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Braves Flashback/Recap: April 21

A goofy yet really good game amidst a miserable month in a miserable season

Los Angeles Dodgers v Atlanta Braves Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

I’ve resisted it until now, given my enmity towards the quagmire that was the 2015-2017 seasons, but we had to get here eventually: this post is about a game played by the 2016 Atlanta Braves. However, fret not: this was game really good! Even though the Braves lost (because of course they did), it was maybe one of the best games they played all year (in some ways, but not others). If nothing else, it was at least entertaining, which is not something you could say for most games in the 2016 season.

It’s further worth noting that this game amidst a calendar month that was the second-worst in franchise history. As I noted here, the Braves’ final 5-18 tally in April 2016 trails only the 1988 team’s 3-16 record in the franchise’s annals of futility. This came in the middle of all of that — the Braves lost nine straight to start the year, then won four straight, and then lost another game heading into this April 21 contest against the Dodgers. One of those four wins was actually against these Dodgers, who would go on to win 91 games and their fourth straight division title, making this the rubber game. To win their second series of the year, these Braves would have to best Clayton Kershaw, who would be opposed by Matt Wisler. It was a crazy-unbalanced matchup, and yet... the game itself went into extra innings, and ended up being settled by a measly run.

Before recapping the game, it’s helpful to set the stage in terms of just how ridiculously bad this team was in April.

Recall, too, that this was after the “better offense at every position” public statement from then-GM John Coppolella. (In reality, the 2016 team would end up with marginally worse offense at most positions aside from 1B, CF, and LF. The main reason why the overall offensive output ended up close was because 2016 Freddie Freeman had a 20-point wRC+ boost over 2015 Freddie Freeman.) Anyway, the point is, up to this game, the Braves were the worst offensive team in MLB, one of the worst defensive teams in MLB, had the worst record, blah, blah, blah. Also, to cap it off, they’d be facing Clayton Kershaw and not starting Nick Markakis, essentially the team’s only real offensive performer for the month. (Let’s all have a hearty chuckle and/or crying jag about how Nick Markakis got marginally more rest in a throwaway 2016 season than in a 2018 that mattered.) And yet, and yet, and yet — 2-1 game! 10 innings!

(By the way, for those wondering — yes, Freddie Freeman’s 50 wRC+ shown above was the result of substantial xwOBA underperformance, but still, his xwOBA through April 20, 2016 was just .327, and he ended the month at .353 — one of his worst months offensively in the Statcast era in xwOBA terms.)

How it happened: It happened oddly. Starting for the Braves in this game would be Matt Wisler, one of the prospects acquired during the flurry of rebuilding trades that had already seen a sizable share of playing time with his new team. Wisler had a very ineffective debut season in 2015, but at least strung together three good starts to close out that season. He started 2016 as kinda-sorta the Braves’ number three starter, and did okay in his first two starts: seven runs in 12 23 innings with a 10/2 K/BB ratio but three homers allowed. He had a start skipped and made a perfect one-inning relief appearance instead, which set him up for this Thursday afternoon matchup with Kershaw.

Wisler got off to a good start initially, freezing Chase Utley with a curveball off the plate beautifully framed into a strike by Tyler Flowers. But, things quickly got silly. Corey Seager was next, and hit a cue shot off the end of his bat to Adonis Garcia. It was a super-routine grounder to third, but Garcia totally whiffed the throw. On a slider that caught Adrian Gonzalez looking, Seager successfully stole second. That brought up Joc Pederson, who flared Wisler’s first pitch into left field, which led to this:

Barves! 2016 Braves! The same thing, really. What’s crazy is how long Stubbs actually manages to hold on to the ball before letting it roll out of his glove. There was actually a chance for a very similar thing to happen on the very next ball in play, but Jeff Francoeur managed to actually hang on to the ball the entire way to end the inning.

So, down 1-0 to Clayton Kershaw before he even throws a pitch. Great. But hey, like I said, this was a good game! Erick Aybar took a 1-0 Kershaw offering and smashed it down the left-field line for a standup double. That set up Daniel Castro (Daniel Castro!) for this good news, bad news sequence:

Imagine that in a season where you get 139 PAs, your one extra-base hit comes off Clayton Kershaw. And not just any Kershaw, but best-ever FIP- Kershaw. You just imagined Daniel Castro’s 2016. He lived it. (Though, to be fair, that was a pretty bad route by Enrique Hernandez.) Kershaw recovered from the trauma of somehow allowing back-to-back doubles to Aybar and Castro by getting routine groundouts from Freeman and Garcia. This would be the only run he’d allow, but it wasn’t the last bit of fun the Braves would have at his expense.

Wisler’s second was an uneventful 1-2-3, but did feature this nifty bit of defense from Castro. He probably wouldn’t have gotten a normal runner here, but it was catcher A.J. Ellis at the plate.

