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Braves Flashback/Recap: April 7

In 2002, the Braves won an early-season marathon on a walkoff to stave off a sweep.

Atlanta Braves outfielder Marcus Giles (C) is grad Photo credit should read STEVE SCHAEFER/AFP via Getty Images

The 2002 Braves team was a funny one. On the one hand, you could make the case that it was the best Braves team in the 2000s, winning 101 out of 161 games games played that year. (As a fun bit of trivia, the Braves played one tie in 2002, as a result of an extra-inning game that got suspended due to rain and was never made up. It was the team’s first and only tie since 1989.) It also had nearly the best run differential of any of those teams, with its Pythagorean expectation of .602 falling just short of the 2013 team’s .603. And yet, in terms of production... not so much.

On the pitching end, there was no question. Only the 2001 team had more pitching fWAR than the 2002 squad, which had a rotation frontend of Millwood (4.6 fWAR), Maddux (3.9) and Glavine (2.9). But, the real bonanza of value was somehow in the 2002 team’s bullpen, which combined for 6.5 fWAR and had four different relievers finish with 1.0 or more: Smoltz (2.5), Chris Hammond (1.8), Mike Remlinger (1.5), and Darren Holmes (1.0). Holingongltz doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as easily as O’Ventbrel, but it was by far the best Atlanta bullpen since I’ve been watching, and a top-30 bullpen for across all teams in the same period. (The lead team seems unthinkable at this point, the 2003 Dodgers featuring Eric Gagne’s 4.7 fWAR, Guillermo Mota’s 2.1 in 105 innings, and only 13 relievers used total.)

On the hitting end, though, it was a bit grim. Across 19 seasons, it was 12th with a 94 wRC+ (including pitchers). It was middle-of-the-pack defensively, which meant that its 20-odd hitting/field fWAR was 14th of 19. By comparison, the elite position player crew of the 2003 team had nearly double the fWAR (35.6). The real issue was depth: the 2002 Braves had three elite performers in the Jones boys and Gary Sheffield, who combined for 17 fWAR alone. Beyond that, you had Rafael Furcal fielding but not hitting (88 wRC+) for another three wins or so... and then nothing. Matt Franco could hit but not field, Mark DeRosa, B.J. Surhoff, and Darren Bragg didn’t hit well enough to make up for defensive issues, and a bunch of other guys were just straight-terrible on offense or altogether, including Javy Lopez, Wes Helms, Keith Lockhart, Henry Blanco, and Vinny Castilla. Castilla somehow got enough rope to be allowed to play a full season in which he posted -1.5 fWAR and a 58 wRC+, which actually made the fact that he rebounded to provide three more at least semi-productive major league seasons super impressive.

Anyway, that combination of awesome bullpen and ugh hitting was very much on display on April 7, where it took 14 innings and a walkoff homer to put the Mets to bed, stave off a sweep, and climb back to .500.

How it happened: The pitching matchup for this game featured two southpaws at very different points in their career. The Mets started Al Leiter, who had already had over 15 seasons under his belt; the Braves countered with Damian Moss, an Australian rookie making his third career start.

The Braves struck first, as the good parts of the offense notched a first-inning run off Leiter. Andruw Jones worked a four-pitch walk, and then Chipper Jones drew a five-pitch base on balls. Gary Sheffield then hit a hard grounder up the middle, and the Braves were ahead. Julio Franco would also draw a four-pitch walk later in the inning, but that was sandwiched by Vinny Castilla and Marcus Giles strikeouts, and thus the Braves only had one run to show for Leiter’s three-walk inning.

After that, this was a very quiet game. Through five innings, Moss went three up, three down four times. He hit one batter with a pitch, and allowed a lone single that was erased on a double play. Leiter, meanwhile, more or less matched him, allowing just a couple of hits in the second, third, and fourth. The Braves had another scoring chance in the fifth but wasted it, as Julio Franco grounded out after the Braves loaded the bases on two singles and an error.

It was in the sixth that Moss faltered and New York got on the board. The eight-place hitter, hilariously weak-batting Rey Ordonez (career 54 wRC+ despite 3,400 career PAs of exposure!) knocked an infield single behind the second base bag. Moss then walked Leiter, which these days probably gets a guy pulled with the third time through the order imminent, but this was 2002. And because it was 2002, the Mets bunted with their leadoff hitter, which actually worked out for them. With one out and men on second and third, Jay Payton hit a seeing-eye grounder through the hole on the left side, tying the game. Robbie Alomar then grounded out to third, with Castilla not contesting Leiter’s sprint home, and the Mets were suddenly up. Leiter finished his outing by striking out the side in the bottom of the sixth, as both teams went to their respective bullpens.

