The 2009 Braves were a team on the upswing. The 2009 Nationals were a team at their nadir. On April 10, they gathered for Atlanta’s home opener at Turner Field under threatening, unsettled skies. The weather could have been a motif for a lot of things — the Braves’ early-season performance, especially with regard to their bullpen, the state of the Nationals’ roster, the remainder of Derek Lowe’s career — and it ultimately threw a spanner in the works of this game. But, in the end, the Braves were able to send their fans (whichever ones stuck around for six hours) home happy, with a walkoff victory.
How it happened: The pitching matchup in his home opener had a definite experience disparity. The Braves had new, high-priced acquisition Derek Lowe on the hill. Lowe had already made a great first impression with his new team, throwing eight shutout innings and allowing just two baserunners in Atlanta’s 4-1 Opening Day win over the Phillies. The Nationals, meanwhile, gave the ball to 22-year-old Shairon Martis, who would be making his fifth career start.
Neither pitcher ran into any trouble in the first couple of innings. Lowe struck out the side in the first, working around a single. Martis gave up a leadoff single to Kelly Johnson, but promptly got a double play off Yunel Escobar’s bat and then elicited another groundout from Chipper Jones. Lowe worked around a weak tapper to third base that went for a two-out infield hit in the second, while Martis gave up a leadoff double to Brian McCann but stranded him there with a comebacker and two flyouts.
Actual scoring happened in the third. Martis led off the frame with a groundball single up the middle, which was his first career hit. Lowe then plunked Lastings Milledge, which prompted the Nationals to (successfully) bunt. That brought up Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals’ undisputable best player, though one coming off a down year due to a shoulder injury that sapped his power. Lowe fell behind Zimmerman 3-1, which led an RBI double to right field. Fortunately for the Braves, only one run scored, as the runners had to hold up to make sure that no catch was made. That let Lowe escape the inning with just the 1-0 deficit, as he intentionally walked Adam Dunn and then struck out Nick Johnson and Elijah Dukes.
The Braves wasted no time getting that run right back, and then some. Jordan Schafer led off the inning by curling a single over first base. Lowe bunted him to second, which ended up being pointless when Martis walked Kelly Johnson on four straight pitches. He then threw two more balls to Yunel Escobar before finally throwing something hittable, which Escobar did indeed hit, into the left-center stands for a three-run homer. McCann would double later in the inning, but the three-run dinger was all the Braves would get.
Lowe led off the fourth with a walk to Jesus Flores, and then the rain intensified. It wasn’t just rain — lightning, hail, the whole shebang. It didn’t let up, either — the Braves, the Nationals, and the fans that stuck around had to wait over two hours for it to let up. The game resumed at around the time that it could have potentially been ending.
Buddy Carlyle, who had been a great story and an okay pitcher for the Braves in 2007 and 2008, came on to try to bridge the middle innings and turn the game over to the stronger relievers. He ended up allowing a couple of singles to load the bases, and lucked out as Flores’ catcher speed prevented him from scoring on a grounder through the right side. A pop out to shallow left and a Zimmerman grounder to third ended the inning. The Nationals inserted Wil Ledezma in Martis’ place, and he had a very avant-garde inning, striking out the side while walking Matt Diaz. Carlyle then worked another scoreless frame despite a leadoff walk and a hit, thanks to a double play ball from Nick Johnson. The Braves tacked on a fourth run against Ledezma in the fifth: Escobar singled, moved to second on a wild pitch, and then moved to third on a ball four that got away from Flores. McCann brought him in with a sacrifice fly. Casey Kotchman’s single chased Ledezma, but new reliever Julian Tavarez struck out Jeff Francouer.
