The 2004 Braves won 96 games. That wasn’t as much as the 2002 and 2003 squads, who won 101 each, but it was still pretty great. It combined another very strong position player group with an above-average rotation and okay bullpen, and after struggling the first half of the season, went absolutely berserk in June and July to run away with the division (again). But, those early-season struggles were real, and not very fun. It took July 6 for the Braves to climb above .500 for good. The problem was that through July 5, the Braves were only getting average position player production, and combined with average pitching, that’s not a great team. The solution that came later was essentially Marcus Giles and Chipper Jones getting way better than they had been — combined with the great seasons that Andruw Jones and J.D. Drew were already having, the team took off. But, in early April, that wasn’t happening. Instead, the Braves found themselves mired in an interminable low-scoring game... that they eventually lost after blowing a lead in the ninth.
How it happened: The 2004 Cubs were coming off their first division title in 14 years, and an epic NLCS collapse to the Marlins. Carlos Zambrano was ridiculously good that year, and he was on the hill again for Chicago. The Braves, meanwhile, started Horacio Ramirez, whose most notable quality over his Braves tenure ended up being his persistent FIP-beating... and how it completely collapsed after his first three seasons in the league.
This was not a high-scoring game. There weren’t even particularly many chances. Zambrano went seven innings, allowing just two hits and three walks while striking out seven. His sole blemish was an Andruw Jones solo homer to lead off the second. Ramirez kinda-sorta outdid Zambrano, by allowing zero runs in seven innings of his own, but he put up a 5/5 K/BB ratio and had to constantly dance out of trouble. Such was a fairly typical Horacio Ramirez experience. The second was a good example of this: working with a one-run lead, Ramirez allowed a leadoff single to Aramis Ramirez, and then walked Derrek Lee on five pitches. However, a pop-out, groundout, and strikeout by Zambrano kept the Braves ahead.
In the fifth, Ramirez allowed a two-out single to Zambrano and then walked leadoff hitter Mark Grudzielanek, but got Corey Patterson to bounce out to first. Meanwhile, the Braves were doing nothing with Zambrano. He faced the minimum for five consecutive innings from the third through the seventh, including two double plays and a stretch where he struck out the side in the sixth on 11 pitches. But hey, the Braves were still ahead.
Ramirez continued to swerve in and out of trouble. In the sixth, he gave up a leadoff walk to Sammy Sosa, and then a one-out double into the left-field corner to Ramirez. A walk to Lee set up a potential double play, but Ramirez instead benefited from two balls in the air. The first was a harmless pop-up to first base, the second was a fortuitous lineout to Chipper Jones in left off the bat of Michael Barrett. (Yes, Chipper was still playing the outfield in 2004, though it would be the last time he’d do so.)
In the eighth, with both starters out of the game, the Braves nearly added to their lead (but didn’t). Chris Reitsma, in his first year as a Brave (the one where no one hated him, not yet), pitched a 1-2-3 eighth. The Cubs then threw volatile human Kyle Farnsworth on the mound. With one out, Eddie Perez singled up the middle, and pinch-hitter Dewayne Wise slashed a double to left. Unfortunately, Perez couldn’t score on the play, and nor could he score on Jesse Garcia’s lineout to right field. Marcus Giles went down swinging to end the inning.
So, out of the bullpen to lock down the 1-0 victory came John Smoltz. Smoltz was in his third (and final) year of relief work, putting up 2+ fWAR in each of the three seasons. The inning was shaping up to be drama-free, as in three pitches, Smoltz got two comebackers. All that was left was pinch-hitter Todd Hollandsworth, who was sub-replacement in 2003. Smoltz threw his fourth pitch of the game... and Hollandsworth drilled it out of the Turner Field playing area for a game-tying homer. It took Smoltz just one more pitch to retire the next batter, and there he was, a five-pitch inning, zero balls, and yet, a blown save, nearly -.200 of WPA, and a game that could not be chalked up as a win.
After that, the game was quiet once again. LaTroy Hawkins (Cubs) and Antonio Alfonseca (Braves) threw two scoreless frames a piece. Hawkins went six up, six down. Alfonseca looked like he might be in trouble in the 11th, allowing a leadoff double to Ramirez and then gving a free pass to Lee with an empty base, but got a double play from Ramon Martinez and struck out Barrett looking. The Braves were then stifled with no one reaching base yet again in the bottom of the inning, this time by Michael Wurtz.
