The Braves have been very good over this 2001-2019 stretch we’re examining. Rarely have they been dreadful. I think that unfamiliarity is why rough patches can be hard to deal with — they’re less familiar for fans of some teams than others. On May 17, 2010, the Braves lost a pretty normal game to the Mets, but it caused something uncommon to happen: the Braves fell to last place in the division. It was the first time they had been last as late as May 17 since 2006, and they wouldn’t be in that position again until 2016. The amusing coda is that the 2010 Braves won 91 games and made the playoffs, but the level of agita about this loss was probably not commensurate with the team’s 18-20 start.
The gist: The Braves never led (and only had the first inning where they were tied) in a close loss to the Mets. They had meaningful baserunners in each of the last three innings, but blundered their way into letting the New York bullpen close the game out.
The set-up: The Braves were finally playing good ball after a nine-game losing streak in April, having gone 10-5 since. That had helped them climb out of the division cellar, and they creamed the Diamondbacks 13-1 coming into this two-game set against the Mets. New York, meanwhile, was having the opposite fortune — they led the division on May 1, but had lost all but one series so far in May. They had been swept by the Marlins to fall into fifth place before this game. Earlier in the season, the Braves had been swept in New York, which was part of their nine-game losing streak.
Atlanta starter Derek Lowe was struggling and unlucky in all respects to start the season (143 ERA-, 123 FIP-, 105 xFIP-). New York starter was the opposite (81 ERA-, 87 FIP-, 98 xFIP-).
How it happened: This game featured more offensive frustration than production. Lowe started the evening with a 10-pitch 1-2-3 inning, going pop-up, groundout, groundout. The Braves then set the tone for flailing around early. Martin Prado led off the home half of the first by singling up the middle. On a 0-2 pitch, Pelfrey slipped and threw basically a big looper to the plate. For whatever reason, Prado figured that was a good opportunity to try and take second, but the ball didn’t actually get past catcher Rod Barajas (and in fact went right to him, just slowly), and Prado basically got caught in no man’s land and tagged out. Pelfrey ended up striking out Jason Heyward on a full-count fastball down the middle, and Chipper Jones flew out to end the frame.
In 2010, the Mets had a guy named Chris Carter, who was one of two rookies with that name in the league at that point. The Mets’ variant was the lesser-known one who only got 206 major-league PAs and never appeared in a game after 2010, but he hit the first pitch he saw from Lowe in the second over Nate McLouth’s head in center for a leadoff double. After a one-out hit-by-pitch, Barajas came to the plate and did some damage on a Lowe sinker that was very grooved:
Lowe was able to strand Barajas (in part due to a really badly blown call at first base on a soft tapper fielded by Lowe), but the Braves could not respond against Pelfrey. Eric Hinske connected for a two-out double, but was stranded when Yunel Escobar grounded out to first.
After the second-inning hiccup, Lowe went back to cruising. His third inning was an 11-pitch affair with two groundouts and a strikeout against the top of New York’s order. The Braves once again sputtered against Pelfrey, this time wasting a McLouth leadoff double. Lowe bunted McLouth to third and Pelfrey walked Prado, but Heyward hit into an easy 6-3 double play by rolling a ball up the middle. There were yet more double plays in the fourth, both leading to 1-2-3 innings. Lowe got one from Ike Davis after a leadoff walk to Carter; Pelfrey had Brian McCann hit into one to erase Chipper’s leadoff walk. After Lowe had another perfect inning in the fifth, this time with two strikeouts, the Braves finally got on the board:
That was Hinske’s second homer of the season, and second in two days. The Braves, however, could not follow up, getting nothing else in the frame.
Unfortunately, Lowe gave that run right back. Jose Reyes led off the inning with a bouncer that got through the infield past the second-base bag. Luis Castillo bunted Reyes to second, and the latter took advantage of a too-high throw from McCann to steal third. As a result, Carter’s weak bouncer to second ended up scoring the third New York run.
