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Braves Recap/Flashback: March 31

The Braves had an absolutely bonkers home opener loss during the 2008 season

Pittsburgh Pirates v Atlanta Braves Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

Now that we’re onto March 31, it’s no longer slim pickings in terms of games. Since 2000, there were six games in which the Braves participated on that date, with the Braves going 2-4 in those contests. However, one of these games towers above the rest: an absolutely insane Atlanta home opener in 2008, when the Braves played host to the Pirates.

Setting the stage: The 2008 Braves ended up being essentially the worst iteration of the franchise in recent history. They finished 72-90 and traded away Mark Teixeira midseason for a return that turned out to be very ignominious in hindsight. It was the team’s worst performance since 1990, and the first time that the team was unable to muster any success for a multimonth stretch in decades. The Braves’ division winning streak ended in 2006, but that team was tanked by a terrible June and finished eight games over .500 from July onward. The 2007 team that made the pricy Teixeira acquisition in the first place was still in it as of mid-August. The 2008 team, though... that team sat at 29-27 at the end of May, and then proceeded to go 43-63 for the rest of the year.

Incredibly, though, the 2008 team was not just a complete talent-deprived, 90-loss wreck. Brian McCann, Chipper Jones, and the half-season of Mark Teixeira combined with Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson to helm a top-10 position player crew. McCann, Jones, and Teixeira would all finish the season in the top 11 in baseball in fWAR. and that was the year of Chipper’s absurd 174 wRC+ and .470 OBP as a 36-year-old. However, the pitching was essentially league-worst, especially the rotation. There was Jair Jurrjens being good, Tim Hudson being decent in an injury-shortened season, Jorge Campillo having a randomly good season out of nowhere (and never again; he basically never pitched in the majors before or after 2008 and the season comprised his entire major league value)... and that’s about it. John Smoltz was more productive in five starts than the other seven starters the Braves used on the year, combined. Alternatively, I suppose I could have just written, “2008 was the year in which the Braves gave Jo-Jo Reyes 113 innings.” Fin.

The Pirates, meanwhile, were mired in misery of their own. 2008 would be their 16th consecutive losing season (they’d hit 20 total before a good three-season run). They lost 94 or more games every season between 2005 and 2010. It was not good two decades for the Bucs.

Anyway, even before the game started, it was already an odd situation. While this was the Braves’ home opener, it was somehow the second game of the season they played. The prior day, they had kicked off the season by helping the Nationals inaugurate their new ballpark (and lost, 3-2). For some reason, MLB didn’t schedule said inaugural game as part of a series, so the Braves played a game in D.C. and then went right back home to start a conventional series with the Pirates.

One more bit of intrigue to set the stage: Tom Glavine had spent the last five seasons with the Mets, but returned to play for the Braves in what would be his final season. This game was Glavine’s first start as a reinstated Brave... but it was not a happy reunion.

How it happened: Oh boy, was this a crazy game. I honestly wish there were video archives that I could access, just to marinate in the insanity that was this contest. I’ll try my best to describe it for you, but seriously, just look at the play by play. It was wild.

The first run of the game scored in the second, when Jack Wilson poked an opposite-field grounder that Teixeira booted with two men on base and two outs. In the bottom of the third, Pittsburgh starter Ian Snell, coming off a breakout 2017, randomly walked Glavine on five pitches with one out. Kelly Johnson then hit a seeing-eye single, and Yunel Escobar turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead by hitting a deep drive to the opposite field and racing around the bases for a triple. He would score on a slow roller groundout from Chipper Jones.

The Pirates got one of those runs right back, as Jose Bautista (yes, that same one, two years before he transformed from quad-A utility player into a slugging deity) doubled with one out and later scored on Nate McLouth’s line drive single to center. McLouth’s hit would have tied the game, but Braves center fielder Mark Kotsay threw a strike home to McCann, who was able to tag out Jack Wilson trying to score from second. The Braves still led by a run, and that lead immediately went right back to two as Brian McCann hit the first of 23 homers in what would end up being his career year to lead off the fourth. That was all Snell would allow — despite the game ending with 23 total runs scored, only four of those would be charged to him. Glavine finished his Braves re-debut on a high note, working a three-up, three-down inning thanks to an Adam LaRoche double play ball in the fifth. His debut ended up being one of his better starts in his final year despite nine baserunners in five innings, which was a pretty disappointing finish for the Hall of Famer overall. He hit the Disabled List twice in 2008 after never being placed on it at any point earlier in his two-decades-plus career, finished with negative fWAR for the first time since his rookie season (previous low rookie year aside, 1.3) and a 141 FIP- (previous worst, rookie year aside, 111).