Flowers, Francoeur, and Stubbs all hit singles off Kershaw to start the bottom of the second. But, since this was the 2016 Braves, they definitely got no runs out of it. Kershaw ate Mallex Smith alive on three pitches, and then uh... I don’t know. Confused gesture?

(Why was Wisler swinging here? I guess it doesn’t really matter.)

Both pitchers faced the minimum in the third. In the fourth, the Dodgers got a little rally going against Wisler, with back-to-back groundball singles to start the frame. But, Wisler successfully elevated pitch number 10 to Trayce Thompson to get a whiff (Thompson had fouled off five straight pitches before that) and then ended the inning with consecutive fly ball outs. The inning-ending one by Ellis went pretty far, but died just short of the track in left field.

Francoeur and Stubbs again collected singles off Kershaw in the bottom of the inning, this time of the two-out variety. They even both moved up into scoring position after Ellis failed to corral a Kershaw pitch that Smith swung through, but Kershaw again made the latter look silly to stifle a rally. In the fifth, both pitchers once again threw 1-2-3 frames. Wisler’s was helped by this truly awesome play by Freeman.

It was the Dodgers’ turn to rally ineffectually in the sixth. A one-out single by Gonzalez and a two-out walk by Thompson (the first walk of the game to that point) put a couple of ducks on the pond for Hernandez, but Wisler’s 101st pitch of the game was floated harmlessly into left-center, where Smith made a running catch. Then it was the Braves’ turn to be ineffectual: Freeman led off the inning with a single, but got thrown out trying to take second base on a ball in the dirt on one of those, “he beat the throw but popped up for a nanosecond with the tag applied” out calls. That actually ended up mattering (for this game, not for the season) because Garcia then blooped a pitch to right. Joc Pederson ended up overrunning the ball and allowing Garcia to take second; Freeman likely would have scored on the play had he made it down to second successfully. Instead, a groundout and a strikeout of Francoeur kept the game tied.

Sloppy baseball spelled the end of Wisler’s efforts in the seventh. Garcia booted Ellis’ bouncer to start the inning, but made up for it on the very next pitch by turning a Charlie Culberson grounder into a 5-4-3 double play. That brought up Kershaw, who hit what should have been a routine fly ball on an 0-2 count, but...

So much Barves in a game facing Kershaw, yet it somehow wasn’t a laugher. Wisler tried to pitch around Utley and get him to swing at something stupid, but Utley wouldn’t oblige and headed down to first after four pitches. That was Wisler’s second walk and the end of his day. He finished with 6 23 innings, a 6/2 K/BB ratio, and a bunch of extra pitches thrown due to the “defense” behind him. On came Eric O’Flaherty, in the post-awesome, cruising towards retirement phase of his career (he had re-signed with the Braves ahead of the 2016 season after spending two campaigns elsewhere). O’Flaherty didn’t quite do his job, as he fell behind Seager 2-0 and then gave up a hit, but...

I’m actually not entirely sure how Kershaw was ruled out on that play (and neither was rookie Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts, who challenged the play unsuccessfully), but it kind of cancels out with the Freeman out at second base, which I also found puzzling.

His fun at the plate and on the bases over, Kershaw went back to his day job and hurled another 1-2-3 inning, including another (three-pitch) strikeout of Smith.

For the top of the eighth, the Braves called on Jim Johnson, who had re-signed with the Braves ahead of the 2016 season after they dealt him to the Dodgers in mid-2015. Johnson had a very shaky inning: he allowed a leadoff single, and then after collecting two outs, issued back-to-back walks to Hernandez and a pinch-hitting Yasmani Grandal to load the bases. The Dodgers tried to make things happen by substituting usual starter Justin Turner in for Culberson, but Turner flied out weakly to right on the first pitch he saw, and the game remained tied. Kershaw started the bottom of the inning with back-to-back strikeouts, and momentarily got into hot water himself after walking Freeman and letting Garcia fight off a pitch into right for a single. But, Flowers bounced one over to Turner at third, so nothing doing.

The ninth was Arodys Vizcaino’s, and the Dodgers finally removed Kershaw from the game for pinch-hitter Howie Kendrick. He fouled out, which was big because with Wisler out of the game, Utley took advantage and hit a one-out double that bounced up against the right-field fence. A groundout moved Utley to third, but after Vizcaino intentionally walked Gonzalez, he struck out Pederson on a weird elevated slider.

With Kershaw gone, the Dodgers turned to Chris Hatcher. Hatcher was generally not an effective reliever, but the 2016 Braves were not an effective offensive team. It took Hatcher 11 pitches to get through the inning, sending the game into extras.

