The 2003 Braves were really good, due to a dominant position player group. The 2003 Phillies were okay. Sometimes, things don’t go according to plan. But sometimes, things are just a little weirder. On April 8, 2003, the Braves lost to the Phillies by just a run, as the Phillies needed 10 innings to walk off on the Braves. The thing is, though, the Braves walked ten Philadelphia batters in this game. It’s actually kind of weird that this game ended up being as close as it was, given the serious lack of strikes that afflicted Atlanta pitching in this game.
How it happened: In the end, this game featured 90 PAs. Of the 90, 17 were strikeouts and 16 were walks — over a third of the PAs in the game featured no contact. (This wasn’t quite modern baseball, though — no homers!)
The walk-and-strikeout fest started early, and never really abated. Four happened in the top of the first, as Philadelphia starter Randy Wolf struck out the side while issuing a two-out double to Gary Sheffield and then an unintentional intentional four-pitch walk to Chipper Jones. Jason Marquis didn’t walk anyone in the bottom half of the inning, but he did notch a strikeout and hit a batter with a pitch.
The Braves strung together one-out singles in the second, but couldn’t score a run as back-to-back popouts (including Marquis popping up a bunt to the catcher) ended the frame. Then, things got messy. Pat Burrell hit a routine grounder to Marcus Giles at second to start the bottom of the inning, but Giles whiffed the throw. Before Marquis threw another pitch, he caught Burrell leaning too far from first base... but the throw was wide of Robert Fick at first base, and just like that, with one pitch thrown, back-to-back errors put a man on second. Marquis got a can of corn to center for the first out of the inning, but then issued back-to-back walks to Mike Lieberthal and Marlon Byrd. On the plus side, Wolf was now up. On the minus side, Wolf hit a line-drive single into left-center, and the Phillies had a two-run lead. Jimmy Rollins then singled to left, scoring a third run. Marquis then got nearly-identical 2-1 comebackers to end the inning.
In another pretty weird half-inning for this game, the Braves hit three groundouts and a single off Wolf in the top of the third. Marquis then proceeded to walk the bases loaded in the bottom of the inning, but luckily that brought up Wolf with two outs, and this time Wolf struck out on three pitches rather than gutting the Braves’ hopes further.
In the fourth, it was time for Wolf and the Phillies to kick the ball around and help the Braves crawl back into the game. Turnabout is fair play, after all. With one out, Wolf walked Vinny Castilla, spiked a pitch that resulted in a passed ball, but then also walked Marcus Giles. The Braves didn’t pinch-hit for Marquis but rather let him try to bunt once more, and this time he got it down. That proved handy, as Wolf buried an 0-1 pitch to Furcal a little too well and it got away from Mike Lieberthal at catcher, allowing Castilla to scamper home for the first Atlanta run. A few pitches later, Furcal got a 3-1 offering that he liked and smacked it into left for an RBI single. Fick nearly turned a 3-2 deficit into a 4-3 lead by driving a 2-0 pitch deep into right field, but he didn’t quite get enough and it was just a loud inning-ending out. The next three half-innings featured three strikeouts and a walk, but no other action.
The Braves tied the game in the sixth. Wolf walked Giles on five pitches. The Braves actually let Marquis bat for himself, again, at least to start the PA. But, Wolf’s first pitch was out of Lieberthal’s reach once again, and Giles moved up to second. It was at that point that the Braves pulled Marquis in favor of Julio Franco. (To be clear, the Braves were not going to pinch-hit for Marquis despite it being the sixth inning and the tying run being on base with two outs, until that run moved up to second.) The Phillies countered by removing Wolf for Carlos Silva, effectively a longman rather than a high-leverage reliever. The Braves came out on top in this brief tactics sortie,as Franco doubled to right, tying the game. Another deep drive to right, this time off Furcal’s bat, failed to eke out of the park and instead ended the frame.