On came Juan Cruz. Cruz had been traded from the Cubs, to the Braves, just two weeks before this night, towards the end of Spring Training. He did yeoman’s work in this game, keeping the Cubs off the board for three innings. It wasn’t always comfortable, as the Cubs collected five baserunners against him and got a runner into scoring position in each inning, but Cruz struck out five and allowed no runs to score.
The Braves had a chance to walk it off in the 12th, but didn’t. The Cubs inserted Andy Pratt, who incidentally had been one of the players traded for Cruz. (The name Andy Pratt is now more amusing than it was in 2004.) After Chipper Jones fouled out, Pratt walked Drew on four pitches, and then gave another free pass to Andruw Jones after Drew stole second to set up a lefty-lefty situation with Adam LaRoche. The Braves, however, pushed the “platoon advantage” button and swapped in pinch-hitter Mike Hessman for LaRoche. Unfortunately, Hessman flew out to center. For whatever reason, it was then that the Cubs went to righty reliever Todd Wellemeyer, even though it made more sense to do so after the Braves pinch-hit. Wellemeyer ended up walking Mark DeRosa to load the bases, but Eddie Perez struck out and the game wended on.
Wellemeyer would issue three more walks in the 13th, including a four-pitch walk to Cruz to start the inning. This whole sequence was just awful. First, a reliever walks another reliever on four pitches. The Braves then bunt the reliever to second... which ends up taking the bat out of Chipper Jones’ hands after Marcus Giles flies out for the second out. After another walk to Drew, Andruw Jones hits a bloop that’s tracked down by Sosa in right field, and the game is still on.
The Cubs brought Kent Mercker out to pitch the 14th. This was vaguely amusing, both because Mercker was an original Brave in the 90s and then pitched a partial season with them again in 2003, and also because April 9, 1994 was the date of Mercker’s no-hitter against the Dodgers. Mercker did not no-hit his former team in his one inning of work, as Eddie Perez poked a grounder through the right side with two outs. That prompted the Braves to pinch-hit with starter-but-resting catcher Johnny Estrada, while Mike Hampton came on to run for Perez. Estrada worked a seven-pitch PA but ultimately hit a routine fly to right.
Almost done — the Braves’ fifth reliever of the night was Will Cunnane. Unlike basically every other Braves pitcher on the night, Cunnane’s fatal flaw was that he couldn’t wriggle out of danger. Aramis Ramirez once again led off an extra-inning frame with a double. The Braves did not elect to walk Lee this time, and he singled to left, putting runners on the corners with none out. Martinez came up and hit a grounder to Rafael Furcal at short — Furcal’s throw home was successful, and the Cubs’ lead runner effectively moved back to second base. But, Cunnane didn’t take advantage. He walked Barrett on five pitches, which brought up 36-year-old Tom Goodwin, who had entered the game in the 12th. On a 2-1 count, Goodwin fly ball towards the right-field foul line. J.D. Drew had to make a split-second decision as to whether to let the ball drop and hopefully get a foul out of it instead of a run or two, or catch it and likely concede one run. He ended up catching the ball in fair territory, and Lee easily made it home on the sacrifice fly. The Braves now trailed, for the first time in the entirety of this 15-inning game. Grudzielanek again flew out after the Cubs got on the board.
The Braves had one more chance. The Cubs, having reserved their nominal closer for this situation (ugh), went with Joe Borowski. With one out, Giles singled up the middle. Chipper Jones struck out, and J.D. Drew was the last hope for the Braves. But, Giles stole second, and Borowski proceeded to loll Drew over to first, his fourth walk of the game, tying a career high. (I also covered a four-walk game, that time by Mike Lieberthal, yesterday. However, Drew had a number of four-walk games in his career, unlike Lieberthal.) That brought up Andruw Jones who, through 15 innings, was the only Brave to actually do anything offensively that resulted in a run. Borowski and Jones battled to a full count, and on the sixth pitch, Jones made contact... but hit it right to Ramirez for a routine groundout.
Game MVP: Whatever luck dragons and eldritch forces allowed Horacio Ramirez to pitch seven scoreless innings while walking five.
