for the latter. For Moyer, this was the last average-y season of his career, as he cratered thereafter, but still pitched for three more years beyond 2008.

2008 was also McCann’s career year — 8.6 fWAR, driven these days by his gaudy historical framing numbers — but the 135 wRC+ isn’t anything to sneeze at. McCann got a career-high 573 PAs in 2008, numbers unthinkable for a catcher these days. He actually hit a bit better in 2006 (142 wRC+), but didn’t play nearly as much.

Video? There is purportedly video of Victorino’s throw, but it won’t work for some reason. Also, could your heart really take that at this point?

Anything else? For anything in the 2008 season, it’s always fun to check in on Chipper Jones’ line as of that point. Chipper went 2-for-3 with two walks in this game, bringing his season line to .421/.504/.671, a 208 wRC+, through 256 PAs. He finished with a 174 wRC+ and 7.1 fWAR, his best season on a rate basis, but edged out by 1999 in aggregate because he was hurt a bit in 2008.

This loss worsened the 2008 Braves’ absurd record in one-run games to 3-17.

Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about June 6: The opening of the first drive-in theater ever happened on this date in 1933 in Camden, New Jersey. This is just mostly notable because, mostly on the brink of obsolescence (kind of like real movie theaters), these establishments are making a minor comeback given our pandemic-laden existence.