The Braves countered with a run of their own, once again scrabbling to within a run. Prado started the inning by rolling a ball between Davis at first and the bag, ending up with a double. A flyout to right from Heyward allowed Prado to tag up and make third, and a Chipper flyout to deep center scored him.
Lowe finished his night by allowing the first two batters of the seventh to reach (walk, single), but then getting two consecutive groundouts to collect three outs. The Mets left Pelfrey in to hit for himself in the top of the inning, and he once again stifled the Braves in the bottom half. Hinske lined one to left for a one-out single, but Escobar hit a routine grounder to short that turned into a double play. That was the fifth (and final) double play of the game,
Eric O’Flaherty and Peter Moylan combined to pitch a scoreless eighth, with Moylan allowing a two-out single to Jason Bay, but then stranding him on second after a steal when Jeff Francoeur flew out. The bottom of the inning would prove to be the biggest bummer of the game.
With Pelfrey now still in there for the eighth, the Braves tried to get to work. McLouth worked a full count and then sprayed a single into left. The Braves did the ol’ put-in-a-pinch-hitter-specifically-to-bunt move with (F’n) Melky Cabrera, which worked out better than expected when Cabrera not only got the bunt down, but set up McLouth moving to third on a wild pitch as well. But, the Braves goofed it. Prado followed with a grounder to Reyes at short with the infield drawn in. The throw went home, and McLouth couldn’t score, though he did stay in a rundown long enough for Prado to get to second. With two outs and L-S-L coming up, the Mets finally went to a reliever, LOOGY/set-up guy Pedro Feliciano.
Heyward slashed one to third — David Wright snagged the ball with his backhand but made a terrible, looping throw nowhere near the bag. The result was an infield hit with Prado moving to third, but the Braves were unfortunate in that A) Wright still fielded the ball and B) his terrible throw actually got caught rather than falling in and allowing Prado to score. With McCann on deck, Feliciano wanted none of Chipper and walked him on four pitches. The game was pretty much all right here, and McCann fell behind 0-2 before taking two breaking pitches to even the count. But, when Feliciano missed high with an 89 mph sinker, McCann somehow couldn’t get a piece of it and went down swinging. Thus endeth a really great chance to tie the game.
Takashi Saito came on for the Braves in the ninth and struck out the side, giving them one more opportunity to at least tie the game. To lock down the game, the Mets gave the ball to Francisco Rodriguez, a generally crazy-dominant reliever in his second year in New York. The first one was still good (0.7 fWAR), but was his worst since 2003, and the first time ever that he finished a season with an ERA over 3.03 or an FIP/xFIP over 4.00. It took Rodriguez all of four pitches to get two outs (Troy Glaus flyout, Hinske groundout), but then he seemingly couldn’t throw a strike to Escobar, walking him on five pitches. Escobar easily stole second, giving the Braves a decent shot at redemption. Up next was McLouth. He got ahead of Rodriguez 2-0 by taking two curves out of the zone, but then got fooled on two consecutive changeups over the plate, letting each fall in for a strike. On the 2-2 pitch, Rodriguez finally threw him a fastball, letter-high but off the plate outside, and McLouth took his first swing of the PA... and missed it. Game over.
Game MVP: Mike Pelfrey, his defense, and the whole high-wire act of making the Braves endure maximum frustration. At least the relievers got strikeouts, but Pelfrey benefited from three double plays behind him and enough sequencing to make sure that his mistakes didn’t mess up the game for him and the Mets. It was his longest start of the year thus far in 2010.
Game LVP: Easily Brian McCann, who went 0-for-4 with a brutal strikeout and an earlier, double play. This was McCann’s lowest-WPA game of 2010 (-.34), and a bottom-ten WPA game for him across his long career.
Biggest play: Feliciano’s strikeout of McCann, making this the rare game where the biggest play, WPA-wise, is one where the offensive team loses win expectancy.