The tenth saw the entry of Nick Markakis (into right field) and Alexi Ogando (pitching for the home team). Ogando was, at least for one season (2011) a very good starter, but had been a replacement-level reliever for the last few, which is how he found himself on a Braves team that would use 26 different relievers over the course of the season. He started his day well by punching out Thompson, but then allowed a one-out single to Hernandez, bringing up Grandal. And Grandal, well, Grandal feasted.

Ogando was able to limit the damage by striking out Turner and getting Kendrick to line out to Markakis in right, but the Braves were now trailing, with Kenley Jansen waiting in the wings.

To this point, Jansen had not yet allowed a run in April. He’d allow only 14 all year, and the first time he allowed more than two runs in a month was August. He actually didn’t allow a run on the season until April 29. That doesn’t mean the Braves didn’t make it interesting, but yeah, they lost. You knew that already. Nick Markakis started the inning by striking out. That brought up Aybar, who again doubled, this time slashing a ball into the left-field corner. (This was actually the only time in 2016 that Aybar would have multiple extra-base hits in a game, but you know, “better offense at every position.” Andrelton Simmons finished 2016 with a 90 wRC+, compared to Aybar’s 65.) Aybar and Castro had teamed up to get one over on Kershaw, and for a brief second, it seemed like they might do so again on Jansen, as Castro hit a pitch pretty well to right. But, it had little oomph on it, and was easily flagged down, with Aybar moving to third. That left it all up to Freddie Freeman, which was not a terrible position to be in, all things considered, but...

Freeman had the height and the distance had he hit it not to center, but he did, Thompson caught it, and the game was over. Still, not a bad use of three and a half hours on a Thursday afternoon.

Game MVP: Clayton Kershaw went eight frames with a 10/1 K/BB ratio in this game, and this wasn’t even a top-five (maybe not even a top-10, but probably, given that he only made 21 starts in 2016) start for him. He good.

Game LVP: Alexi Ogando, because the Braves had actually managed to play a very entertaining game until he ruined it, and he didn’t even have bad defense behind him to blame.

Biggest play: Grandal’s fun-ruining, game-winning double.

The game, in context of the season: You already know that the Braves were terrible in 2016, and mega-terrible in April. You’ve also probably surmised that this game was part of another long losing streak, and it was: the second of eight straight losses. The 2016 Braves lost nine straight, won four straight, lost eight straight, and then changed it up by winning a game and then losing a game to end the month.

The Dodgers, meanwhile, had a really ineffectual April, which you could maybe kind of gather by the fact that they didn’t crush the Braves in this game, and that somehow they actually lost a game earlier in the series. The Dodgers went 12-13 in April 2016, which was their worst calendar month mark since September 2013 (imagine being a fan of a team that rarely has a losing month, much less year) and wouldn’t be met again until September 2017. Yes, the Dodgers played four straight seasons in which they had a combined two (out of 24) losing months. As far as 2016 goes, the Dodgers were as far as eight games back in the division in late June, but picked it up in July and August to take over the division for good on August 21.

Matt Wisler was one of the big stories for the Braves in this game, but he’d immediately take a step back by getting shelled by the Red Sox in his very next start. However, right after that, he reeled off something like his best calendar month ever, starting with shutting out the Mets for eight innings, and then moving on to another five starts where he allowed 12 runs in 35 innings with a 25/8 K/BB ratio and just two total homers given up. As nice as that was for him, he was mostly terrible for the rest of the season, and finished with just 0.5 fWAR in 156 23 innings, which, to date, has still been his best single season.

So many of the Braves appearing in this game didn’t make it to the end of the 2016 with Atlanta, including Aybar, Francoeur, Stubbs, and Ogando.

Video: Yep, I got you covered.

Here’s a two-minute recap:

Here’s the Condensed Game:

(Watch it, it’s good! Great use of 15 minutes.)

Anything else? Kershaw and Grandal combined for 12.3 fWAR in 2016. That’s about the same total that the 2016 Braves, less Freddie Freeman, managed as a team. Cool cool cool cool cool.

This was the most hits (10) Kershaw allowed in a game in 2016. In his career, he’s only allowed 10 or more hits six times, and gotten shelled or at least kinda-scuffled in each game where that happened... except this one.

This game also touched off more complaining about the state of Turner Field’s infield and grass in its final season, a minor refrain that resounded throughout 2016.

Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool that happened on April 21: This is the “official” date for the founding of Rome. In something that I find pretty amusing, the historical record generally indicates that Romans were certain that their city was founded on a specific calendar date, but had no real idea of the year in which the founding took place. It’s a very forest-for-the-trees bit of historiographic circumstance. While we use 753 BC as the “consensus” year for Rome’s founding, the reality is probably that shrug ascii text. That should also apply to the date, but traditions gonna tradition.

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