The second half of May was a fun time for the 2010 Braves. For one thing, they reeled off three straight walkoff wins, with the third of those being the epic ninth-inning comeback, capped off by Brooks Conrad’s improbable grand slam. After that, they decided that that was enough drama, headed off to Pittsburgh, and crushed the Pirates 7-0. That set the stage for this game — a four-game winning streak that pushed the team above .500, and something else!
Yes, this was that game, that no one remembers, because somehow, it wasn’t televised. Yes, there was some kind of annoying scheduling snafu with MLB, big FOX, etc. etc., who cares. The point is, somehow no one was covering this game live. That actually set up a weird situation, because this was a super-tense game. Would it have been more tense watching it live, as compared to the radio or Gameday or something? I’m not sure. But the Braves were definitely in danger of suffering the same come-from-behind-defeat fate they had inflicted during this streak... but somehow, they pulled through in nail-biting fashion.
The gist: The Braves jumped ahead early, but the Pirates pulled within a run quickly thereafter. After that, it was stress city, as the Pirates put the tying run in scoring position in every subsequent inning, until the Braves got an insurance run in the ninth.
The set-up: This was not quite a marquee pitching matchup. The Braves would be throwing Derek Lowe, who came into the game with an unfortunate 136 ERA-, 119 FIP-, and 108 xFIP-. Lowe came into this game with three consecutive starts in which he walked as many as he struck out, and had yet to pitch more than seven innings in a game. The Pirates countered with former Brave Charlie Morton, pre-transformation, in his second season in Pittsburgh. Morton was highly ineffective for the Braves in 2008 but was okay for the Pirates in 2009, posting 1.6 fWAR in 97 innings, albeit with an ERA and xFIP higher than his league-average FIP. To start 2010, Morton was having the weirdest time. He had allowed 42 runs in 35 innings, and eight homers in eight starts. But he also had a 30/10 K/BB ratio, giving him the oddball line of a 248 (!!!) ERA-, 140 FIP-, but a 98 xFIP-. And no, this wasn’t a sleeping dragon moment for Morton, either — his transformation would come more than half a decade later. This was just a guy getting crushed by BABIP and HR/FB.
Overall, the Pirates were lousy. They came into this game 18-24, but also off five straight seasons where they hadn’t even won 70 games, They literally hadn’t even been over .500 since 1992.
How it happened: The Braves had a super-weird first inning, that of course, no one saw on TV. It went like this: 1) grounder that was robbed of a hit by a diving snag and throw at short; 2) “single” on a weak roller to third where the first baseman couldn’t handle the throw; 3) seeing-eye grounder through the right side; 4) grounder to first booted by the first baseman but then recovered for an out; 5) four-pitch walk; 6) routine grounder to short. Yes, we’re talking five not particularly-well hit grounders and a walk, yet two hits and a bases loaded situation among them. To be fair, the 2010 Pirates had more or less the worst position player group in baseball, driven in large part by their awful defense, so it wasn’t weird-for-a-team-playing-the-Pirates, just weird in general. Lowe’s first inning was far more conventional, featuring a groundout in front of the plate and a couple of strikeouts on 10 pitches.
In the second, the Braves got on the board against Morton by continuing to escalate his sky-high HR/FB. F’n Melky (Cabrera) hit the third pitch of the inning into the right-field bleachers. It was his first homer as a Brave, and fittingly no one saw it live except the fans in the stands. I’m pretty sure that at the time, I made a crack akin to, “If F’n Melky homers and it isn’t televised, did it really even happen?” Well, it counted in the box score, anyway. Morton’s night only really got worse from there. A walk to former Buc Nate McLouth, a sac bunt from Lowe, and another walk to Martin Prado followed, Jason Heyward followed with a bouncer to short that Ronny Cedeño attempted to backhand. However, the ball didn’t stick in his glove, and everyone was safe, loading the bases. It was the second time in two innings that Heyward had reached base on an infield misplay. Chipper Jones followed by swinging at a 3-0 pitch and bouncing it nearly through the right side, but second baseman Akinori Iwamura was able to grab it and throw to first to make it an RBI groundout. Brian McCann followed with a pop-out to center, giving the Braves a seven-batter, 33-pitch, two-run inning.
