In 2003, Greg Maddux was pitching his last season in a Braves uniform. Tom Glavine had already departed to play for the Mets, and John Smoltz was in his third season as the Braves’ closer. On May 25, 2003, the Braves hosted the Mets, and both Maddux and Smoltz appeared. This was hardly a rarity — the Braves winning Maddux-started games with Smoltz closing them out with a high frequency from 2001 through 2003. Still, this was a fun game with vintage Maddux, vintage closer Smoltz, some homers, and a weirdly good turn from a non-Glavine Mets starter.
The gist: For one afternoon, Maddux nearly met his match in Jae Weong Seo, a Korean rookie with a great 2003 season. The Braves went ahead on an Andruw Jones homer, but lost the lead two pitches after Maddux departed. They got it right back with a two-run Marcus Giles homer after the New York bullpen replaced Seo, and Smoltz slammed the door.
The set-up: In the way of set-up, not much is needed. You already know about Greg Maddux, though you may be surprised to know that he came into this game with very un-Maddux-esque numbers: 129 ERA-, 113 FIP-, 96 xFIP-. Those numbers were inflated by his shellacking by the Marlins in his second start, which we covered earlier in this series, but even since that start, he was pitching more like an average guy (99 FIP-) than Greg Maddux.
You may not know or remember at all about Jae Weong Seo, a righty from Korea who was signed by the Mets after helping Inha University win the Korean collegiate championship in 1997. After some elbow issues cost him a full season of development, he started 2003 in the Mets’ rotation (having pitched just one major league inning in 2002) and had been very, very good over his first eight major league starts: 82 ERA-, 84 FIP-; albeit with a more worrisome 107 xFIP-. In a rotation that featured Tom Glavine, Al Leiter, Steve Trachsel, and the very-bad-idea comeback attempt of David Cone, Seo was the Mets’ best pitcher coming into this game, already having compiled 1.1 fWAR in just eight starts and one relief outing.
The Mets, though, were pretty miserable. They came into this game 22-27, in fourth place and already ten games back of the 33-16 Braves, who had a two-game lead in the division and the majors’ best record. Neither team actually had good starting pitching to this point, with the Mets’ rotation actually faring better than the Braves’. But, the difference was that the Mets had an awful bullpen and poor position players, while the Braves’ bullpen was good and their position players were the best in baseball to this point. Still, the two teams had split the first two games of this series, with the Mets edging the Braves in the first game and Atlanta crushing Glavine in his return to Turner Field. The first series between these two teams was on the line on this Sunday afternoon on Memorial Day weekend.
How it happened: This was a super-fast game, because both Maddux and Seo largely dealt. Maddux breezed through the first (I’m going to be typing this a lot) on 12 pitches, allowing just a Robbie Alomar grounder up the middle with two outs. Seo matched him with an 11-pitch, 1-2-3 inning. Maddux gave up a one-out grounder through the right side from Jeromy Burnitz in the second, but Henry Blanco gunned him down trying to steal, and Maddux struck out Vance Wilson to end the inning. Seo countered with another 12-pitch 1-2-3 frame. Remember, the Braves were just brutalizing opposing pitching to this point, so this kind of start was jarring.
Maddux had his first perfect frame in the third, striking out Seo looking for the second out. He was also the Braves’ first baserunner of this game, reaching first with two outs when shortstop Joe McEwing threw away a grounder. (McEwing was primarily a second baseman and outfielder in his career, but was pressed into the starting shortstop role in Queens while Rey Sanchez missed some time with injury. The Mets had Jay Bell as a theoretical alternative, but the 38-year-old Bell couldn’t really hit or field at this point.) With Maddux on base, Rafael Furcal lined out to short to end the inning.
The Mets got another Alomar groundball single in the fourth, but once again, did nothing with it. Seo found another way to allow a baserunner without a hit or a walk in the bottom of the inning, plunking Marcus Giles to give the Braves a leadoff baserunner. On a full count, Gary Sheffield smashed one to third, with Giles running on the pitch. Unfortunately, Sheffield smashed it right to Ty Wigginton, who threw back to first for the double play. Chipper Jones then hit one deep to right, but not deep enough to elude the glove of outfielder Roger Cedeño. Maddux then had a very Maddux-esque inning in the fifth, featuring a first-pitch groundout, a four-pitch strikeout in which Wilson took all four pitches, and then a second-pitch pop-up.
Andruw Jones had popped out against Seo in the second, but got the Braves on the board in the fifth. Seo fell behind 2-0, Andruw fouled a pitch off, and then crushed the next one into very deep left for a solo homer. Vinny Castilla later connected on Seo’s first pitch for a double down the line, but the combination of Blanco, Maddux’s personal catcher, and Maddux himself couldn’t bring him home. Actually, Cedeño forgot how many outs there were when retiring Blanco on a fly down the right-field line, allowing Castilla to tag up and move to third, but Maddux fouled out to render Cedeño’s gaffe an embarrassing but costless mistake.
With the lead, Maddux was perfect from here on out. He needed just 11 pitches to get through the sixth, and after Seo had a nine-pitch inning, Maddux wrapped up with a 13-pitch seventh. He didn’t come out for the eighth, giving him a very Maddux-esque line of seven innings on just 84 pitches with three hits, zero walks, and three strikeouts. It was arguably one of his best outings of the season, though those things are always tough to judge with Maddux given that he could have starts like this and then go out and strike out 11 a few weeks later (which he did). Seo went on to allow just one more hit to finish out his day, an infield single by Andruw that McEwing couldn’t make a play on. He matched Maddux in allowing just three hits and zero walks in seven innings, struck out two, and had his line marred solely by the Andruw homer.
