Making an emergency start in place of Drew Smyly, who was placed on the Injured List with left forearm inflammation earlier on Thursday, Kyle Wright threw 78 pitches in his 2021 debut. Of those 78 pitches across 4 1⁄3 innings of work, four hit a Cubs batter. The result? Wright tied the record for most hit batsmen in a game going back to 1901 (though our Brent tells me that eventual Spanish-American war veteran John Grimes hit six batters in a game in 1897), and moreover, now has the most thrown HBPs in the majors. Quite a debut.
Oh yeah, the Braves also beat the Cubs, 5-2, in a grueling, four-hour affair that was, but for the victory, not exactly a pleasant baseball game.
Wright got himself in hot water from the very beginning, struggling with his location and command. Ian Happ led off the bottom of the first with a may-have-been-a-homer-if-not-for-the-wind-blowing-in drive to left that ended up being just a single. That set up Wright’s first plunking of the day: William Contreras, on what would have been ball four anyway. A groundout moved both runners into scoring position, but Wright was able to escape by bamboozling Kris Bryant with three straight sliders (two down the pipe, third off the plate) and coaxing a fly to center from Joc Pederson.
He was less fortunate after starting the inning with a plunking of Javier Baez, as Jason Heyward’s single put runners on the corners with none out, and Eric Sogard’s sacrifice fly to center scored the first run of the game. After a sacrifice bunt and a two-out walk to Happ, Contreras grounded out to Ozzie Albies behind the second base bag.
The Braves, though, tied it against Zach Davies with a two-out rally in the very next frame. Freddie Freeman coaxed a two-out walk, Marcell Ozuna smashed a 112 mph single into left center, and Travis d’Arnaud hit a much softer liner ahead of Pederson in left. Pederson may have possibly had a play at the plate on Freeman, but he bobbled the ball, and the Braves had their first run. Wright threw a 1-2-3 frame, and the Braves broke it somewhat open in the fourth, again with a two-out rally.
Ender Inciarte started a string of five straight hits by slicing a single to left. Wright, who had grounded a ball at 101.5 mph into an out earlier in the game, then collected his first major league hit with an even harder-hit 103.5 mph grounder down the left-field line. While fortuitous for Wright and the Braves, it came with a cost: Inciarte came up lame running to third. He was both unable to score and ended up leaving the game, but not before looking skyward in frustration as he walked off the field. Up next was Ronald Acuña Jr., who had yet to punish the Cubbies in two earlier plate appearances — but this time, he did. Davies threw a few too many sinkers away, and the eighth pitch of the at-bat was way outside but low enough that Acuña extended his arms and shot it into right for a two-run tiebreaking single. Freeman followed by beating out a weak chopper for an infield single, which set up possibly the weirdest play of this game. On a 1-0 count, Ozuna ripped another ball towards short. This one was fieldable by Baez, but it was hit so hard that Baez could not make a play. Acuña, though, never stopped running, and after a moment’s confusion, Baez fired home. The throw beat Acuña by plenty of time, but Contreras didn’t scoop the ball cleanly from the ground, and despite his slide missing home the first around, Acuña was able to get up and touch the plate before Contreras could recover. If you’re keeping track, the phenom has now scored 1) on a sacrifice fly to the second baseman and 2) an infield single, all in the span of just a couple of weeks.
Now pitching with a lead for the first time, Wright... you guessed it... hit a batter to lead off the bottom of the fourth. It was Baez, again, but this time it didn’t end up costing Wright, as he struck out both Heyward and Sogard. He then hit pinch-hitter Matt Duffy for the league lead in hit batsmen, but recovered to get a groundout from Happ to end the inning.
Jason Adam replaced Davies in the top of the fifth and issued back-to-back one-out walks to Dansby Swanson and Ehire Adrianza. However, Swanson’s unwise decision to try to steal third ran the Braves out of the inning (and denied Wright the chance to hit yet another hard grounder) when Guillermo Heredia, who came on to replace Inciarte, struck out as Swanson was gunned down by Contreras at third.
Wright faced three batters in the fifth, and retired just one of them. He hung a 1-1 slider to Contreras, who obliterated it for a no-doubter solo shot. He then walked Rizzo before another three-pitch strikeout of Bryant, with his final pitch being that same off-the-plate slider that punched out Bryant in the first. Grant Dayton came on and retired Pederson and Baez to preserve the lead.
The Braves didn’t manage a run against Pedro Strop in the sixth despite another Freeman walk and Ozuna single. The Cubs had the same lack of success against Sean Newcomb; David Bote drew a two-out walk but was thrown out trying to steal to end the frame. Ozzie Albies led off the seventh with a double off new reliever Dillon Maples. After a wild pitch and a Swanson walk, Adrianza’s sacrifice fly scored Albies for Atlanta’s fifth run. The inning later featured a walk by pinch-hitter Austin Riley, but Acuña shockingly rolled out to short to end the frame. Josh Tomlin was the next guy out of the bullpen for the Braves and got into a little bit of trouble, as back-to-back one-out singles brought Bryant to the plate as the tying run. But, in the end, Tomlin got Bryant to weakly hit a 3-2 cutter right to Albies near the second base bag for a double play.
Former Brave Rex Brothers threw a 1-2-3 frame (the Cubs’ only such inning) in the eighth. Tomlin went back out for another inning of work, but gave up a leadoff single to Pederson (off Albies’ glove in shallow right field) and then got an out on a popped-up bunt that d’Arnaud made an acrobatic dive on in foul territory. That summoned A.J. Minter to face Heyward and Sogard, and Minter struck out both looking on very borderline cutters.
The ninth inning of this very long game was scary for multiple reasons. The frame started with Justin Steele hitting Albies with a pitch in the knee. Albies attempted to walk it off but could not, and departed, which later led to pinch-runner Pablo Sandoval taking the field at third base (Adrianza moved to second). Adrianza later hit into a double play. Will Smith came on to close out the three-run game, and boy, did he make it “interesting.” The inning started off fine with a strikeout of pinch-hitter Jake Marisnick, but Smith walked Happ on a pitch in the dirt. Contreras went down on strikes as well, but Smith walked Rizzo on a bunch of fastballs outside, and then essentially pitched around Bryant, throwing him five straight sliders below the zone. That brought up Pederson as the winning run, but you know the deal with Pederson and lefties by now, I think — Smith started him with two low sliders (both balls), got back in the count with three fastballs over the plate (whiff, whiff, foul), and then finished him off with a low slider to end the game.
The Braves and Cubs tangle again tomorrow afternoon, with Huascar Ynoa set to duel Trevor Williams (unless some other unforeseen thing happens).
Stay tuned for injury updates on Inciarte and Albies.