The Pirates actually rallied right back, with consecutive one-out liners back up the box. After a groundout, Lowe pitched around eight-place hitter Jason Jaramillo to bring up Morton, and then struck him out on three pitches.
The third then started in pretty similar fashion to the second. I have to say, I find this sequence from the big man pretty enjoyable. Love that walk-into-trot transition.
After that, the Atlanta offense went pretty dormant. Morton retired six of the next seven batters he faced, and Lowe had another scoreless frame in the bottom of the third. But, the bottom of the fourth got dicey.
Former Brave Ryan Church started the inning by hitting Lowe’s very first pitch into right for a double that rolled up against the fence. That brought up Lastings Milledge, who battled Lowe for six pitches before teeing off:
With Cedeño at the plate, the Pirates pulled off a successful safety squeeze, scoring Milledge from third. The Braves gave Pittsburgh another baserunner thanks to a bad play by Chipper at third where he played a bouncer to his side and had it glance off his glove, but another Morton sac bunt and a weak groundout ended the inning. (Actually, Morton’s sac bunt was a weird situation where the play went 2-6-4, but apparently Yunel Escobar took his foot off the bag too soon to force out the runner. It didn’t matter.) The lead was down to a run, and there it would stay, though constantly menaced.
In the fifth, McCann notched a leadoff single after a 12-pitch at-bat (!) but was later picked off, giving Morton a second consecutive scoreless inning. As Morton was rounding into form, Lowe was melting down a bit. Five pitches into the bottom of the inning, Lowe had issued a leadoff walk. The next pitch was a wild pitch, and the three after that also missed, putting two on with none out. Lowe was fortunate that Eric Hinske was there at first base to make this play and help bail him out:
Even with all that, Lowe still couldn’t quite help himself, walking Ryan Church. He did, however, recover to strike out Milledge on three pitches, keeping the lead intact despite a three-walk inning. The Braves didn’t really chance it, though. In the bottom of the fifth, Brooks Conrad came to bat for him and struck out; Lowe finally ended up with fewer walks than strikeouts in a start, and overall had a fine, if brief, outing. Morton pitched a perfect sixth, ending his night with some good innings but another disappointing line due to the two longballs allowed.
With the bullpens in the game, things got spine-tingly. Seriously, this is not what you want to see for so many innings with a one-run lead. Peter Moylan was the first guy out of Atlanta’s pen. His first three batters faced all hit weak groundouts; the problem was that Yunel Escobar couldn’t get a handle on the first one, and the other two moved the tying run to third base. Moylan then walked Iwamura, who stole second, putting the go-ahead run on second base while Bobby Crosby battled and battled Moylan for nine pitches. Finally, Moylan coaxed a pop-out on a hittable slider.
Even with Morton gone, the Atlanta offense remained sleepy. They managed only a two-out single against Javier Lopez, sending Moylan back out to work to face Andrew McCutchen. Two pitches into the seventh, McCutchen grounded back to Moylan, and the Braves went to Eric O’Flaherty to face consecutive lefties in Garrett Jones and Church. O’Flaherty struck out Jones on three pitches, but Church sliced one weakly into left. Out went O’Flaherty, in came Takashi Saito to face the righties due up. Unfortunately, Saito let Milledge bloop a diving curveball into center, once again putting the tying run into scoring position and the go-ahead run on base. Fortunately, he blew a fastball by Cedeño to end the inning.
More non-offense in the eighth from the Braves followed, as Evan Meek retired the side in order. More concern in the bottom of the eighth, too. Saito gave up a leadoff bloop to pinch-hitter Delwyn Young. A groundout from pinch-hitter Ryan Doumit moved Young to second, and Saito walked Iwamura. Yet again, tying run in scoring position, go-ahead run on base. But, not to worry. Saito caught Crosby looking at a fastball down the pipe, and then struck out McCutchen on a fastball away.