But wait, this was a game about walks, and also strikeouts. Don’t worry, Darren Holmes had you covered. Holmes was a great story for 2002, when he returned from not being able to latch on with any team the prior season after an awful 2000 to post 1.0 fWAR and 1.7 RA9-WAR for the Braves. He was still quite good in 2003 (0.6 fWAR, 73 FIP-), but a .365 BABIP-against gave him a league-average ERA-, and he would retire after the year to spend more time with his family. In any case, Holmes managed to face four batters in this one. He struck out the first two, and then walked the next two. He was replaced by Jung Bong, one of only three pitchers to appear in this game who didn’t walk anyone. Bong got a groundout to strand Holmes’ two walks, and later threw a 1-2-3 inning.
The Braves had some chances to take the lead against Silva in the seventh, as Fick led off the frame with a single, and a two-out walk by Andruw Jones would move the go-ahead run to second. But, Javy Lopez, who would make 2003 his personal playground (170 wRC+, 6.8 fWAR) by the time it was all said and done, grounded out to third. The game remained tied at three runs apiece.
For some reason, there was a lot of bunting in this game. The Braves bunted five times. One of those came in a strange situation in the eighth, as Marcus Giles bunted ahead of the pitcher’s spot. While his bunt successfully moved the go-ahead run to second with one out, it ended up being pointless as pinch-hitter Matt Franco and Furcal both failed to score the runner. In the bottom of the eighth, it was Philadelphia’s turn to give away outs for no reason. Roberto Hernandez (not the guy who used the name Fausto Carmona, the original Roberto Hernandez, who pitched over 1,000 relief innings in his career, issued a leadoff five-pitch walk to Mike Lieberthal. The Phillies then bunted him over. But, a groundout and a strikeout followed.
More walks, more strikeouts, in the ninth. The Braves had another chance to take the lead, but squandered it. Robert Fick led off the inning by splitting the left-center gap for a double. But, a walk and a strikeout later, he was no closer to scoring. The Phillies brought on very colorful, and by this point, not very good, closer Jose Mesa on, and while Mesa walked Andruw Jones on five pitches, he struck Javy Lopez out on six.
Ray King didn’t issue a walk in a drama-free bottom of the ninth, striking out two. Mesa then returned the favor with a 1-2-3 inning of his own, setting up the Braves’ demise via walkoff. The Braves turned the game over to right-hander groundball guy Kevin Gryboski. Gryboski was always kind of a weird case, in that it’s not clear he was ever actually particularly good or useful at his relief duties. But, Bobby Cox clearly liked having him around for double-play situations, given that he was a grounder-oriented right-hander. The reality was that Gryboski finished his career with negative fWAR and RA9-WAR, and it’s very possible that even while he was somewhat successful at preventing runs during his first three years with the Braves, it was always just a budding conflagration waiting for a spark. After all, in Gryboski’s 2002 rookie season, Cox let him pitch over 50 relief innings, much of it coming in medium leverage or higher, despite more walks than strikeouts. Anyway, Gryboski didn’t come on for a double play situation here, and his grounder prowess didn’t save him or the Braves.
Pat Burrell led off the inning with a single. The Phillies then pinch-hit for Mesa with another pitcher, Brett Myers, who, you guessed it, laid down a bunt. Of course, the Braves then signaled for Gryboski to walk the next batter to set up a double play, and that move kinda-worked-but-didn’t. Marlon Byrd did hit a grounder to short, but it wasn’t a tailor-made double-play ball and the Braves could only get the force at second.
So, up came Tomas Perez. Perez is exactly the kind of player that you saw a lot more of in prior baseball eras — the no-bat utility infielder who hung around rosters even if it wasn’t clear he added much to the table defensively, either. Perez accumulated over 2,000 major league PAs over parts of 12 seasons, never getting more than 330, despite a career sub-.300 OBP, 61 wRC+, and -1.6 fWAR when it was all said and done. For a utility infielder, he posted negative defensive value in five of his 12 seasons, which isn’t great. Perez did have one good year, back in 2001, when he rode a .350ish BABIP to a 104 wRC+, but went right back to his usual self (0.1 fWAR) in 2002. Perez was sub-replacement in 2003, but that didn’t matter here. He took a called strike from Gryboski, and then rolled the 0-1 pitch up the middle. Gryboski got the grounder he wanted twice, but it wasn’t where he wanted either time, and the second one killed him.
