Well, we’ve made it to May. The 2004 Braves did, in their time, too, though you could say they were running on fumes a bit. They left home on April 19 to begin a four-city road trip. They’d lose a set in Cincinnati, win one in Miami, then go very, very west to lose one in San Francisco. (Miami to San Francisco in back-to-back days, oof.) The last leg of the trip was Denver, but after an off-day, the series opener got snowed out. (Yep.) So, after a two-day breather (one travel off-day, one postponement), the Braves and Rockies jumped into a May 1 doubleheader in 50-degree weather.
The first game didn’t go quite according to plan. The Braves out-baserunner’d the Rockies, 16-12, but lost 3-2, nonetheless. The Rockies scored the eventual winning run in pretty boring fashion: in the bottom of the eighth, a couple of singles against Chris Reitsma put runners on the corners with one out, and a pinch-hit sacrifice fly to center plated catcher Charles Johnson, who had reached on an infield single. The Braves were likely quite frustrated at how that game ended: Andruw Jones knocked a one-out triple in the top of the ninth, but the Rockies just pitched around J.D. Drew and then took advantage of Adam LaRoche’s first-pitch foulout. The Braves needed a hit, but closer Shawn Chacon struck out Jesse Garcia on three pitches, and that was that. The 3-2 game would be the second-lowest-scoring affair in Coors Field’s 2004 season. So, of course, all the fireworks (and elation) were saved for the nightcap, which convened just around two hours after the first game ended.
The gist: In a game where the lead changed six times, the 2004 Braves used a six-run eight to earn a doubleheader split at Coors Field.
How it happened: After dropping the first game of the doubleheader, the Braves had to at least be feeling pretty good about the pitching matchup in the nightcap. The Rockies would be throwing Scott Elarton, who was below replacement in 2001 (and got traded to Colorado, his hometown team, in the process), missed all of 2002 after shoulder surgery, and then was below replacement once again in 2003. He had won the fifth starter job in Spring Training, but had been straight-up ridiculously annihilated to start the 2004 season: an ERA over 10.50, an FIP nearly at 8.00, and even an xFIP at almost 6.00. In league-adjusted, minus terms, we’re talking 217/170/136. Mega-yikes. He also had allowed seven homers in four starts, and had as many walks as strikeouts. Even for a guy with three starts at Coors Field, that was just horrific, and the Braves were probably licking their lips in anticipation.
On the flip side, the Braves would be deploying John Thomson against his former team. 2004 Thomson was playing for his fourth team in three years, but he was coming off a career year with the Rangers in 2003. He had also straight-up rocked April where Elarton had been rocked. After a mediocre first outing, he had gone on to allow just six runs over his next three starts, going eight innings once and seven twice, with a combined 16/5 K/BB ratio. Essentially, Thomson was coming off an April where he was a top 15 MLB starter, tied in fWAR with Roy Halladay.
For the Braves, the game started pretty much as expected given the Rockies’ choice of starter. Dewayne Wise started the game with a triple into the right-center gap, and then scored when Mark DeRosa smacked a double into right field. A wild pitch set up a sacrifice fly from Marcus Giles, and the Braves led 2-0 just eight pitches into the game. But, despite being in his old stomping grounds, Thomson faltered just as much as Elarton. A leadoff single, a sacrifice bunt, and a 10-pitch battle with Todd Helton that resulted in a walk spelled trouble. Thomson got Vinny Castilla (back with the Rockies after two seasons with the Braves) to line out to Giles at second, but then back-to-back singles by Jeromy Burnitz and Matt Holliday tied the game. Thomson struck out Brad Hawpe in the latter’s second major-league PA (Hawpe had a pinch-hit single in the first game of the doubleheader) to end the inning, but the game was suddenly tied, and Thomson had thrown nearly 30 pitches just to get three outs.
After the first-inning fireworks, both hurlers settled in a bit. Elarton gave up a leadoff walk in the second, but then promptly got a double play, which started a streak of nine straight men retired. Thomson also stranded a leadoff baserunner in the second, and then had a 1-2-3 third.
The Rockies took their first lead of the game in the bottom of the fourth. Hawpe yanked a ball inside the first-baseline for a one-out triple (his first career extra-base hit), and scored on catcher Todd Greene’s roller up the middle. But, in the fifth, the Braves apparently remembered that it was indeed Elarton on the mound. With one out, LaRoche and Garcia both connected for groundball singles. That brought up Thomson, who picked a pretty cool time for his second career double, rocketing an 0-2 pitch from Elarton into the left-center gap. Despite there only being one out, both runners scored, and Thomson himself came around to score as Wise sliced a double into left. Wise would end up stranded at second, but the Braves had turned a 3-2 deficit into a 5-3 lead in the span of four batters.
