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Braves Flashback/Recap: May 5

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Nine, count ‘em, nine lead changes!

Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals Photo by Diamond Images/Getty Images

We haven’t yet visited the 2010 Braves. Along with the 2015 team, those are the only two we haven’t yet checked in on. There’s no huge specific reason for it, either. Some of it is luck of the draw, some of it is the fact that the Braves only played 23 games in April 2010, and some of it was just that many of those games were not very good. The 2010 Braves had fewer one-run games (six) than blowouts (five runs or more in margin, seven). But, that ends today, as we visit a game that was so back-and-forth, I’m surprised we all didn’t get whiplash from watching it.

The gist: The Braves and Nationals traded a ton of scoring in the early going, until the Nationals scored two in the bottom of the eighth to tie the game. The Braves needed ten innings to finally put this one in the books.

Box scores: Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs

The set-up: The Braves came into this game at 12-15, having dropped the series opener in Washington. They were on a bit of a roller coaster, having swept the Astros after losing nine straight games. On the hill for them was Tommy Hanson, who had a very good rookie season (2.4 fWAR in under 130 innings, even when you look past his massive ERA-FIP gap), and had been straight-up dominant to start 2010 (54 ERA-, 75 FIP-, 84 xFIP-). The Braves were looking to finally get back into the playoffs for the first time since 2005 after narrowly missing a chance in 2009.

The Nationals, meanwhile, were bottoming out. Their 2009 was the worst season in franchise history since the 1976 Expos, finishing with 59 wins. Yet, coming into this game, they were 14-12, one game out of the division lead, and in third place. (The Braves were last, but just four games out.) Their scheduled starter for this game was Luis Atilano, a one-time Braves draft pick who had been traded to the Nationals as a minor prospect in 2006. A sinkerballer, Atilano hadn’t really distinguished himself in the minors, but the Nationals had little choice but to promote him when another former Brave, Jason Marquis, went down with injury in late April. Coming into this game, Atilano had made two starts. The good news: three runs in 12 innings. The bad news: a 2/5 K/BB ratio. The Braves were hoping that particular levee was about to break.

How it happened: Break it did, early and often, though the deluge drenched Hanson, too. However, Atilano just kept on doing his weird walks-and-few-runs thing in the first. He started the game with a leadoff walk to Nate McLouth. After a pop out, McLouth got gunned down stealing second on a super-slick pick and throw by Ivan Rodriguez, which meant that the eventual walk to Chipper Jones was just a harmless two-out affair. McCann then hit an easy bouncer into the shift to end the inning.

Things went more poorly for Hanson in his first inning of work. Nyjer Morgan started the frame with a deep drive that bounced up and over the wall in left center. That was pretty fortunate for the Braves, given that Morgan was most of the way to third by the time the ball bounced past the fence. After a sacrifice bunt, Ryan Zimmerman connected on a broken-bat flyout into pretty deep center for an uncontested sacrifice fly. But, the trouble wasn’t over yet. Hanson walked Adam Dunn, who moved to third on Rodriguez’ lined double into the right-field corner. (Dunn was slooooowwwww and couldn’t score with two outs, even when Jason Heyward let the ball kick around off the fence.) Hanson elicited a pop out to strand both runners and keep the deficit at one.

In the second, someone finally made Atilano pay for his walks. The frame started with another leadoff free pass, this time to Troy Glaus, but neither Heyward nor Matt Diaz could advance him. That brought up Omar Infante, who did better than just advancing the runner:

That was Infante’s first dinger of the year — he would hit eight total in 2010 after combining for five total in his prior two seasons as a Brave. (Did you know that Infante had a 16-homer season in 2004? I didn’t!)

The bottom of the second started very, very inauspiciously. Heyward had tweaked his groin in earlier in the game (yikes) and was replaced by, well, I don’t really want to type his name. F’n Melky Cabrera. Two pitches after that, this happened:

Just sayin’. Hanson had gone four starts without allowing a homer. This game-tying shot by Ian Desmond snapped that streak. Nor could Hanson keep the game tied. Roger Bernadina followed with a single, was bunted to second, and scored on Morgan’s second double, this one down the left-field line. Hanson got a flyout and then struck out Zimmerman on a filthy hammer to end the inning, but the Braves would once again be playing from behind in the third.

Atilano changed it up in his third inning of work, starting the frame with a strikeout of McLouth. Martin Prado then yoinked a double into the left-field corner himself, and scored easily when Chipper rolled one into right field. After Atilano issued yet another walk, this time to McCann, it seemed like it might be time for a prolonged rally. But, instead, both Glaus and F’n Melky flew out, and that was that.

And then, wonder of wonders, the game stayed tied for a bit. Hanson worked around a two-out single, while Atilano worked around a one-out infield single from Infante to start the fourth. Hanson then managed another scoreless frame in the bottom half of the inning, allowing a two-out single to Morgan but getting out of it when McCann threw him out trying to steal second on a pitchout.