Game MVP: This one is simple. This wasn’t a pretty game, nor a particularly good one for the hitting, pitching, or fielding on any side. Also, too many bunts. Perez it is.
Game LVP: Kevin Gryboski. Perhaps not entirely his fault as he did get the grounders he was there to get... so it’s either him or the random variation of grounders not going in the right place.
Biggest play: I think you can figure this one out.
The game, in context of the season: As mentioned in an earlier one of these posts, the 2003 Braves would only stumble around for their first 12 games or so. Then they went berserk. The 2003 Phillies were actually fairly okay. They only had one losing month all year. They just couldn’t keep up with the 101-win Braves. The Phillies led the division on April 28. They went 12-14 over their next calendar month... and their division lead became a 7.5-game deficit. That’s pretty wild.
This start was the beginning of the end for Jason Marquis in Atlanta. A compensation-round pick (35th overall) and well-rated prospect, Marquis fared well as a swingman/fifth starter in 2001, but a case of homer-itis really tanked his line in 2002. The Braves were a fairly unbalanced team by 2003, with a juggernaut position player group and mediocre pitching, and the acquisitions of Russ Ortiz and Mike Hampton (and to a lesser extent, Shane Reynolds and the promotion of Horacio Ramirez) crowded the rotation. Marquis started 2003 in the rotation, but after a 5/9 K/BB ratio in his first two starts, he got sent to the bullpen. He actually requested that he be sent back down to the minors to start, and after a few months of doing so, was called back up for sporadic, not particularly effective long relief work. At season’s end, he was part of the package the Braves sent the Cardinals for J.D. Drew. Marquis went on to have just one above-average season, in 2009. While he finished his career with 8.8 fWAR and 11.4 RA9-WAR, it took him parts of 15 major league seasons to accumulate that much value.
Javy Lopez went 0-for-5 as part of an April in which he only had a 91 wRC+. His lowest wRC+ for any other calendar month in 2003 was 164. By WPA, this was his lowest mark of the 2003 season, with -.294. By contrast, Lopez had six games in 2002 where he posted a WPA of +.294 or higher.
Video? Unfortunately, not that I’m aware of.
Anything else? Oh, yes. One thing that might make you rethink a lot of the above: this game was cold. The game-time temperature was 38 degrees, and it only got colder as the night progressed. That could help explain Randy Wolf’s wildness, and perhaps the high volume of bunts, perhaps even all the walks. Most of the players wore hoods and skip caps.
Bobby Cox and Gary Sheffield got tossed in the middle of this game for arguing balls and strikes. Maybe they just wanted to be warmer.
Mike Lieberthal walked four times in this game, a career-high that he never replicated again in a career that spanned 14 seasons. Amazingly, Jason Marquis had a game later in his career where he walked seven batters. Even more amazingly, he somehow allowed zero runs in that game. (Wtf?)
This wouldn’t be the last time Tomas Perez would torment the Braves, either. In May 2004, Perez would have arguably the best game of his career, where he would hit a game-tying double against the Braves in the eighth, and then a walkoff homer to defeat them in the tenth.
Tomas Perez joined the Braves organization in 2018, as the infield instructor for the Fire Frogs.
The 2003 Braves scored three or fewer runs seven times in their first nine games. After that, it took them 25 games to score three or fewer runs seven times. At one point, they went 31 games with only seven games of three or fewer runs.
Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about April 8: I know that baseball is dead to you, but April 8 is the date that Hank Aaron hit number 715 and passed Babe Ruth.