At this point, the two-run game became a bullpen “battle,” but more accurately, it was just a lahar of attrition featuring some good hitting and very bad relief work. Xavier Nady, who had his only good year out of 12 MLB seasons in 2008, doubled off Chris Resop to start the sixth, and scored on the second of two consecutive groundouts to Teixeira. In the seventh, the Atlanta bullpen blew the lead. Will Ohman (Atlanta’s best reliever over the course of the season) allowed a leadoff double to fisticuffs enthusiast Nyjer Morgan. The Pirates bunted Morgan to third, and in came Peter Moylan. Moylan actually did his job, getting weak grounders from the first two batters he faced. The problem was that the second of these resulted in Yunel Escobar rushing his throw and firing wide of first base, allowing Morgan to score. The Braves did not let Moylan face the lefty-batting LaRoche, and Royce Ring came on to strike him out and keep the game tied. Moylan would only appear in six more games in 2008, as he lost the rest of the season to Tommy John Surgery.

Then, things got comical. Darkly comical. The Braves summoned Manny Acosta to pitch the top of the eighth. Acosta was one of those guys who parlayed a big ERA-FIP gap into continued opportunities for parts of six major league seasons, the sort of thing you see far less of these days. In any case, there was no voodoo run prevention to be had by him on this night. On an 0-2 pitch, Nady took Acosta deep to the opposite field for a go-ahead solo homer. The Braves were now trailing, but Acosta was left in. He allowed a single to Ryan Doumit, struck out Bautista, threw a wild pitch, but then walked Wilson anyway. He caught a break when pinch-hitter Doug Mientkiewicz nearly hit another dinger off him, but the ball was hit to center and nestled into Kotsay’s glove. That break was promptly un-caught, as McLouth yanked a 2-0 pitch over the wall in right for a three-run homer. Acosta’s line: seven batters faced, two homers, a walk, a single, four runs allowed in the eighth inning of a tie game. At least he got a strikeout? The rest of that frame was only slightly less dumb, as new reliever Jeff Bennett walked the first batter he faced, and then Chipper Jones made a throwing error, but Bennett finally struckout LaRoche to end the inning. The Braves went 1-2-3 in the bottom half of the inning, and this looked like just a routine late-inning bullpen implosion loss, at least for the moment.

The top of the ninth didn’t change that impression, either. Nady again got a hit to lead off an inning, making him 3-for-3 and a triple short of the cycle when leading off innings in this game, and 0-for-2 otherwise, moved to second on a wild pitch, and then to third on a Doumit dunker into left field. The Pirates then called for a squeeze play with Bautista at the plate (boy, imagine calling for a squeeze play with Joey Bats at the plate at any point in the last decade) and it worked, giving them another run. Eventually, Bennett ended this inning as well, but now the Braves were down by five.

But, like I said, this was a crazy, crazy game. The Pirates called on Damaso Marte, who walked two of the first three batters he faced. From what I can tell, those two walks didn’t make it a save situation (five-run lead, the batter on deck would not be the tying run), but Pirates skipper (and former Brave, for one season), John Russell, managing his first career game, brought in closer Matt Capps anyway. That... didn’t help anything. Capps walked the first man he faced, Martin Prado, on five pitches. The bases were now loaded with one out. He walked Escobar on four straight balls. Chipper Jones came to the plate as the tying run. He didn’t hit a slam, but he did extend the inning with a line drive single into right, bringing the Braves to within two. Teixeira popped out to center, which brought up McCann as the Braves’ last hope. In a 2-0 count, McCann did something reminiscent of his epic game-winner on July 4 against the Phillies in 2019 — fought off a pitch and skied it into left-center, where it fell in between two fielders. The 36-year-old Jones scored all the way from first, tying the game. The Braves had allowed five runs in two innings, and then scored five runs in the span of eight batters to tie it back up. Jeff Francoeur had a chance to walk them off, and he drove a pitch deep to center, but it wasn’t enough. The game extended into extra innings.

