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Braves Flashback/Recap: April 23

Aaron Harang pitched the game of his late-career life

Miami Marlins v Atlanta Braves Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

When we last checked in on the eventually-doomed 2014 Braves, they were enjoying one of the most epic moments (and gifs) of the decade, thanks to Dan Uggla’s grand slam. A couple of weeks later, they tangled with the Marlins where another relative newcomer ended up having (kinda-sorta) the game of his life. The Braves won, and he didn’t really even factor into the decision, but it was a cool outing nonetheless.

How it happened: The newcomer we’re talking about here, is Aaron Harang. Harang had a great peak in 2005-2007 with the Reds, but had basically been an average starter, at best, in the 2008-2012 period. In 2013, though, he had his worst season ever (0.5 fWAR total), and a low strand rate made the results even worse. Harang was signed by Cleveland ahead of the 2014 season, but was released in Spring Training — the Braves scooped him up amidst a series of injuries to their rotation. In shades of Anibal Sanchez four years later, Harang would go on to have a weirdly solid year that no one expected. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Harang’s opposing starter was interesting in his own right: 24-year-old Nathan Eovaldi, acquired by the Marlins in the Hanley Ramirez trade, who was pretty interesting (1.4 fWAR in 106 innings in 2013, 2.8 fWAR in his first 260 innings entering the 2014 season) if already starting to develop a reputation as constantly injured. With these two guys on the hill, there would not be a lot of offense to be had. There, would, however, be a lot of strikeouts. Like, a lot of strikeouts.

Harang started his day with a 1-2-3 inning that got Christian Yelich looking on a pitch down the pipe, got Marcell Ozuna to fly out to center, and then had Giancarlo Stanton chase a slider in the dirt away. Eovaldi gave up a leadoff broken-bat single to Jason Heyward and walked Freddie Freeman with one out, but battled back to get Chris Johnson to foul out and Ryan Doumit to fly out to end a long but scoreless half-inning. Harang responded with a nine-pitch inning that featured a strikeout of Garrett Jones on a well-framed pitch outside the zone by Gerald Laird. Eovaldi had an easier second inning, working around a two-out Laird seeing-eye single, though he was helped on a diving stab at third base by Casey McGehee that robbed Jordan Schafer of a hit. The first out of that inning featured Eovaldi making former teammate Dan Uggla look totally silly on a slider inside the zone.

Harang’s perfect streak ended to lead off the third, as Adeiny Hechavarria rolled one up the middle. But, he’d still face the minimum, as he struck out both Jeff Mathis and Eovaldi, the latter on a bunt attempt. Hechavarria then got gunned down by Laird trying to steal second with Yelich at the plate. Eovaldi matched him again with a 1-2-3 frame, striking out Freeman at the end. Harang’s fourth then looked very much like his first, as he again struck out Yelich and Stanton. The only difference in the box score was that Ozuna hit a soft tapper back to the mound rather than flying out.

The Braves would get to Eovaldi, but really the Miami defense, a tiny bit in the fourth. Chris Johnson led off the inning with a high bouncer to Hechavarria that gave him enough time to get down the line. The Hech probably would have gunned him out anyway, but his throw was a little high and pulled the first baseman off the bag. Johnson moved up to second on a wild pitch and then scored as Doumit smashed a ball up the middle. However, it took Eovaldi just nine more pitches to stifle the rally: first-pitch flyout, three-pitch strikeout of Schafer, five-pitch strikeout of Laird.

The fifth would be the first Miami inning in which they completed four PAs against Harang. Unfortunately for them, the only difference between it and a 1-2-3 frame was a two-out single by Derek Dietrich. Four pitches later, you guessed it: Harang struck out Hechavarria to end the inning.

It looked like the Braves would be able to get another run off Eovaldi in the fifth, as Heyward and Andrelton Simmons both hit one-out “singles” to left. In both cases, the balls were hit to Hechavarria, and he failed to come up with either, with the first skipping under his glove, and the second bouncing off the top when he jumped. However, it ended up being completely irrelevant, as Freeman hit a one-hopper back to Eovaldi that started a 1-6-3 double play to end the inning.