While the Braves had a three-run lead at the moment, their inability to tack on more against a bullpen that would finish dead last in fWAR (and the only one with a negative relief fWAR in 2009) ended up costing them in the sixth. Carlyle began his third inning of work, but wouldn’t survive it. He gave up another leadoff walk, this time to former teammate Willie Harris (for those keeping score at home, the Braves had failed to retire the leadoff man in every inning since the second). Consecutive groundouts moved Harris to third, and a third found a hole, scoring him. With Zimmerman due up as the tying run, the Braves summoned Peter Moylan. However, Zimmerman quickly doubled to left-center, making it a 4-3 game. Out went Moylan, and in came Eric O’Flaherty to face Adam Dunn. That didn’t work out either, as Dunn laced an infield single off Casey Kotchman that allowed Zimmerman to score the tying run.
The game would stay tied, but only for a bit. The Braves failed to take advantage of a leadoff walk to Matt Diaz by new Washington reliever Steven Shell, who avoided getting shelled. Jeff Bennett (still around as a Brave, though his time with the team would come to an end before the season closed) nearly gave the Nationals a lead by allowing a leadoff single, a one-out hit-by-pitch, and then a walk, but was bailed out when Milledge hit a weak bouncer on a 3-1 pitch that turned into a 5-4-3 double play. The Braves then put together a little two-out rally against Saul Rivera in the seventh, with Francoeur singling in McCann, who had doubled.
In 2009, the Braves had a kinda-sorta platoon closer situation, with both Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez used interchangeably in the late innings. They would end up combining for 150 innings, 2.6 fWAR, and 2.55 WPA, so it was a pretty nifty setup. On this night, Soriano took the eighth and worked a 1-2-3 inning that included a strikeout of Zimmerman. The Braves nearly added a sixth run against Rivera in the bottom of the inning, with Kelly Johnson hitting a two-out opposite field slicing double to left and Escobar poking a single to right, but Elijah Dukes threw Johnson out at the plate.
So, onto the ninth, with Mike Gonzalez on for what could have been the game’s final three outs. Where Soriano soared, however, Gonzalez foundered. Despite the lefty-lefty matchup, Nick Johnson nearly led off the inning with a homer, and instead had to single for a double. Dukes then dropped a ball into right field where Francoeur couldn’t get it, putting the tying run on third with none out. Gonzalez recovered to get a weak fly from Flores that wasn’t deep enough to score the notoriously slow-footed Johnson, but then walked pinch-hitter Alberto Gonzalez, who was subbed in to force a left-on-right matchup. Running low on options, Washington skipper Manny Acta used backup catcher Wil Nieves in the pitcher’s spot, but he struck out swinging on six pitches. The Nationals had squandered their golden chances to tie the game, and due up now was Milledge, who had bailed the Braves out in a big way just a couple of innings ago.
Gonzalez quickly got ahead of Milledge 0-2, and the next pitch resulted in a grounder back to the mound. Gonzalez wasn’t in a good position to field the ball and waved his glove at it behind his back, trying desperately to snare it. Instead, the glove ended up deflecting the ball towards the Braves dugout. The tying run scored, and Gonzalez ending the frame with a three-pitch strikeout was little consolation. The already-a-marathon-thanks-to-a-rain-delay home opener would persist into some free baseball.
The Nationals turned to Joe Beimel to prevent a walkoff. He succeeded, but only at first. The Braves nearly walked it off in the ninth, but they’d have to wait a bit more for salvation. Chipper Jones led off the frame with a single to left center. McCann then nearly muscled a Beimel pitch out of the park near the left-field foul pole, but the ball didn’t quite make it, though it was deep enough to let Chipper tag up and take second. Two batters later, Francoeur nearly took Beimel out to dead center, but that ball too fell a bit short, and was just a harmless flyout.