The top of the fifth gave the Braves another lead against Atilano. Prado started the inning with a seeing-eye grounder through the right side, and moved to third on a “double” when Chipper slashed a pitch into left-center. A good throw from center probably would have nabbed Chipper at second, but Morgan’s attempt was way off the mark. However, the Braves would get just a lone run out of the situation. McCann struck out, Glaus hit into a routine groundout that scored Prado, and F’n Melky popped out.

The Nationals, though, came right back to knot the game up once again. Adam Kennedy led off with a single into center. Hanson again got Zimmerman on strikes, this time staring at strike three, but then walked Adam Dunn. The Nationals then succeeded on a very rare gambit: on Hanson’s first pitch to Rodriguez, they sent Kennedy off with the pitch. Rodriguez made contact and hit a weak bouncer into the hole, but Chipper was moving towards third base and was totally out of position to make a play. The ball trickled into left, scoring Kennedy easily. A popout and a groundout ended the inning, but we were once again all tied up.

Until we weren’t. Diaz led off the sixth with a first-pitch opposite-field double into right-center. Atilano then pitched around Infante to get to Hanson, whom he struck out on three very unsuccessful bunt attempts. Hanson actually missed bunting at the ball for two consecutive pitches, which is a special kind of pitcher hitting futility. But, just like that, Atilano was yanked from the game, with manager Jim Riggleman apparently not willing to let him go beyond 98 pitches and/or face the lineup a fourth time through. While no one knows what would have happened had Atilano stayed in, we do know what happened when he was pulled: lefty specialist Sean Burnett came in to face McLouth, and on a full count, McLouth hit a soft flare into shallow right, pretty much adjacent to the foul line. The hit went for a go-ahead double; the Braves scored their sixth run on Prado’s soft groundout to short, with Ian Desmond making a nice barehanded play to record the inning’s second out. Burnett then nibbled around Chipper to bring up McCann, and pulled a more conventional lefty-lefty bamboozling on him, striking him out on three pitches.

Now with a two-run lead, Hanson, weirdly enough, had his best inning of the game in the sixth. It took him just ten pitches to get through three batters, and he threw a strikeout into the mix for good measure. It was his only inning of the game where no batter saw more than five pitches. With that, the book could be closed on both starters. Hanson allowed four runs in six innings, including a homer, to go with a 5/2 K/BB ratio. It was arguably (by ERA and xFIP) his worst start of the young season. Atilano lasted 5 13 innings in his third career appearance, setting career highs in hits allowed (seven), runs allowed (six), walks (five), and strikeouts (four). He had allowed the first homer in his career, and cemented a dubious sequence of having more walks than strikeouts in his first three career outings (he’d at least snap it next time out, but still finished 2010 with it true in seven of 16 appearances).

Righty Tyler Walker relieved Burnett for the seventh and had a 1-2-3, 11-pitch inning. Peter Moylan came on for the bottom of the inning (someone should go through all the games done in this series so far and see if Moylan’s appeared in at least half of them...), got two groundouts, pitched around Dunn on five pitches, and then struck out Rodriguez to send the game to the eighth. Sub-replacement-type righty Brian Bruney added a 1-2-3 inning of his own for the top of the eighth, which set up a crazy bottom half of the inning.

The Braves tabbed Takashi Saito to bridge the gap to then-reliever Billy Wagner. Saito had been a dominant reliever in his first three seasons since coming over from Japan, but faltered somewhat in 2009, posting a 98 FIP- and 108 xFIP- when his previous worst marks for those metrics were 57 and 68, respectively. You’d never know it just by looking at ERA, though, as his 2009 featured a 52 ERA-, totally in line with his prior marks. In any case, the Red Sox declined an option they held on him, and the Braves signed him for $3.2 million. Saito responded by returning to his dominant self with Atlanta, though he did have meltdowns in back-to-back appearances that seriously prolonged the Braves’ nine-game losing streak (twice).

Saito started his night with back-to-back grounders to short. The first was easily turned into an out by Infante, but the second, a bouncer off Desmond’s bat, resulted in a flub and a one-out baserunner. That error ended up being huge, as the next batter, Bernadina, drilled a ball into right that nearly cleared the fence for a game-tying homer. Instead, he and the Nationals had to settle for a double, with the tying run now in scoring position. The Nationals had the pitcher’s spot due up, but had double-switched Justin Maxwell into that spot when Atilano came out of the game. They now pulled a somewhat strange move, inserting a different righty, Josh Willingham, to face the righty-throwing Saito. Willingham was Washington’s regular left fielder at this point, and one of their trio of great bats (along with Dunn and Zimmerman), so the move made sense from that perspective, at least. Anyway, Willingham got ahead of Saito 2-0, took a fastball down the middle, and then got a slider that didn’t break over the plate:

The result of him hooking the ball over the infield and into left? Yet another tie game. Saito got the next two outs without incident, but that one bad slider really stung.