Since I know “remember this guy?” is half the fun of these, the particular names that help stymie the other team were Tim Spooneybarger and Mike Remlinger for the Braves, and Mark Guthrie and Kane Davis for the Mets. A reliever that didn’t stymie the other team, meanwhile, was Scott Strickland, though it wasn’t entirely his fault. With one out in the eighth, Marcus Giles hit the first pitch he saw from Strickland to third base. The fielding was clean and the throw was fine, but first baseman John Valentin completely whiffed on catching the ball, and Giles was able to reach second on the gaffe. The Braves pinch-hit Javy Lopez in lieu of Henry Blanco with the tying run on second, but Lopez struck out in what would end up being his worst year to date, at least until his complete implosion during his final season in 2006 with Baltimore. Strickland pitched around pinch-hitter B.J. Surhoff to set up a righty-righty matchup with leadoff man Mark DeRosa, but that came around to bite him, as DeRosa worked a full count and then stroked a liner that dropped in front of the left fielder for a game-tying single. Surhoff advanced to third on the play but the Braves could not take the lead as Andruw Jones struck out on three pitches.

John Smoltz threw a scoreless ninth despite a walk and a single, and the Braves had a chance to walk it off against Grant Roberts. Chipper Jones singled to lead off the frame, and was replaced by Rafael Furcal, who didn’t start the game. Furcal moved to second on a groundout and then to third on a deep fly ball. Roberts intentionally walked Julio Franco and then spent five pitches trying to get Giles to chase — he didn’t, and that brought up Javy Lopez. The Mets pulled Roberts in favor of David Weathers, who got Lopez to bounce out to second. Onto extras the game went. And there it stayed.

Kerry Ligtenberg and Satoru Komiyama traded 1-2-3 tenths. In the 11th, Chris Hammond nearly broke the Braves’ streak of shutdown relief work by allowing back-to-back one out singles. The latter was just a roller through the right side, and it forced a first-and-third situation with one out. Fortunately for Hammond and the Braves, though, McKay Christensen, who had entered the game in a double switch in the tenth, was due up and matched up well with Hammond, lefty-on-lefty. Even more fortunately, Christensen hit a ball right to Julio Franco at first, and Franco was able to throw home to Lopez to cut down the runner. Bobby Cox didn’t take any further chances despite the Braves already being on their fifth reliever of the game, and lifted Hammond for righty Darren Holmes to face righty Vance Wilson, even though Wilson was basically a no-bat backup catcher. Hammond struck out Wilson on four pitches to preserve the tie.

Komiyama and Holmes then traded scoreless innings, with both allowing leadoff hits but nothing else. The game then started to get absurd as it wore on. In the 12th, the Braves got the winning run to second with one out thanks to a Marcus Giles double. The Mets walked Lopez to set up a double play, and with the Braves no longer having a bench, Tom Glavine was asked to pinch hit. That move ended up super-sucking, because Glavine immediately hit into an inning-ending double play. The Mets, at this point, had gotten three innings out of Komiyama, and he didn’t show much sign of slowing down, given that he was a soft-tossing finesse pitcher who featured something called a shakeball, which was a mix of Anibal Sanchez’ eephus and a more-standard knuckleball. But, the Braves had a counter, sort of! His name was Albie Lopez.

Lopez was a really weird case as a player. He was, for the most part, a replacement-level-type swingman or long reliever who had never topped 0.8 fWAR in a season prior to the 2001 campaign. In 2001, the (then-Devil) Rays chose to use him primarily as a starter, where he pitched like a fourth or fifth starter once again (113 FIP-). But, a deadline deal sent him to the (eventual World Champion) Diamondbacks, where he apparently found the Crimson Gem of Cyttorak in the Arizona desert and became Albie Lopez, 88 ERA-/86 FIP- awesome starter guy for 13 starts. On the flip side, Lopez was absolutely crushed in three postseason outings, and the Braves signed him in the offseason (for $4 million!!!!) with the intention of using him as the exact same swingman guy he was before that magical baker’s dozen in the desert.

Anyway, Lopez had actually started against the Mets two games ago (and got knocked around), but the Braves were now out of relievers, so in he went. In the top of the 13th, he issued back-to-back walks with two outs, but survived by striking out Vance Wilson. Komiyama threw yet another scoreless frame, this time in 1-2-3 fashion, and Lopez trotted back out to the mound for the 14th. This time, with two outs, Lopez randomly walked Komiyama but again didn’t pay the price because Jay Payton grounded out to end the inning. Aaaand Komiyama went right back out there for his fifth inning of work.