For two innings, there was no scoring. Rafael Soriano allowed a leadoff double but no runs; Blaine Boyer threw a 1-2-3 11th. For the Pirates, Franquelis Osoria went six up, six down — though the Braves nearly walked it off when pinch-hitter Brayan Pena hit a hard liner with a man on second. Unfortunately, the liner was caught by second baseman Freddy Sanchez, who doubled off Kotsay at second.

At this point, it’s worth pointing out that Blaine Boyer was the ninth pitcher the Braves used in this game. Yes, they had used their entire eight-man bullpen. There wasn’t anyone left. The Pirates, meanwhile, were out of position players; Osoria had batted for himself in the 11th. (Random fact: Osoria pitched in four seasons, making 104 relief appearances totaling 136 13 innings. He never posted positive fWAR in any of those four seasons.) The Braves, however, wouldn’t get a chance to figure out what they needed to do in the 13th.

Nate McLouth led off the 12th with a single. He was bunted to second, and Boyer pitched around Jason Bay. LaRoche popped out to center, which brought up, you guessed it: Xavier (freakin’) Nady. Three pitches later, Nady again went oppo, for his second homer of the game, and the second three-run blast the Pirates accumulated in the game.

The Braves had already rallied for five runs in one inning. Could they do it again? Well, almost. Osoria was left in and got two straight groundouts to first off the bats of Teixeira and McCann. But then, Francoeur did what he didn’t quite manage earlier, which would have ended the game — he blasted his first homer to pull the Braves within two. The Braves weren’t quite done. Mark Kotsay doubled, and Matt Diaz knocked him in with a single. The tying run was on base, the winning run was at the plate... but unfortunately, Boyer’s spot was due up. The Braves had only one option: Corky Miller, the third catcher on the roster. Miller hit the most routine of fly balls, and in an anticlimatic way, this crazy game was over.

Game MVP: There’s just no way this is anyone but Xavier Nady. Two homers, a double, and a single. Nady recorded a WPA of 0.625, which was amazingly not his best mark ever. Interestingly, it wasn’t even his best overall offensive game, which goes to show you that even a career 0.6 fWAR/600 guy like Nady will drop the hammer on you here and there.

Game LVP: So many to choose from. I’ll go with Matt Capps, who faced six batters and walked as many as he retired, while blowing a five-run lead in the process.

Biggest play: Nady’s three-run homer in the 12th, of course. I’d say there’s no coming back from that one, except the Braves almost did come back, so...

The game, in context of the season: There’s not much to say here, really. Neither the Braves nor the Pirates went anywhere. The Braves started the season 12-15, and as mentioned, totally withered over the summer. The Pirates basically did the same thing, starting 11-16, and also collapsed after May en route to a 67-95 season. Xavier Nady put together his one good season (128 wRC+, 3.0 fWAR in 607 PAs; his previous career high in fWAR was 1.4 and he finished with his career with 3.5 fWAR total). John Russell got his first managerial win, but presided over a pretty grim era in Pittsburgh baseball. He actually got fired after a 105-loss season in 2010 (the most for a Pirates team since 1952) in a really strange way — the Pirates extended him through 2011 before the 2010 season, but only announced the extension midseason, and then fired him before the extension kicked in.

I want a recap: Sorry, it appears that video footage of games from more than ten years ago seems pretty unavailable. If anyone has any, please share. I wasn’t even able to get it on retro

Anything else of note? Mark Teixeira went 0-for-6 with a -.251 WPA in this game, and committed an error that led to the first run of the game. While Manny Acosta and Matt Capps each had heinous WPAs of -.459 and -.483, respectively, neither reflected the worst outing of their careers. Matt Capps once somehow got -0.98 WPA in a game (that’s basically losing a game twice) by allowing five runs in the bottom of the ninth in a game, after entering with a four-run lead. The walkoff run in that game came off the bat of Paul Bako, and Capps allowed two homers in that game before the walkoff.

Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about March 31: The first iteration of daylight saving(s) time went into effect in the U.S. on this day in 1918. Daylight saving(s) time is the worst, and everyone should stop it. I guess that wasn’t actually cool. Seriously, get rid of it.

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