With Maddux gone, the Braves turned to Roberto Hernandez, an offseason acquisition intended to be the set-up guy for the year. In reality, while Hernandez hadn’t lost the job yet (and really wouldn’t all season), he was legitimately horrendous already (and would stay that way throughout the year). The Braves weren’t a very bullpen-heavy squad aside from John Smoltz at the backend (and didn’t need to be), but Hernandez was just about their worst option, and was already deeply into the negatives in fWAR (and in WPA as well) by this point. In any case, what happened was this: Hernandez missed with his first pitch to Burnitz, and then threw him something over the plate because he (in his own postgame words), didn’t want to fall behind him 2-0. Burnitz had a 130 wRC+ and .250 ISO coming into this game, and promptly muscled the pitch into left-center for a game-tying solo homer of his own. A chorus of boos erupted, and didn’t quiet as Hernandez fell behind Wilson 2-0, gave up a single, and then got an out on a sacrifice bunt. The Mets relieved Seo of duty by pinch-hitting for him with Timo Perez, whom Hernandez struck out. The Braves then intentionally walked Cedeño to set up a righty-righty matchup with Wigginton, and were rewarded with a first-pitch lineout to short. Hernandez had a real messy inning relative to most in this game, but the Braves weren’t trailing.
Suddenly finding themselves tied with the Braves, the Mets tabbed David Weathers for the bottom of the eighth. Weathers was their best reliever (by fWAR) to this point, and had been a solid, durable, not-limited-to-one-inning-stints reliever for a half-decade at this point. With Maddux gone, the Braves swapped Blanco out for Javy Lopez, who rolled a ball up the middle for a leadoff single. Darren Bragg was then asked to do the ridiculous stratagem of bunting while pinch-hitting, and it backfired horribly, as he bunted into a 1-6-3 double play. Furcal followed with a single up the middle of his own, which brought Giles to the plate. In an 0-1 count, Giles smashed a Weathers pitch over the wall in left-center, giving the Braves back the lead they had just lost, and then some. Sheffield flew out to shallow right on the next pitch, and it was Smoltz time.
Smoltz time didn’t last long. He started his outing with three straight misses to Alomar, but then hit the zone twice with called strikes. Alomar swung for the first time in the PA on the full-count pitch and missed it for out number one. Cliff Floyd rolled one to Giles, and the Braves were an out away. Jason Phillips fell behind 0-2, took a couple of balls, and hoped to turn another take into a full count, but home plate umpire Jeff Kellogg gave the strike call signal, ending the game.
Game MVP: Vintage Greg Maddux in this one! Maddux had his highest Game Score (v2) of the 2003 season in this start, as well as his highest single-game WPA of the year. His last year in a Braves uniform would actually be his worst, with “only” 3.6 fWAR; he finished with an ERA- of 92 and an FIP- of 90 after his dreadful start to the season
Game LVP: David Weathers, for good reason. 2003 was a fine year for Weathers overall (0.7 fWAR), but this wasn’t a good outing for him, or outcome for the Mets. He still finished with the most fWAR among Mets relievers, and fifth-most fWAR among their pitchers overall (Seo was first, with 3.2).
Biggest play: Marcus Giles’ game-winning two-run homer, of course.
The game, in context of the season: Inclusive of this game, Maddux went on a roll with six straight really good starts, one of his best stretches of the year. Seo was already on a roll of this type, and would torment the Braves a few times in 2003. In his very next outing, he beat them by allowing two runs in eight innings, despite a 0/1 K/BB ratio (in eight innings! that’s crazy!). The Braves would then rough him up twice in July, before he beat them again with a decent outing in August. Overall, the Braves went 11-8 against the 66-win Mets, a rate worse than they managed against the rest of the league, and Seo was a decent chunk of that.
2003 was Giles’ breakout season — he finished with 6.7 fWAR and 21 homers after only getting partial playing time in each of the past two seasons and putting up just 1.9 fWAR combined.
Roberto Hernandez finished with -1.1 fWAR in 2003. It’s amazing that the Braves stuck with him through the season, and even in a close game in the NLDS (which the Braves lost, including the game that Hernandez pitched in, though he had nothing do with the loss). He was also below replacement in 2004, but then bounced back with a 1.0 fWAR season in 2005... with the Mets.
Anything else? This was mentioned in our previous look at the 2003 season, but John Smoltz was in the midst of his insane streak where he appeared in a bunch of Braves wins with no losses in this game. In fact, this was the last game of the streak, appearance-in-a-win number 72. The Braves would lose their next game, with Smoltz throwing a scoreless frame in it. In that game, Roberto Hernandez allowed a grand slam to Adam Dunn in extra innings to seal the loss; the Braves actually scored three of the four runs necessary to re-tie the game in the bottom half of the inning.
Sheffield had a 183 wRC+ coming into this game, and a 217 wRC+ in his last 56 PAs. This was only the third time all season he went 0-for-4. Those numbers seem pretty gaudy, but Sheffield finished 2003 with an insane 163 wRC+ and a career-best 7.3 fWAR.
Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about May 25: In 1986, this was the day of the “Hands Across America” event, a kinda-kooky stunt where the idea was to get Americans to form an unbroken chain of humans holding hands with one another across the contiguous 48 states. Of course, that was never a real possibility (hello, Wyoming) given how friggin’ big the U.S. is, but the cool thing is that enough people participated in the denser areas of the country that the length of the chain, if averaged out to be a straight line across the distance needed, was actually sufficient to cross the continent. The event raised $34 million for charity, which is good, but kind of underwhelming given that it took about $19 million to organize and operate it in the first place, meaning that only a net of $15 million was donated.