We’ve covered a lot of crazy games recently, with a lot going on. But a game doesn’t need to have lots of runs to be chock-full of stuff. That was the case on May 6, 2003, a low-scoring affair that nonetheless had a lot of stories swirling about.
The gist: The Braves nursed a 1-0 lead for most of the game, which was the result of the only run allowed by either starter. Roberto Hernandez came in for Atlanta in the eighth and promptly surrendered both the lead and the tie. But, the Braves’ Joneses proved superior to the Rockies’ Todd Jones, as Andruw connected for a game-winning homer with Chipper on base in the bottom of the inning, and John Smoltz slammed the door.
The set-up: There were at least two meta-narratives coming into this game. The first is that the 2003 Braves were scorching. After a 4-8 start, they were 16-3 coming into this game. 16-3! They were in last place on April 12, already 3.5 games out. Since then, they had opened up a slim 1.5-game lead in the division. They had as many sweeps as series wins (and no series losses) since losing three of their first four series. This team would go on to win 101 games, and the path to that triple-digit win total was paved in large part during this stretch (which actually continued for a while, as the Braves went 27-5 after April 12 before losing back-to-back games to the Reds in late May).
The other was that the scheduled starter for Atlanta in this game was Mike Hampton, facing his former team for the first time since the crazy wheeling and dealing that shipped him away. In case you’ve forgotten: coming off a couple of five-ish-win seasons in 1999-2000, the Rockies gave Hampton the largest contract in MLB history (at the time, of course): $121 million over eight years. The Rockies had basically been mired in mediocrity for the entirety of their existence (they still have never won a division), and the idea was that Hampton would help anchor a pitching staff that was generally bottom ten in MLB (though they were only bottom half in 2000), even after accounting for park. However, the big spending didn’t work out. Hampton was okay in 2001 (1.9 fWAR), but the Rockies weren’t paying for an innings sponge. He completely imploded in 2002 (fewer walks than strikeouts, 0.3 fWAR), and the Rockies dealt him in a huge deal to the Marlins... who then turned around and sent him to the Braves two days later. Hampton had not yet gained a reputation as being extremely breakable, but he still started 2003 on the shelf, such that coming into this game against his former team, he’d be making just his fourth start as a Brave. Those first three starts, by the way? They were very strange: a combined 4/9 K/BB ratio, but only seven runs allowed. The minus stats were 82 ERA-, 112 FIP-, and 130 xFIP-, which could have been concerning if not for the small sample.
How it happened: Hampton labored through the first against his former mates. His first eight pitches were all strikes, and resulted in two groundouts and an opposite-field liner single by Todd Helton. But, Hampton then lost his control and walked Preston Wilson (one of the players the Marlins traded for him) on four pitches, extending the inning before getting Larry Walker to ground out to end the inning.
It was the Braves’ turn to take aim at Aaron Cook, who was just starting his career in 2003. Cook had been flat-out awful in his first six starts of the season, getting shelled each time except a complete game, one-run affair versus the Padres. His most recent start was the most disastrous yet: seven runs, including two homers, in three innings, with zero strikeouts, easily his worst career start to date (although he’d had some 0 K, 4 BB games that maybe were worse peripherals-wise, too).
Like Hampton, Cook didn’t manage to avoid the free pass, giving one out to Marcus Giles with one out. But, Giles got picked off with two outs, and Hampton was back to work, allowing just a two-out single (and no walks!) in the second. Cook’s second was exactly the same (two outs, a single, an out).
In the third, Hampton worked around a two-out walk to Helton by retiring Wilson on a comebacker. The Braves, meanwhile, scratched a run off Cook: Javy Lopez rolled a ball up the middle to start the inning, moved to second on a Hampton bunt, and scored on a Rafael Furcal fly into center that found grass. The Braves would get another baserunner immediately after, as Giles reached on a bad flip from shorstop Jose Hernandez to second baseman Ronnie Belliard on an attempted forceout, but nothing else as Cook retired both Gary Sheffield and Chipper Jones.
Hampton was fairly wild in the top of the fourth, but still managed to keep the Rockies off the board. He started the inning by hitting Walker, and then walked Charles Johnson (another player that had been traded for him) with one out. A fly ball and a comebacker ended the inning. Cook and Hampton then traded 1-2-3 frames, the first for either pitcher without a baserunner to that point.
In the bottom of the fifth, Hampton (an exemplar of a hitting pitcher) doubled off Cook with one out. But, the actual hitters on the team couldn’t bring him home. Back on the hill for the sixth, he issued a one-out walk to Walker, but consecutive flyouts ended the inning. Cook countered with an eight-pitch inning of three straight groundouts. Hampton allowed a couple of baserunners once again in the seventh (one-out pinch-hit single by Gabe Kapler, walk to Belliard), but a first-pitch double play off Jay Payton’s bat bailed him out. That closed the book on both starters.
