When the Braves suited up to open the 2018 season on March 29, it was, at that point, the earliest regular season game the franchise had played. (In 2019, Opening Day would come one day earlier.) It was also the first Opening Day to be played at SunTrust Park. (And also technically the last, given the change of the venue’s name to the horrendous “Truist Park” following the 2019 season.) The 2018 Braves, coming off three dreadful rebuilding seasons, were not really expected to be competitive, but wasted no time subverting expectations. The result was a six-run rally to erase what was, at one point a 5-0 deficit and end in an 8-5 win, and one of the most memorable Opening Day games in my baseball-watching history.
How it happened: Much like the season opener immediately after it, this game pitted the Braves against the Phillies, and Julio Teheran against Aaron Nola. And, just like the game already recapped for March 28, Teheran did not make it out of the first unscathed. A leadoff single, a wild pitch, and an RBI double by Rhys Hoskins put the Braves in an early hole. Nola, meanwhile, cruised through five innings, allowing just a walk and a couple of singles. Teheran didn’t fare too poorly after that first-inning blemish, though he did inexplicably issue a leadoff walk to Nola in the third.
The Phillies added to their lead in the top of the sixth. Cesar Hernandez hit a homer just past the right-center wall to start the inning, and after getting two outs, Teheran left the game following a walk to Hoskins and a hit batsman. Down 2-0 and with lefty-hitting J.P. Crawford due up, the Braves gave the ball to Rex Brothers, who had acquitted himself decently well in relief duty for the 2017 team after sitting out the entire 2016 season.
Brothers’ outing was... something else. He got ahead of Crawford, but then threw three straight balls, none of them anywhere near the plate. He was then left in (no three-batter rule yet, but nonetheless...) to face the righty-hitting Maikel Franco, and proceeded to walk him on five pitches, including a ball four that was spiked in the dirt. That walk pushed in a run, which the Phillies scored without the benefit of a hit. Brothers did not make another appearance for the Braves in 2018, and in fact, hasn’t made a major league appearance since. (He also now holds an unbeatable single-season record for a 100% BB%.)
That was clearly enough of Brothers, and the Braves went to right-hander Dan Winkler to face the switch-hitting Andrew Knapp. (One wonders why, if they were going to use Winkler anyway, they didn’t just have him face Franco, but whatever.) That move didn’t work out that well either, as Knapp dunked a flare into right field that scored two more runs. Winkler struck out Nola, but it was looking grim for the Braves, now down 5-0.
But hey, all comebacks have to start somewhere, and this comeback started in a very odd place. This game was the first regular-season contest managed by Gabe Kapler, and the man already known for some strange habits and pronouncements made a truly baffling decision. First, recall that Nola had batted for himself with runners on and two outs in the prior frame. True, the Braves had the order due up for a third time, but Nola had thrown just 64 pitches in five innings of work. Furthermore, the Phillies had a win probability of nearly 95 percent at the start of the bottom of the sixth, and the leverage index was a paltry 0.49. Nola allowed a double to Ender Inciarte to start the inning (win probability = 92 percent; leverage index = 0.83), but then got a first-pitch flyout from Ozzie Albies (win probability = 94 percent, leverage index = 0.64). And then... Gabe Kapler went out to the mound, and pulled Aaron Nola, with a five-run lead, no meaningful leverage, and with the latter having thrown just 68 pitches. In Nola’s stead, Kapler inserted Hoby Milner, an unremarkable lefty specialist who wasn’t even particularly effective against lefties during the 2017 campaign.
The move backfired spectacularly. Milner couldn’t keep the ball down and Freeman fought off a bunch of letter-high sinkers before getting one at the belt on a full count and sending a no-doubter towards the Chop House. This was far from the last faux-analytics snafu from Kapler during his two years as the Philadelphia skipper, but it was the first, and it was an all-around travesty, with terrible process and awful (for him) results. With all that, though, his team still held a three-run lead and a 90 percent win probability heading into the seventh.
The bullpens traded some scoreless frames thereafter, but the Braves erupted furiously in the bottom of the eighth. First, Ozzie Albies began yet another campaign of demolishing lefties by drilling southpaw Adam Morgan’s pitch into center field for a leadoff homer. The Braves were within two. Morgan would walk Freeman on six pitches, none of which Freeman swung at (that’s some fine lefty specialist-ing there from the Phillies in this game, Lou), and with one out, new reliever Edubray Ramos would walk Kurt Suzuki. (Suzuki was not the Opening Day starter, but replaced Tyler Flowers after the latter hurt himself on a swing in the second.) Then, facing keeping-the-outfield-spot-warm-for-Ronald-Acuña-Jr.-once-he-passes-the-extra-year-of-control-cutoff player du jour, aka Preston Tucker, the Phillies allowed another run thanks to this travesty:
(By the way, Tucker swung at that pitch. Just yeesh all around.)