After his big hit, Thomson threw a shutdown 1-2-3 inning. The Rockies, for whatever reason (perhaps the fact that this was a doubleheader) let Elarton continue in the sixth, and it worked out fine as Elarton again walked the leadoff man but then got a double play ball and another groundout to end his day. Elarton ended his night with five runs allowed in six innings, with a ghastly K/BB ratio of 1/2. However, it was the first start all year in which he didn’t allow a homer.
Speaking of homers... that’s how the Rockies tied the game in the bottom of the sixth. After a one-out Holliday single, Hawpe popped a 2-2 Thomson offering the other way, out past Wise and into the left-field stands. That was the first of Hawpe’s 124 major league homers; Hawpe wouldn’t connect on another until September.
With Elarton gone, the Rockies gave the ball to infinitely-old (he was 41 at the time) southpaw swingman Jeff Fassero, who faced the minimum. Fassero got two strikeouts sandwiching a bunt single by Garcia, and ended the inning with a successful pickoff.
Amazingly, the Braves went right back to Thompson in the bottom of the seventh. The Braves had only used three relievers in the first game of the doubleheader, without using closer John Smoltz. Perhaps it was Thompson’s low pitch count driving the decision, as he had managed to throw just 88 pitches in six innings, despite starting the game with a 27-pitch first. Still, the Rockies had the order due up for a fourth time, and Thompson had already yielded five runs, including a game-tying homer. Momentarily, the decision seemed like it was going to work out. Both Aaron Miles and Royce Clayton worked long PAs, but ultimately grounded out. (It should also be noted that those two, hitting 1-2 for Colorado, would combine for a 150 wRC+ in 2004. Good job, 2000s managers!) When it came around to the meaty part of Colorado’s order for the fourth time, however, Thomson would not fare as well. Helton worked a 2-0 count and then shoved a liner into left-center for a single. That brought up Castilla, who unloaded on Thomson’s first pitch for a go-ahead two-run homer, knocking him out of the game at last, and setting the Braves up to trail for a second time.
Thomson finished with seven runs allowed in 6 2⁄3 innings, including two two-run homers, and a 4/1 K/BB ratio. C.J. Nitkowski, a busted ninth overall pick who was getting by as an oft-injured LOOGY type, came on to face the lefty-hitting Burnitz and retired him on a first-pitch popout.
But hey, Coors Field, a two-run lead is nothing, right? Right indeed, as the Braves set out to prove. First out of the bullpen gates for Colorado was Steve Reed, a sidearming righty who had spent a half-season with the Braves in 2001 (part of the return from Cleveland for John Rocker). Reed was coming off a down, sub-replacement year, but mostly did his job against the three righties due up, allowing a leadoff single to Damon Hollins and then getting two outs. The Rockies did not want to take any chances whatsoever with Reed facing the lefty-hitting Drew, so they went and got Javier Lopez, Reed’s complement as a sidearming lefty. However, Drew fought Lopez for seven pitches and drew a walk, and the Rockies once again went for the platoon advantage, summoning Vladimir Nunez to face Andruw Jones.
This was, even at the time, a pretty baffling move. The Braves had the tying runs on base, and Nunez wasn’t “good.” He wasn’t even “okay.” In 2003, he compiled -0.9 fWAR in just 10 2⁄3 innings with the Marlins; I can’t decide whether that’s more horrific or less horrific than it sounds. Beyond that, Nunez had already thrown 18 pitches just a few innings prior (he actually got the statbook win in Game 1). And, he wasn’t having some kind of particularly good first month with his new team, either. On top of all this, the Rockies had only used three relievers of their own in the first game, so they weren’t quite running out of arms, either. Consequently, when Nunez proceeded to melt down in epic fashion, it’s hard to say that this was just your standard reliever blowup-caused mess. Very possibly, someone could have seen this coming.
Needing just one out to end the inning and preserve the two-run lead, Nunez did nothing of the sort. First, he walked Andruw. He got ahead of Johnny Estrada, 1-2, but gave up a groundball single that squirted through the right side, tying the game. Left in to fend for himself, he pitched around the lefty-hitting LaRoche with the ol’ unintentional intentional walk, setting up a righty-righty matchup with Garcia. But, much like Estrada before him, Garcia fell behind 1-2 and then laced a liner back up the box, scoring two more runs and giving the Braves another two-run lead. With the pitcher’s spot due up, the Braves inserted Julio Franco as a pinch-hitter, and he too added to the tally, knocking a double past Hawpe for another two-run hit. Hollins, who started the inning, grounded out to end the Rockies’ nightmare inning. The Braves got three walks and four hits in the frame, including three two-run hits, and a span of six consecutive non-outs. That’s how you have a big inning.