Hampton’s final line was suuuuper weird: seven innings, 107 pitches, three hits, five walks, one strikeout, and of course, zero runs. Hampton had actually had, to that point, 12 starts with worse K%-BB% marks, but he’d been destroyed in all of them but three, and those weren’t very good either. Case in point: before this game, no pitcher had had something similar (7+ IP, 5+ BB, 0 or 1 K, 0 R) since 1993, and it has only happened twice since, and never since 2011. Cook’s was somewhat more conventional (6 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 1 K) for him, but would be weirder for someone else, who you’d figure would strike out more batters if he was able to allow just five baserunners in six frames.
As soon as Cook departed, the Braves got a great scoring chance against righty Justin Speier, but they botched it. Robert Fick shot a double into the right-field corner and moved to third (but could not score) on Vinny Castilla’s single to left. On the first pitch from Speier, Lopez grounded a ball to second. Belliard fielded it and threw home, nabbing Fick. Pinch-hitter Matt Franco and Furcal both hit flies off Speier, but both nestled into Wilson’s glove, and the Braves had wasted a leadoff double.
Meanwhile, as soon as Hampton and his very strange pitching line departed, the game (temporarily) fell apart for the Braves. At this point in 2003, the Braves were still committed to using Roberto Hernandez as a set-up man. It had worked okay ERA-wise and WPA-wise so far, but he had awful peripherals (16/12 K/BB ratio in 18 innings) and was just cashing in both BABIP and strand rate to survive. None of those things were there for him in this outing. A five-pitch walk to Helton started the inning. Wilson followed with an infield single to Castilla at third. Up next was Walker, who sliced the 1-1 pitch from Hernandez towards Furcal at short, but just a bit too high for it to become an out or a double play. The ball was hit hard enough that it rocketed through the outfield grass, By the time Andruw Jones was able to cut it off and return the ball to the infield, Helton had scored the tying run, and Wilson was at third with none out. Another walk, this time to Jose Hernandez, followed. After a seven-pitch battle, Johnson struck out, bringing up Chris Stynes. The Braves got the grounder they wanted, but Stynes beat out Furcal’s relay throw from second, and Wilson ran across the plate for the go-ahead run. A groundout from pinch-hitter Greg Norton ended the inning, but the Braves now trailed after leading for most of the game.
Suddenly with a lead, the Rockies went with Todd Jones, a veteran former closer now serving in a setup capacity. Jones tended to be fairly inconsistent game-to-game at this point, which reflected his overall consistency season-to-season as well. However, after five pitches, things were not looking great for the Braves, as Giles flew out to right and Sheffield bounced a comebacker to Jones. It was now time for an all-Jones matchup, with Todd facing Chipper. After getting ahead 1-2, Todd threw three straight balls, and Chipper moseyed, victorious, on to first. That prompted the next all-Jones matchup, with Andruw in the box. On the third pitch of the PA, Andruw clubbed one to dead center, the ball sailing into the soggy Atlanta night for a go-ahead two-run blast. The Rockies had worked so hard to take the lead, needing four baserunners and an avoided double play, with six men sent to the plate, to go from 0-1 to 2-1. Yet, here were the 2003 Braves, crushing dreams in the span of two Jones Boys PAs.
2003 was the third of John Smoltz’ four years of closing. He dispatched Belliard on four pitches. Payton sprayed a single into left, bringing up Helton. On a 2-2 pitch, Helton hit a ball to Giles, who stepped on the second base bag and threw on to first to complete the game-ending double play.
Game MVP: Andruw Jones. His homer was really the only thing he did all game, but when you hit game-winning dingers, you don’t need to do much else. It was Andruw’s ninth homer in his 32nd game of the year, and one of two games in 2003 in which he put up a WPA over .500.
Game LVP: Todd Jones, as basically the converse of the immediately above. Notably, this wasn’t even his most damaging outing of the season to date: in April, he had allowed three runs to the Cardinals, turning a 4-2 lead into a 4-5 deficit, while getting just one out. 2003 was Jones’ worst season by fWAR since 1996, and his worst season by RA9-WAR overall. It was also pretty bad WPA-wise. But in true reliever fashion, he just kept bouncing around effectiveness-wise:
Biggest play: Andruw’s homer was worth a whopping .606 WPA.