Jorge Campillo came on to work the tenth. Campillo was a very strange case — he got nearly 160 innings for the Braves in 2008, and unlike some of the other smoke-and-mirrors seasons we’ve already covered during these flashbacks, it was legitimately decent: 93 ERA-, 93 FIP-, 95 xFIP-. Those numbers were not heavily weighted by a handful of relief outings, and while Campillo was awful the third time through the order, that wasn’t much of an issue. Still, the Braves entered 2009 with a revamped rotation featuring Lowe, Jair Jurrjens, Javier Vazquez, and Kenshin Kawakami, with only Jurrjens returning from the 2008 team. (Tim Hudson was on the team, but recovering from Tommy John Surgery.) There was theoretically a spot open for Campillo, but the Braves gave it to Jo-Jo Reyes, who was unlucky but blah in 2008. Campillo only ended up making five relief appearances for the big league Braves, a couple for the minor league Braves, and only 11 appearances total after his surprising 2008 season before returning to the Mexican League and then retiring after the 2012 season. This didn’t particularly hurt the Braves, given that the 2009 Jo-Jo Reyes experiment ended after just five starts that were similarly unlucky but also very blah, and eventually Tommy Hanson’s lucky-but-definitely-not-blah rookie season filled the void. Anyway! Campillo yielded a one-out walk to Dunn in the tenth, but retired the other three batters.
Beimel was still out there for the bottom of the tenth. The reckoning was quick. Schafer led off the inning and blooped a pitch near the left-field line for a leadoff single. Omar Infante entered the game in Mike Gonzalez’ spot as part of a double switch in the top of the inning, and hit a weak tapper to third that allowed Schafer to move up to second. Kelly Johnson then came up for the sixth time on the night, and with a 1-2 count, yanked a Beimel pitch into right field. Schafer raced around the third-base bag and made it home well ahead of Dukes’ throw from right field, ending the game.
Game MVP: Kelly Johnson, who went 3-for-5 with a double and a walk. In addition to his walkoff single, his double came in a one-run game in the eighth, but he was thrown out at home.
Game LVP: Joe Beimel, who nearly lost the game in the ninth before truly losing it in the 10th.
Biggest play: The most dramatic thing in this game was really the game-tying Milledge single. Not just because it came with two outs and an 0-2 count, but because of the way it briefly reversed Milledge’s terrible double play in the seventh.
The game, in context of the season: The 2009 Braves were, in the end, stalled by two stretches: going 8-11 through a big chunk of April, and then losing their last six games of the season. This was a good team with great pitching and a very deep roster of position players. Unfortunately, those two slides at the season’s bookends, and underperforming their run differential by five games, prevented them from making the postseason for the first time since 2005. This win certainly helped, and in fact the Braves swept the Nationals in their home-opening series. But, they then lost five straight and seven of eight, including two one-run games in Washington. They would suffer a four-game home sweep of the Nationals to end their season — despite going 10-4 against them prior to that series, and despite the Nationals winning just 59 games (including that four-game sweep) on the season.
Kelly Johnson was the hero in this one, but had his worst season as a Brave (85 wRC+, 0.5 fWAR in 346 PAs), which led to his non-tender at the end of the season. Johnson would go on to bust out with a 5.3 fWAR career year with the Diamondbacks, but then rapidly fell off into a bench role afterward. He had 10 different team-stints in his final six major league seasons, and was signed by the Braves and then traded to the Mets in two consecutive seasons before retiring.
The Nationals made this game competitive, but were generally horrible in 2009 before getting better over the next few years. They won just five games in April. Shairon Martis was about as bad in 2009 as he was in this game, and only lasted in the majors through June, despite the Nationals not really having many better options. He finished 2009 with more walks than strikeouts across 15 starts.
Video? It seems like it should be available, but I wasn’t able to find any. Probably a fun game to watch, though, if anyone can sleuth it. One day I’ll flash back to a more recent game with video, I promise.
Anything else? Peter Moylan did not retire a batter in this game. Incidentally, he also failed to retire a batter in his prior outing, a huge bullpen implosion loss to the Phillies that marked the Braves’ first defeat of 2009. Throughout Moylan’s career, these two outings were the only ones in which he failed to retire a batter in consecutive appearances. 2009 actually ended up being Moylan’s best season, anyway: he cleared 1.0 fWAR for the only time in his career, and 80 percent of his career fWAR were compiled in this season.
This game featured a .462 BABIP across both teams, despite it not being a particularly high-scoring affair.
Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about April 10: This happened just last year (it feels like a lifetime ago), but the first-ever images of a black hole were made available on this date last year, thanks to the Event Horizon Telescope project.