Now leading 11-7, the Braves did something questionable of their own, giving the ball to Reitsma (who, as you read around 1,700 words ago, appeared in Game 1 and took the loss). He allowed a couple of hits (including a pinch-hit single to Mark Sweeney, who had the game-winning pinch-hit sacrifice fly earlier in the day), but got a first-pitch groundout from Miles to survive. The Braves mounted a small rally against Turk Wendell in the ninth (two-out single by Drew, stolen base, walk by Andruw), but their scoring was capped at 11.
Smoltz finally came on to shut the door despite the four-run lead. He allowed a one-out single to Helton, and then after LaRoche dropped a foul ball, Castilla doubled. But, not to worry, the drama ended there. Smoltz struck out Burnitz on three pitches, and after an eight-pitch battle, caught Holliday looking at strike three. The Braves had mounted a sizable comeback and split the doubleheader.
Game MVP: Ha, this is a fun one. Let’s go with Jesse Garcia, who went 3-for-4 and drove in the go-ahead runs in the fateful eighth. This was definitely Garcia’s best offensive game of the season — he finished with a 51 wRC+.
Game LVP: Vladimir Nunez, or perhaps the decision to bring him into this game. In a career full of a lot of blow-ups, this was arguably his worst outing ever, worth a whopping -0.79 WPA. He retired just one of the five batters he faced while allowing two walks, and of course, six runs (though only four were charged to him).
Biggest play: It’s hard to pick just one specific event, but let’s go with Garcia’s go-ahead single.
The game, in context of the season: The Braves skipped a game above .500 with the victory. By the end of the day, they trailed the Marlins by 2.5 games in the East. The Rockies fell back to 10-13, five games behind the Dodgers and Padres in the West. The Braves would go on to lose the next game, and therefore the series, 13-4, as Horacio Ramirez got annihilated. (As a random silly fact, though, Ramirez somehow allowed eight unearned runs in that game, a feat that’s only happened 78 times in history, and never again or before by any Brave. Unearned runs are really dumb.)
The Braves would scuffle through June before going berserk and cruising to 96 wins in the season’s second half; they’d lose the NLDS to the Astros in five games. The Rockies would scuffle all season, ending with 68 wins, their fourth consecutive losing campaign (in a run of six total).
Despite the pretty blah outing, John Thomson continued his roll throughout 2004, finishing with 3.2 fWAR. Injuries would sap his playing time in 2005 and basically end his career by the time 2006 rolled around, but he was really quite good in this season. Meanwhile, Scott Elarton’s doomed season continued — he finally had a good start the next time out, but then got shelled twice more and then released. Elarton finished his career with a 116 ERA-, 121 FIP-, and 124 xFIP- in 1,065 career innings spanning ten seasons, which is mind-boggling.
Video? Too far in the past, I’m afraid.
Anything else? Vladimir Nunez randomly resurfaced with the Braves in 2008 (and in one game in 2009). His three worst games by various measures (FIP, xFIP, WPA) all featured the Braves in some way, whether getting beat up by them or appearing in their uniform.
Damon Hollins may be an unfamiliar name to many. He had six PAs with the Braves in 1998, and then another 23 with them in 2004 (there were some Dodgers PAs in 1998 as well). He actually got over 700 PAs across two seasons with the Rays in 2005-2006, but finished his career with -0.5 fWAR. You will probably never think about Damon Hollins again.
The Braves had a 3/6 K/BB ratio offensively in this game. They scored 11 runs without the benefit of a homer, the sort of feat that’s uncommon but not that uncommon. The Braves last did that in 2002, they’d do it again in 2007. Since this game, they’ve done it eight times. Amazingly, they actually lost their most recent game where this happened. It’s actually not too uncommon at Coors Field in general, despite the park being homer-happy.
C.J. Nitkowski got the rulebook “win” in this game. It was his only win as a Brave. He finished 2004 below replacement, and didn’t make it through the whole season with Atlanta.
The Braves won this game, but lost the series. It was the first time they had lost a series at Coors since 1997.
Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about May 1: In 1930, the name “Pluto” was proposed for, well, Pluto. Presumably you’ve heard about Pluto at this point. That’s messed up.