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Braves Recap/Flashback: April 5

The darkest day for Greg Maddux

Maddux pitches Photo By Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

Baseball is very regimented. You can slice it almost any way you want — from seasons to games to individual PAs, or even individual pitches. Each one is a journey and a battle in and of itself, and tells you something. The sport itself ends up being a kaleidoscope of all of these discrete-but-also-not-discrete-at-all events, swirling together into outcomes, experiences, and eventually, memories.

There were a lot of choices for April 5: the season was largely in full swing at this point across most of the 2000s and 2010s. There was even perhaps a very obvious choice: Heyward’s Opening Day homer, anyone? Yeah, that happened on April 5, 2010, and that entire game was an epic Braves smackdown of Carlos Zambrano and the Cubs. But, I want to focus today on something else, for one specific reason. The Braves lost, and lost big on April 5, 2003. It was an illustration of how the most bedeviling things in baseball are also its most magnificent. On that day, four-time Cy Young Award winner and eight-time All-Star Greg Maddux, pitching for a team that had won 101 games the prior season, was set to face the Florida Marlins, a team that had won 79 games last season. His pitching opponent would be Josh Beckett, who’d had a strong partial season in 2002 but got blasted for seven runs by the Phillies on Opening Day, with a ghastly 1/4 K/BB ratio.

The final result was 17-1... in favor of the Marlins. It was essentially (and perhaps arguably, but a strong contender) for the worst start in the illustrious career of Greg Maddux. It was Atlanta’s biggest loss, by run differential, since 2000, and Florida’s biggest win since 1995.

How it happened: All of this happened very quickly. This wasn’t “Greg Maddux was good and melted down late.” This was over not long after it started. It took Maddux all of three pitches to give up his first run: Juan Pierre doubled on an 0-1 pitch, and Andy Fox brought him in with a line-drive single to left. Maddux got an out on the very next pitch by getting a deep flyout from Ivan Rodriguez, but then two consecutive errors on grounders (one by Vinny Castilla at third, one by Maddux himself on a comebacker) loaded the bases, and Juan Encarnacion singled up the middle to score two more. Maddux was eventually forced to issue a walk to the eight-place hitter to bring Beckett up, and even Beckett made solid contact, lining out to first to end the inning.

The Marlins brought nine men to the plate in the first, and they’d do it again in the second, which was far worse for Maddux. The inning started with two lineouts, both to shortstop, both on 1-0 pitches. Ivan Rodriguez then did what he didn’t quite manage in the first, knocking a ball into the stands. After allowing a single, Maddux then allowed a second homer, this time to Mike Lowell. Encarnacion then hit another grounder single, this time between third and short, and after he stole second, Maddux issued another intentional walk, this time to bring up Alex Gonzalez (who was intentionally walked the prior inning). That move didn’t work out at all, as Gonzalez absolutely crushed an 0-1 pitch to straightaway center for a three-run homer. Once again, Beckett had to be retired for the third out of the inning.

So that was Maddux’ start: two innings, 18 batters faced, eight hits, two intentional walks, two strikeouts, and nine runs (seven earned). The most homers Maddux ever allowed in a start was three. He allowed three in the same inning. Maddux made 740 starts in his career. This was how this started ranked among those by various metrics:

  • Fangraphs’ Game Score (v2): worst, with a -11. One of only two career Maddux starts with a negative GSv2.
  • ERA, FIP: second-worst, worst as a Brave, worst since 1990
  • Innings pitched: fifth-shortest overall, shortest in terms of removal for performance reasons.

That was really everything of note in this game, though the Braves would let a procession of relievers bleed tons more runs. Trey Hodges, who came on for the third, allowed a leadoff walk and a trio of singles to give the Marlins their tenth and eleventh runs. Joey Dawley pitched two scoreless frames, but then didn’t retire a single batter in his third inning of work (including allowing an RBI single to Beckett). The Marlins had 15 when he left, and even when Jung Bong coaxed a double play ball from the first batter he faced, a run scored. The Marlins got their final run against Kevin Gryboski in the eighth.

Meanwhile, the Braves couldn’t do anything against Josh Beckett, who struck out nine and walked three. The sole Atlanta run came from a Gary Sheffield RBI groundball single, the last in a series of four straight batters to reach against Beckett to lead off the third. However, Beckett then retired Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, and Darren Bragg in order, and allowed just a couple of singles and a walk the rest of the way. The Braves ended up removing Castilla, Sheffield, and Andruw Jones in favor of getting their backups some work, and the Braves managed just a couple of singles in three innings against Florida’s relief corps.

Game MVP: Technically the entire Florida offense. You can really take your pick between Mike Lowell (the two-run homer that made it a 6-0 game), Juan Encarnacion (the two-run single that made it a 3-0 game), or Alex Gonzalez, who hit the three-run homer and drove in five on the night.

Game LVP: I mean, come on.

Biggest play: Juan Encarnacion’s groundball single in the first was probably the most damning, as the three-run shot by Gonzalez in the second came when the win expectancy for Florida was already nearly 100 percent.

The game, in context of the season: Here’s the thing. This game was awful for the Braves, and for Maddux. The Braves fell to 1-4 on the year. They came right back to win the next two with the Marlins by a combined score of 16-4, and despite getting outscored by 16 runs in one game, actually outscored Florida 29-28 in the four-game series. They then stumbled around for a bit, sitting at 4-8 on April 12, but then pulled off a 13-2 run to end April at 17-10, which was the best first-month performance in the 2000s for a team that tended to start slow during the latter third of its division title streak.

This also wasn’t any kind of real precursor of things to come. The Braves won 101 games for a second consecutive season, and at one point led the division by over 20 games. Greg Maddux had a terrible start, yes, and followed it up by getting knocked around by the Phillies as well. But by season’s end, he had still put up 3.6 fWAR with a 92 ERA- and 90 FIP-. It was the worst Maddux seasonal performance since 1987, but this is Greg Maddux we’re talking about: his worst is not too far off from most hurlers’ best.

Sure, the Marlins won the World Series, but that all just rolls into the very baseball-y, but also life-y lessons to be drawn from this game. Sometimes bad stuff happens, and all you can do is just put behind you, get up the next day, and try to do better, which the Braves did immediately by beating the Fish 14-3 in the following game. That doesn’t make what happened not-horrible, but baseball just hurtles forward, either way. And sure, sometimes a team hires a 72-year-old manager to replace Jeff Torborg after a torpid start, and somehow reels off a 75-49 regular season run to capture a Wild Card spot, and then goes 11-6 in the playoffs to win a championship, but again, stuff just happens. That’s why we love baseball, even if it makes us crazy sometimes.

The funny thing is, a similar scenario would play out later in the same season, when the Marlins creamed the Braves by a 20-1 score on July 1. Beckett was again the recipient of all that support, and the Marlins scored nine off Mike Hampton, five off Bong, four off Hodges, and two off Roberto Hernandez... and yet, life went on. The Braves went 20-7 for the rest of the month. There’s always some perspective when you zoom out just a bit more, I guess.

I want a (video) recap: No, you don’t. Though if anyone finds one, I’m very interested.

Anything else? I think I’ll just let this one speak for itself.

Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about April 5: Canada made an underwater mountain go boom on this day in 1958. Really, really boom.

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