The sixth was a weird inning for Harang. On the one hand, he struck out the side, which he actually hadn’t done in any of his first five innings. On the other hand, the Marlins tied the game. It all started when Jeff Mathis (yes, the catcher) laid down a bunt on the first pitch of the inning and beat out the (off-target, but it didn’t matter) throw from Chris Johnson at third. Harang then struck out Eovaldi (foul bunt) and Yelich (waving at an outside slider), but Ozuna bounced one past a diving Johnson to put two on base. Harang and Stanton danced to a full count, and on the sixth pitch, this happened:

Basically, Stanton somehow managed to hit a pop-up that fell between not three, but four Atlanta defenders. Mathis was able to “race” around and score the tying run, Ozuna moved to third, and that, my friends, was the first extra-base hit in this game. It wouldn’t be the last, though. Harang came right back to strike out Garrett Jones to end the inning. Eovaldi didn’t let the Braves take another lead in his last inning, mixing in a hit-by-pitch and a groundout with two strikeouts. He finished his day allowing just seven baserunners and one unearned run that really wasn’t his fault in six innings, with a 7/1 K/BB ratio.

With Harang just at 93 pitches and having already faced the scary part of Miami’s lineup a third time, the Braves let him start the seventh. However, eight pitches later, they reversed course. First, he issued a four-pitch walk to McGehee. (In Harang’s defense, ball three was clearly a strike.) Then, Dietrich found a high, fairly slow (88 mph) four-seamer he liked and looped over Uggla’s head. Out came Fredi Gonzalez, and that was that for Harang. He ended his day with six-plus innings of work, seven baserunners, the one run on a stupid pop-up, and 11, count ‘em, 11 strikeouts.

In came Jordan Walden to try and bail Harang and the Braves out of their nascent jam. Did he? Oh, boy, did he ever.

Hechavarria? Overpowered on three pitches. Pinch-hitter and former Brave Jarrod Saltalamacchia? Down swinging at offspeed. Pinch-hitter Greg Dobbs, batting in Eovaldi’s spot? Waving at an outside fastball. See ya.

With the game tied, the Marlins brought in their own fireballer, Carlos Marmol. Marmol had, once upon a time, been a dominant closer for the Cubs (2.7 fWAR in 2010) but had sunk to replacement level by 2012 and was putrid (-0.6 fWAR) in 2013. The Marlins snatched him up hoping for a bounceback, but it wasn’t quite happening: Marmol had a 120 ERA- and 138 FIP- coming into this game. However, this was not another Marmol meltdown. Laird grounded out, pinch-hitter Justin Upton struck out, and Heyward walked. But, on that last pitch to Heyward, Marmol pulled a hamstring, and ended up being replaced by former Brave Mike Dunn, who struck out Simmons to send the game to the eighth.

The Braves tabbed Luis Avilan to hold the Fish at bay. He... didn’t, not really. Yelich, probably glad to see Harang out of the game, reached on a bunt single to Avilan’s left. Avilan made an awkward sliding grab, but his across-the-body lob to Freeman was late. Avilan now had to face two righties in high leverage. Ozuna hit a bouncer up the middle, and a nice connection between Uggla and Simmons forced Yelich out at second. Simmons pulled off a normal-for-him-bonkers-for-anyone-else bit of athleticism to make the turn and throw the ball on to first, but he couldn’t get anything on it and Ozuna reached first safely. Avilan then got out of having to face Stanton courtesy of a wild pitch and an intentional walk. That set up a lefty-lefty matchup with Garrett Jones that Avilan won via foulout, and David Carpenter came in to face the righty-batting McGehee with two out. Carpenter and McGehee battled for eight pitches and the latter ultimately put a good swing on a down-the-pipe, challenge fastball, but lined it straight at Heyward in right.

Dunn picked up where he left off in the seventh, striking out Freeman looking to start the inning. He had trouble throwing strikes to Chris Johnson and ultimately walked him, but then came right back to whiff Doumit. With two out, Uggla faced off against part of the trade package that netted him from the Marlins and bounced one up the middle. Dietrich was able to field the ball, but his attempted toss to second didn’t go anywhere near the second-base bag and instead flew towards where the shortstop normally plays. The Braves pushed a button, sending big bad Evan Gattis in to pinch-hit for Jordan Schafer. The Marlins countered, swapping Dunn out for A.J. Ramos. Guess who won?

So yeah, don’t mess with Gattis. This was actually the second time in this series that Gattis had killed the Marlins; he had mashed a two-run walkoff homer two days earlier in the series opener. Ramos was able to strike out Laird, but the Braves had a lead heading to the ninth. “Welcome to the Jungle” began playing over Turner Field’s sound system. It was Kimbrel time.

Kimbrel had actually blown a save before Gattis’ walkoff homer two days earlier, but the Marlins wouldn’t pull one over on him twice in this series. Dietrich flied out to right. Hechavarria, blown away yet again, this time on high heat. Saltalamacchia put up a six-pitch battle, but ultimately went down on 95 right down the pipe. Game over.