The game, in context of the season: The Braves fell into last place; the Mets temporarily climbed out of it. The Braves would beat the Mets on a walkoff by this same 3-2 score the following night, splitting the two-game series and flipping their spot in the standings. That would be the first of three straight walkoff wins for them, and overall part of a stretch where they went 14-2 (a five-game winning streak, two losses, a nine-game winning streak) to cruise into the division lead, which they’d later lose.
The Mets would climb out of the fifth place a few days later and never return, but despite an 18-8 June, spent the rest of the season floundering and finished with 79 wins. They were half a game behind the Braves on June 27, with the NL’s third-best record, but then wouldn’t win another series for a month, and got knocked back down to .500 by the Braves a few days later. Despite the Braves losing their first four games of the season to the Mets, they’d go 11-3 against them the rest of the way, winning every other series and repaying the sweep in September.
Mike Pelfrey, who had a 3-win season in 2008 but fell down to around two wins in 2009, bounced back with a 2.8 fWAR year, his last season above the 2.4 mark. Derek Lowe was well in his decline phase at this point, posting just 1.8 fWAR. Despite the crappy game, Brian McCann had another great McCann season, with a wRC+ in the 120s and nearly 7 fWAR (framing!). Despite this game, the Braves had a fine offensive team in the end, and one who outperformed its context-neutral measures hitting-wise. This was just a frustrating contest.
Various individual highlights: https://www.youtube.com/user/MLBglobal/search?query=2010%2F05%2F17+NYM%40ATL
TC Commentariat Zeitgeist: Ah, yes, this little insert is why I chose this game. People were mad. This close May game, and the fifth-place result, apparently pushed everyone’s buttons. Lots of people were being thrown under the bus: Chipper, Brian Snitker (then the third base coach, for “sending” McLouth in the play that induced the rundown), Escobar, the offense as a whole, etc. (Also, the first comment in the recap is hilarious in retrospect.)
But really, it was fine. Yes, the Braves were struggling in context-specific situations not matching up to context-neutral outcomes through May 17. But that completely reversed course over the next four-and-a-half months. There were requests that either one or both of Escobar and Chipper Jones (yes, Chipper Jones) get their playing time reduced in favor of Omar Infante (who, after this game, still had a lower wRC+ than Chipper). Chipper would finish the year with more fWAR than Infante in half the PAs; Escobar got traded midseason but still finished right around Infante. The true drains on the team through May 17 were F’n Melky and Nate McLouth (and a bit of Matt Diaz)... and by the end of the year, the drains on the team were... F’N Melky and Nate McLouth (and also Troy Glaus). A good lesson to learn from the reaction here: breathe.
Anything else? Here’s a really weird stat: This was the Mets’ 16th game in May, and their fifth win. It was the only one of those five wins where the final lead was taken with the starter still in the game, as all four other wins came as a result of runs in the late innings, including two walk-offs.
Chris Carter (the one in this game) finished his career with a 90 wRC+ and -0.1 fWAR in 206 PAs. He wasn’t retained by the Mets after the 2010 season, and signed a few minor league deals, including one with the Braves in mid-2011. But, his next high-level professional appearances would all take place in Japan, where he played through the 2013 season.
Eric Hinske had a 184 wRC+ in May 2010, one of his best calendar months ever, and his best calendar month with 30+ PAs since 2002. Between May 8 and June 27, he had a stretch where he never failed to reach base in back-to-back appearances, putting up a 150 wRC+ in the process. Martin Prado had a really weird 2010 month-wise, alternating a wRC+ in the 140s (April/June/August) with something lower in the other months, leading to a 118 wRC+ and 3.8 fWAR overall. His line and stats would have been much better if not for a late-season collapse.
Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about May 17: This was the date of the first sporting event to be televised. It was, of course, baseball, way back in 1939, but it wasn’t professional. Instead, it featured the Columbia Lions and Princeton Tigers, playing a game in New York City. Also, this was apparently the publication date of Frank L. Baum’s Wizard of Oz in 1900. The first copy was given to Baum’s sister.