In the ninth, facing Joel Hanrahan, the Braves finally got some insurance. Hanrahan actually struck out the first two men in the inning, but then walked Prado, and then Heyward, and then Chipper as well. He actually had McCann struck out, but the ball went through Doumit’s legs. Somehow, McCann managed to beat out Doumit’s throw to first, belly flopping after hitting the bag and allowing Prado to score the fourth Atlanta run. Troy Glaus, who had replaced Hinske in the eighth, flew out to end the inning.
Now finally armed with a two-run lead, the Braves turned the game over to Billy Wagner... who also didn’t have a clean inning. At least the tying run didn’t reach scoring position, though. Wagner gave up a one-out walk to pinch-hitter Steve Pearce; Pearce would later take second on defensive indifference. In any case, Milledge flew out to center, and the game ended when Cedeño took a slider for a called strike three. The Braves had won five in a row for the first time all season.
Game MVP: Eric Hinske, whose homer was the deciding run, and whose play at first base was also arguably the key difference in the game. This was all part of Hinske’s crazy-good May 2010, where he put up a 184 wRC+. In a 17-game stretch between May 8 and May 29, Hinske collected 11-extra base hits, including four homers, in 57 PAs, giving him a 211 wRC+. Also a shoutout to Takashi Saito, whose time on the mound was nerve-wracking but ultimately effective, as he struck out three of the seven batters he faced.
Game LVP: Garrett Jones, who got robbed by Hinske and generally went 0-for-5 with a strikeout. Jones was the only Pirate starter not to reach base in this game; the former Brave farmhand finished 2010 with -0.2 fWAR due to a down offensive year and some truly horrific defense.
Biggest play: Hinske’s unassisted double play, the single biggest blow to Pittsburgh’s win expectancy in this game.
The game, in context of the season: The Braves’ winning streak didn’t extend past five, as the Pirates gave the Braves a taste of their own medicine in the series finale, notching a 3-2 walkoff win. The Braves would lose the next game as well, and then reel off a nine-game winning streak. After this game, they were 23-20, 3.5 games out of first place. After that nine-game winning streak, they were 32-22, with a three-game divisional lead. It wouldn’t last due to poor play in September, but the Braves held on to said lead from May 31 through September 6.
The Pirates finished 2010 with just 57 wins, their worst record since 1954. It was a bottoming out for a team that would go on to win 94 games three years later, and 98 a couple of years after that.
Lowe was generically mediocre (1.8 fWAR) in 2010. He finished the season with a 100 ERA-, 98 FIP-, but an 89 xFIP-. He had a great run in September while the rest of the team scuffled, but was generally hit-or-miss before that. Meanwhile, Morton’s season went further downhill after this game. He was blasted in his next outing and left after two innings, and then missed three months with shoulder fatigue. He had a rough go of it in his first few starts back, but at least managed to finish the year with three strong starts. His final line in 2010, however, was brutal, with -0.2 fWAR due to a 134 FIP- despite a 102 xFIP-. His HR/FB stayed around 20 percent pretty much all season.
TC Commentariat Zeitgeist: Mass confusion that F’n Melky did something positive.
Anything else? The start of this game was delayed 1.5 hours by rain. There were two game threads with thousands of comments. For a game with no video. TC is the best.
Weird Derek Lowe start: this was his eighth career start against the Pirates, and he earned the scorebook W in each of those eight games. He faced the Pirates in the start after this one, and did the same. Then it happened again in September 2010. It took until his last career outing against the Pirates, in 2011, for him to lose a game to them.
The Pirates had more sub-replacement-level performances in May from position players than above-replacement ones. Church and Iwamura’s combined wRC+ summed to 54, even though they combined to reach base five times in this game.
Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about May 22: On this day in 1849, Abraham Lincoln was issued a patent for some kind of weird air-chamber-device to help lift boats over shoals and other small obstructions. To date, he is the only U.S. President to ever receive a patent for anything.