The game, in context of the season: This was the second victory in a small, four-game winning streak for the Braves. After a rainout of the second game, the Braves swept a doubleheader, giving them a sweep of the Rockies at home, and their seventh consecutive series win. They would lose just one of their next seven games after this one, and wouldn’t lose a series until late May. At this point, the Braves had a 1.5-game lead in the division. They’d never relinquish it, holding on to first place from April 27 through the season’s end.
The Rockies, meanwhile, dropped to .500, 6.5 games back of the Giants, but still in second place. This was the second loss in a five-game skid for them. They’d go 12-17 in May, but were only four games out of a Wild Card spot as late as July 29. However, an 18-33 end to the season left them with just 74 wins and a fourth-place finish. It was no better than their pre-Hampton or with-Hampton days. They wouldn’t finish above .500 or make the playoffs until their crazy second-half run in 2007.
Including this game, Hampton’s first four starts as a Brave featured an impossible 5/14 K/BB ratio, yet only seven runs allowed. He’d actually round into real form, not just peripherals-beating form, in the second half: he had a 42/44 K/BB ratio through July 1, with a 109/102/112 ERA-/FIP-/xFIP- triple-slash, and followed that up with a 68/34 K/BB ratio and a 76/90/90 triple-slash afterwards. He finished the season with 2.6 fWAR, his best mark as a Brave. The injuries wouldn’t start in earnest until 2005.
Aaron Cook did reasonably well in this game, but couldn’t avoid the overall disaster that was his 2003. When he was finally booted from the rotation in July, he had a 29/41 K/BB ratio and a 122/106/122 triple-slash. He fared no better as a reliever the rest of the way. This outing was arguably one of his best of the season; he finished with 1.0 fWAR. He wouldn’t break out until 2006, when he learned to keep the walks under control and get a few more strikeouts while still keeping his pitch-to-contact nature intact.
Andruw Jones had a pretty Andruw Jones year: 36 homers, a 118 wRC+, incredible defense, and 5.2 fWAR. He actually led the NL in RBI after this homer, but couldn’t keep pace at all — he finished with 116, while the NL leader ended up being Preston Wilson, who finished with 141.
Video: Sorry, too old.
Anything else? A lot, actually. Atlanta was drenched in rain before (and after) this game. It was delayed by around 30 minutes before it started, but the heavy rain meant that the outfield was soaked, and there were still puddles on the warning track. It didn’t really affect anything that happened game-wise, but...
The listed attendance for this game was just 18,108. It was the lowest total in Turner Field history. There wouldn’t be a lower total until 2005, even with other rainouts, etc.. The rain had something to do with it, sure, as did it being a Tuesday in May, but the Braves were just killing it at this point in terms of on-field performance, so it was a little odd to see. Atlanta attendance has always been a little weird in this regard: the Braves drew fewer fans in 2003-2004 (101 and 96 wins, respectively) than in 2006-2008, where they didn’t make the playoffs. The worst-in-a-long-time 2008 team drew more fans than the better subsequent 2009 and 2010 teams (though that might have been the recession). 2007 remains the Braves’ highest annual attendance since 2001, which includes everything associated with SunTrust/Truist Park.
Also, a special mention to John Smoltz, here. Smoltz came in and shut the door, making it the 65th straight time that he appeared in a Braves win. That streak would come to an end later in the month, stopping at 73, but that’s pretty crazy. Given that even as a reliever, Smoltz was appearing in 75 games max, that’s literally a stretch of only taking the field in wins for an entire year. On May 29, 2002, he allowed a three-run double to Jose Vidro with a one-run lead. When the streak was snapped, on May 26, 2003, it wasn’t even his fault: he threw a perfect inning, but the Braves lost because of Roberto Hernandez (ugh), who allowed a grand slam to Adam Dunn in extra innings. The Braves actually could have kept that streak alive, as they scored three runs in the bottom of the 11th, but couldn’t find the fourth as Andruw struck out. You’d have to go to June 19, another Hampton start, to find the next game where Smoltz blew the game — he came on for a five-out save, allowed a two-run game-tying hit in the eighth, and then stayed in for the ninth, where Jimmy Rollins hit a walkoff double.
Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about May 6: The opening of the Chunnel in 1994. Also, in baseball news, Kerry Wood fired his 20-strikeout game on this date in 1998. It was only his fifth career start, and he threw a one-hit shutout. Did you know that despite this, Wood never topped 4.4 fWAR in his career, which happened in his rookie season? Erik Bedard finished his career with about the same fWAR (around 23-24) as Kerry Wood, which seems insane to me, but they were actually pretty similar in terms of peaks and valleys.
Tomorrow would have been an off-day for the Braves. We’ll catch up on Friday.