Game LVP: Ramon Martinez, yet another no-bat, not-really-a-glove utilityman that teams were fond of carrying in the not-quite-days-of-yore. The Cubs won this game despite Martinez thwarting them at every turn and only entering the game in extras. In the 11th, he hit into a double play with two on and none out. In the 13th, he had the go-ahead run on second with one out, and struck out. In the 15th, with runners on second and third and one out, he almost bailed out Cunnane and the Braves by hitting into a fielder’s choice that resulted in a successful tag play at home. In a career that spanned 12 seasons, Martinez never had a worse WPA than in this one game (-.539), even though he didn’t even startit.
Biggest play: Todd Hollandsworth’s game-tying homer, with the Cubs down to their last out, for sure.
The game, in context of the season: This was the longest game the Braves would play in 2004, and they wouldn’t have a longer game until 2008. Horacio Ramirez’ start was basically his season in microcosm: before a shoulder injury cut his 2004 short, Ramirez posted a 56 ERA- and 116 FIP-. This is actually more notable than it seems: since 2001, no pitcher that’s thrown at least 60 innings had a bigger gap between his FIP and ERA than Ramirez in 2004 (2.63). Ramirez finished the season with a K%-BB% of 0.4%, which... what.
Carlos Zambrano, meanwhile, put up another dominant season. By 2007, Zambrano was closer to average than great, but he was still killing it. Nearly a third of his starts in 2004, at least this one, had a Game Score (v2) of 70 or higher. This was not the Carlos Zambrano the Braves would embarrass far later in his career, no sir.
This was the third consecutive game in which Smoltz gave up a homer. He gave up homers in his first three outings of 2004, and then none in May, one each in June and July, two in August, and one in September. Smoltz went on to have another 2+ fWAR relief season. Juan Cruz was okay in relief for the Braves, but much better than Andy Pratt, who ended up making only five career relief appearances. He failed to record an out the last two times he took a major league mound.
The Cubs had a weird 2004, in the end, and they were probably pretty miffed about it. In 2003, they won the division with 87 wins, finishing one game and three games ahead of the Astros and Cardinals, respectively. In 2004, the Cubs won 89 games, but finished third in the division and didn’t make the playoffs, as the Astros won 92 and the Cardinals won 105. They were actually in playoff position as late as September 25, but lost six of their last eight to fall behind the Astros in the playoff chase.
Video? I got nothin’.
Anything else? Kent Mercker collected a win on the tenth anniversary of his no-hitter, against the team with which he pitched said no-hitter.
The Braves collected ten walks but only six hits in this game. Amazingly, Juan Cruz finished with more batting WPA than any Brave other than J.D. Drew.
Chipper Jones appeared in left field in this game, continuing to man the position even after the departure of Vinny Castilla. In retrospect, this was a very weird move. The Braves kept him in left field to give regular playing time to Mark DeRosa, who had managed just around 1 fWAR, total, in parts of six seasons to that point (mostly getting 200-300 PAs over the last three). This was, I suppose, the luxury and prerogative of an unprecedentedly successful franchise, but it made no sense. DeRosa was coming off a sub-replacement season, was an average hitter at best, and didn’t defend well in the infield. It took the Braves until the middle of June to finally end the experiment. By that point, DeRosa had accumulated -1.6 fWAR, with horrific hitting and defense. The silver lining, however, was that DeRosa’s failure prompted the Braves to bring up Charlie Thomas, who went crazy for about three months and posted 2.0 fWAR in half a season. That led him to get flipped to the Athletics in the offseason as the headliner in a deal for Tim Hudson; Thomas only got 55 more (terrible) major league PAs with Oakland, and was out of baseball three years after he was traded. Given that the Braves won the division despite the DeRosa futility, it worked out pretty well for them in the end. DeRosa would actually go on to have three decent-to-good years after he left the Braves, with a power surge-driven 4.2 fWAR career year in 2008 that he never came close to replicating.
Paul Bako, the one-time personal catcher of Greg Maddux, pinch-hit for the Cubs in the 14th. Bako was actually reunited with Maddux on Chicago’s roster, as Maddux had departed the Braves and went back to the Cubs in the 2003-2004 offseason. However, Maddux wouldn’t face the Braves until the very last day of the 2004 regular season, after the Cubs had been eliminated from playoff contention. The Braves shelled him for six runs in six innings, including two Charlie Thomas homers, but still ended up losing the (meaningless) game, 10-8.
Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about April 9: I know that baseball is dead to you, but on April 9, 1965, the Astrodome recorded its first official game. That marked the first affiliated indoor baseball game.