With no potential for a lead they’d have to protect, the Nationals went with closer Matt Capps in the ninth. In true reliever fashion, Capps had gone from a strong two-year run to a completely collapse in 2009, after which he was non-tendered. Nationals GM Mike Rizzo, in his first offseason on the job, had scooped him up for $3.5 million. In his first month, Capps seemed to have rounded back into form, only allowing runs in one outing up to this point. He had no trouble in the ninth, either, retiring Prado, Chipper, and McCann in order on nine pitches. To prevent the walkoff, the Braves deployed Kris Medlen (he’d return to starting after this game, but was still in the bullpen here). Medlen matched Capps, needing just 11 pitches to get through Zimmerman, Dunn, and Rodriguez.

In the tenth, the Nationals saw no need to lift Capps, not just yet. Glaus greeted him with a solid liner into left, and was replaced by pinch-runner Brandon Hicks. F’n Melky bunted Hicks to second, which set the stage for Matt Diaz. After taking a pitch, DIaz swung at another two-seamer over the plate and sheared it into right:

Hicks scored easily, and even though Infante grounded into a double play to end the inning afterward, the Braves had their fourth lead of the day, this time in extra innings. That meant it was Billy Wagner time, and Wagner, like Capps had been very solid to date after an injury-shortened 2009. The inning started with a little anxiety with a leadoff single, but a flyout and a disgusting three-pitch strikeout of pinch-hitter Wil Nieves meant it was all up to Willingham to make something happen again. On a 1-0 pitch, Willingham put a good swing on a high fastball, but lined it right to Diaz, ending the game.

Game MVP: Matt Diaz, who went 2-for-5 with a double, and the game-winning hit. His leadoff double resulted in him scoring the go-ahead run in the sixth. Diaz probably needed a game like this. He entered this one with a 24 wRC+ while in a pseudo-but-not-really-platoon with F’n Melky, and by this point, there were already a lot of rumblings that he should have been losing playing time to Eric Hinske, who had mostly been a pinch-hitter so far. In any case, it didn’t really matter, as Diaz needed thumb surgery just a few days after this game, opening the door for Hinske. The Braves would suffer a variety of injuries in the outfield over the course of 2010, meaning that aside from Heyward, no other outfielder started more than 95 games for the Braves that year.

Game LVP: Saito’s slider-that-didn’t-move, allowing Willingham and the Nationals to tie the game. Saito would go on to have a resurgent season (1.2 fWAR) before moving on and letting injuries sap the remainder of his career. This was actually his second-worst game of the season by WPA, Despite a fairly rough May (including this game), Saito would put together a two-month stretch between June 25 and August 23 with zero meltdowns.

Biggest play: The Diaz game-winning hit, of course.

The game, in context of the season: Despite this win, the Braves’ roller coaster of a season continued. They would lose the rubber game on a walkoff, and then lose another series to the Phillies. They wouldn’t climb out of the cellar (after this game, they were still 12-16, five games out, and in last place) until a sweep in Milwaukee moved them to 16-18. But, starting in mid-May, they went on a furious run, starting with three straight walk-off wins, and ending with a nine-game winning streak. Between May 18 and June 3, the Braves went 14-2, vaulting from 5.5 games back and fourth place into first place with a three-game lead. A September collapse kept them from winning the division, but they still made the playoffs as a Wild Card with 91 wins, the most for the team since 2004.

The Nationals, meanwhile, were nearly at their 2010 acme. They were 20-15, one game out of the division lead, on May 13. They then lost five straight, and later went 8-19 in June. By June 11, they were permanently in last place. They’d finish with 69 wins overall.

Despite the blah outing here, Tommy Hanson would go on to have a career-best 3.7 fWAR season. Luis Atilano, meanwhile, made 16 appearances (all starts) for Washington in 2010, taking the ball through July 20. He posted minus stats in the 120s and collected 0.3 fWAR, and never appeared in the majors again.


Condensed game:


The entire game:

Anything else? This game snapped an eight-game road losing streak, which was apparently the longest for the Braves since the mid-90s. This was reported on a lot at the time, but always seemed strange to me because the Braves had just endured a nine-game losing streak, so a less-continuous smaller losing streak didn’t seem very noteworthy by comparison.

Medlen’s performance in this game, and throughout the rest of the year as a reliever (64 ERA-, 64 FIP-, 81 xFIP-) meant he would be tabbed to start in Jair Jurrjens’ place for much of the rest of the year, after the latter went down with an injury.

Brian McCann went 0-for-4 with a walk and three strikeouts in this game. It was his first three-strikeout game of 2010; he wouldn’t have another until late June. McCann was scuffling a bit at this point, with a 54 wRC+ going back to April 17. He’d go on a tear almost immediately afterwards, with a 136 wRC+ for the rest of May, and a 145 wRC+ through September 2 until collapsing very hard with the rest of his team (54 wRC+) down the stretch.

TC Recap:

TC Game Threads:

TC Commentariat Sentiment: General terror about Heyward’s injury (it wasn’t serious), vitriol for F’n Melky, and a continued sentiment of woe that the Braves couldn’t easily dispatch the Nats, The Nats had gone 12-6 against the Braves in 2008 (nearly 20 percent of their team wins came in the 18 games against the Braves that year), 8-10 in 2009, and then 10-8 in 2010.

Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about May 5: On this day in 1961, Alan Shepard became the first human in space as part of his sub-orbital flight.