The Braves were within a run, and could now tie it with a sacrifice fly. Tucker did them one better, knocking a single into center to knot the game at five. But, Ramos recovered to retire Dansby Swanson and Ryan Flaherty to send the game into the ninth tied. Arodys Vizcaino came on and had a dominant inning, striking out the side.
The stage was now set for some heroics in the ninth, and the Braves did not disappoint. With Hector Neris on the hill for the Phillies, the Braves first pinch-hit with Charlie Culberson. The Georgia native’s first PA as a Brave set the tone for his crazy-charmed 2018 season as a whole: Culberson got a pitch down the pipe, barely made contact (55.9 mph exit velocity; an absurd -80 degree launch angle), but was able to reach first safely after Neris fielded the ball and threw well wide of the first base bag. The Braves then racked up two outs (sacrifice bunt by Inciarte, fly out by Albies), and the Phillies just gestured for Freeman to take first base.
Up came Nick Markakis, batting cleanup. In this game to date, Markakis had done nothing but fill up a bingo card of out types: he had already collected a groundout, a lineout, a fly out, and a strikeout. He also hadn’t done much as a Brave entering the final year of his $44 million, four-year contract, amassing just 3.2 fWAR in three seasons despite a whopping 2,040 PAs. But, at this point, none of that mattered. Markakis took a ball low. He fouled off a fastball that ran in on him. Then Neris threw a very ill-fated pitch, a splitter that didn’t split and instead just hovered on a trajectory right into the middle of the zone, and Markakis didn’t miss it.
To date, Markakis had hit 165 career homers in roughly a gajillion (actually 7,997) PAs. He had never hit a walkoff homer before. Now, he had. The Braves collected the first of their 90 wins thanks to his heroics.
Game MVP: I mean, duh. He only did one thing, but it was the thing. Freddie Freeman also deserves a mention for reaching base every time he came up but one — he finished 1-for-2 with a homer and three walks, one of which was intentional. And it’s hard to ignore Aaron Nola, who had allowed just four baserunners and only one extra-base hit before being pulled. It was the first of four starts that Nola would have against the Braves in 2018, and all four were strong-to-dominant as Nola rolled through a career-best season.
Game LVP: Hector Neris has generally fared okay against Atlanta in his career, but this was a definite low point for him, and kicked off a disappointing season for him. It was one of his worst outings of 2018, which in and of itself was a very odd season for him: 126 ERA-, 97 FIP-, 72 xFIP-. That 2018 Philadelphia defense was horrendous and destructive, and Neris somehow suffered from a HR/FB% of over 22 percent for the whole year. Of course, a season and a half later, the Braves would hang an even more ridiculous loss on Neris, in one of the most epic games of the 2019 season.
Biggest play: I think you can figure this one out.
The game, in context of the season: This game was really more of a harbinger of everything to come. Nick Markakis would go on to have a resurgent, out-of-nowhere, surprisingly solid season, and hit more homers than in any of his other four seasons with the Braves. The Braves ended up being one of the best high leverage and late-inning offensive teams in baseball in 2018, something that persisted into 2019 but seems more like a pleasant happenstance than a repeatable set of skills. Gabe Kapler would make and preside over many more faux-analytics bonehead moves. The Braves dominated the Phillies and most of the NL East the whole season.
In some ways (but not others), this game was also a microcosm of the season, in that the Phillies faceplanted late, while the Braves held on to win the division. Unlike this game, though, the Braves were generally ahead until a July swoon knocked them out of the division lead; they regained it for good only in August. Both the Braves and Phillies started out well, but the Phillies completely imploded in September, a la Neris’ disastrous outing in this game, to finish just 80-82 on the year.
I want a recap: Okay.
No, I said I want a recap, it’s not like I have actual baseball to watch: You got it.
Anything else of note? Julio Teheran had another so-so Opening Day start, allowing four runs with a 3/3 K/BB ratio in 5 2⁄3 innings of work. It was perhaps a precursor to Teheran’s worst season of his career so far. Dansby Swanson was the only Brave to go hitless in this game despite the entire team collecting just nine hits overall — each other starter (Suzuki in place of Flowers) had one, as did Charlie Culberson.
Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about March 29: The Terracotta Army was discovered on this day in 1974.