He didn’t make it to five full innings, though. Facing Gary Sheffield for a second time, Komiyama plunked him to lead off the frame. Three pitches later, a passed ball moved The Sheff to second, but Vinny Castilla struck out looking to make that a less exciting development. The Mets then walked Julio Franco to set up a double play Giles at the plate...

...but before we go on, let’s look at Giles’ perseverance in the face of futility in this game. In the first, he struck out with the bases loaded and two outs. In the fourth, he doubled with one out, but was stranded there. He led off the sixth with a strikeout, but in the eighth, he ended up scoring the tying run thanks to reaching on John Valentin’s two-base error when the latter failed to catch a routine throw from third. He drew a walk with two outs to load the bases in the ninth, but the next batter made an out. He hit a one-out double in the 12th, but it was Glavine’s double play that prevented that from turning to gold. So, finally, in the 14th...

...Komiyama threw a single pitch, a hanging slider, and Giles whacked it just over the wall in left field. The offensively-challenged 2002 Braves finally hit a homer, and it won them the game.

Game MVP: Giles put up .493 WPA in this one, his fourth-highest mark over his career. And he mercifully made the game end.

Game LVP: Vinny Castilla went 0-for-7 in this one, which was a pretty good summary of his season. It was the worst batting line of his career (he’d never gone 0-for-7 previously, or since), and the second-worst WPA mark (-.368) in career that spanned over 1,800 games. Castilla was the third-worst full-time player in baseball in 2002 (haha somehow Neifi Perez put up -2.9 fWAR for the Royals in 585 PAs because the early 2000s were a really weird time) so it made sense, but still, oof.

Biggest play: While yes, there was a walkoff homer in this one, the single biggest WPA shift in the game actually came on Mark DeRosa’s two-out single to score Giles and tie the game in the eighth.

The game, in context of the season: The 2002 Braves stumbled out of the gate with a 12-15 mark in April while scoring just 3.7 runs per game. They’d do much better the entire rest of the year, including an insane 21-5 run in June in which they scored over five runs a game and allowed just three runs a game (this might very well have been the best calendar month in Braves history), but the struggle was real, offensively, in the early going.

The Mets, meanwhile, started off really well, losing just one series in April (and taking two from the Braves). They led the division as late as May 29, but then went .500 over the next two months as the Braves got insanely good. They then pulled a reverse of the 2002 June Braves in August, going 6-21. They ended up finishing 75-86 and last in the division. By the way, that August collapse didn’t matter at all, as despite the Mets being 55-51 on July 31, they were already 13.5 games behind the Braves. (Holy Trout!)

This outing ended up being by far the longest of Komiyama’s MLB career. He spent just the one season with the Mets before heading back to Japan, where he bounced around between part-time commentating and trying to make it back as a pitcher.

I remember Albie Lopez being casually maligned by Braves fans in 2002, but he randomly busted out a 65 FIP- in four starts and 26 relief appearances. Of course, that was helped by a lot of fly ball luck (90 xFIP-), but I’m guessing everyone was just salty about his ERA (107 ERA-). There was also the fact that despite lasting the entire season with the Braves, he was effectively the long reliever of last resort, and weeks would sometimes elapse between Bobby Cox choosing to insert him into a game, which makes sense given how good the rest of the relief corps was that year. Still, Lopez managed 0.9 fWAR in 55 23 innings in 2002, which isn’t too shabby at all. Lopez would only appear in one more MLB season after 2002, where he was sub-replacement and profoundly terrible in 15 relief appearances for the Royals.

Video? Your guess is as good as mine. Seems like an epic game to rewatch if at all possible, though.

Anything else? Al Leiter ended up being kind of forgotten given how long this game ended up being, but his nine punchouts in this game ended up being a season high for him.

Despite the very productive game, Marcus Giles did not have a good 2002, compiling just 0.8 fWAR and an 87 wRC+ that was depressed by a sub-.250 BABIP. Giles would go on to have a crazy-good peak of nearly 15 fWAR across the next three seasons before utterly collapsing at the age of 28 and not even playing major league ball in his 30s, but he wasn’t quite there yet in 2002.

This game lasted nearly five hours (four hours, 59 minutes) in official time. It was the longest game the Mets would play all year by both innings and time; the Braves would play one longer game, a 16-inning loss to the Dodgers in May. Weirdly enough, this game lasted more than 30 minutes longer than a 15-inning loss the Braves would later play in June.

Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about April 7: This date was the birthdate of John “Little Napoleon” McGraw in 1873, and also of this guy, who... man, that Wikipedia article is a ride.

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