Game MVP: Harang was phenomenal, but you gotta give it up for the big guy in this one. Evan Gattis was just so fun to watch in 2013 and 2014.

Game LVP: Sorry, A.J. Ramos. You know what they say: you mess with El Oso, no es fabuloso.

Biggest play: There’s just something about righty-righty pinch-hit game-winning doubles by guys not wearing batting gloves that really makes me happy.

The game, in context of the season: Let’s start with Aaron Harang. Here’s a video of his 11 strikeouts.

Harang’s FIP for this game was -0.03. Yes, negative. In his entire career, across 381 starts, he never posted a lower FIP in a game, aside from one four-inning relief appearance in 2008. His xFIP was 1.00, the second-lowest in those 381 starts (a 13 K, 2 BB game in 2012 had a lower xFIP). That 2012 game set his career high for strikeouts — this was the most he’d had since then, and wouldn’t even top nine strikeouts for the rest of his career. Harang would finish the year with 2.8 fWAR, Amazingly, that was only the fourth-highest mark in a solid 2014 Braves rotation... that’s not what let the team down, in the end. Harang would leverage his 2014 into a $5 million capper with the Phillies, where he regressed pretty heavily (1.2 fWAR, ERA-/FIP-/xFIP- all in the 120s) and retired afterwards.

Eovaldi put together the best season of his career in 2014, but was unlucky with BABIP and strand rate (121 ERA-, 94 FIP-). It’s hard to believe these days, but he pitched 199 innings in 2014 before being traded to the Yankees and having the injuries take hold. He was actually better on a rate basis in 2015, but only managed 154 innings, and has been able to pitch fewer and fewer innings every year since.

The Braves improved to 14-7 with this win. As previously noted, they were awesome in April and collapsed in September in disappointing fashion. Still, April was very fun, and much of the rest of the season was too, until it all came crashing down. This was the start of a four-game winning streak for Atlanta, and they lost seven straight after that streak ended. The Marlins finished with 77 wins in 2014. They were 20-15 on May 8 and held a half-game lead in the division, but then immediately lost five straight and hovered near .500 for the rest of the year. They actually ended up winning the season series against the Braves, 10-9.

Videos: Oh, yes.


Condensed game:

Anything else? A lot of fun trivia about this game. While Harang’s 11-strikeout outing was a feat, it was actually the second consecutive game in which the Braves had a starter with 11 punchouts. Alex Wood pitched an eight-inning, 11 K gem in the prior game... but was bested by Jose Fernandez and his eight-inning, 14 K masterpiece. The Braves lost that two-hour, eight-minute game 1-0; the only run scored on the only sequence of the game where there were two consecutive non-outs (Stanton double, McGehee single). Mike Minor and Julio Teheran would pull off a similar feat against the Nationals in June 2014 (10 Ks for one, 11 for the other); Teheran and Ervin Santana would then do so again in the same series (but not back-to-back games) against the Marlins in July. And of course, in the final series at Turner Field, Aaron Blair and Teheran would do so again, combining for 22 strikeouts.

The Braves’ staff struck out 16 batters total in a nine-inning game. They previously had accomplished this feat in September 2012, and they wouldn’t do so again until June 2018, the only time it’s happened since. The franchise record in a nine-inning game is 18, accomplished twice (2005, 2011). Amazingly, the Braves lost both games. Even more amazingly, in the 2011 game, the starter (Brandon Beachy) only notched eight strikeouts, and the bullpen added another 10, including Arodys Vizcaino, Jonny Venters, and Kimbrel striking out the side.

This game was Walden’s highest WPA game of the season, and his highest overall as a Brave. Walden was pretty strong in both years in Atlanta, but was dealt along with Heyward to the Cardinals before the 2015 season and barely pitched afterwards, succumbing to a series of injuries. Walden actually had a fair bit of “face three batters, strike out three batters” in his career.

Carlos Marmol recovered fairly quickly from his hamstring pull, but only made five more major league appearances in his career. He finished his major league ledger with a ghastly 2014 in which he put up -0.5 fWAR and -1.05 WPA in just 13 13 innings. Ouch.

Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about April 23: In 2005, this date marked the publication of the first-ever YouTube video. Now, we use YouTube to embed MLB highlights. Yay. This date also marks some other random firsts: the first game played at Wrigley Field, in 1914, and the founding of the first public school in the U.S., Boston Latin, in 1635.

Also, for a bonus, check out what happened to the Cubs on April 23, 2014 — the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field’s opening.

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