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Braves Flashback/Recap: June 17

In 2003, the Braves literally threw a game away, pretty much

Jimmy Rollins waits for the pitch

As the season winds to its halfway point (we’re more than 70 games in at this point), the combination of the owners and the MLBPA (but mostly the owners) are making it seem like possibility of baseball in 2020 is on the road to being thrown away. And, speaking of throwing things away, that’s what happened with the Braves in one of their rare losses during the 2003 season.

The gist: Despite another terrible Shane Reynolds start, the Braves mounted a four-run rally, taking the lead on a wild pitch. The Phillies quickly tied the game, where it remained until the bottom of the ninth. Darren Holmes got a double play ball hit back to him in the ninth but threw the ball away, allowing David Bell to walk it off on the very next pitch.

Box scores: Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs

The set-up: The 2003 Braves were rolling. They were coming off their first series loss in June coming into this game, which knocked them out of the majors’ best record. (The loss came to the team that overtook them, the Mariners.) They had a seven-game lead in the division owing to their 45-22 record, and were ten up on the third-place Phillies, who were just kind of there (35-32).

This matchup, though, was grounds to perhaps anticipate a bump in the road. The Braves had Shane Reynolds going for them, and Reynolds was very much being a time-bomb in every start. He hadn’t struck out more than he walked in his last three starts, which was also the last time he posted an xFIP below 5.80 in an outing. The Phillies were giving the ball to second-year starter Brett Myers, who was awful as a rookie across 12 starts, but was much, much better through the first part of 2003: 84 ERA-, 100 FIP-, 98 xFIP-.

The Braves and Phillies were meeting for the seventh time on the season in this series opener, but the first time since April. They had split the prior three games.

How it happened: The Reynolds bomb went tick, tick, tick in this game. After Myers needed just ten pitches to get through the first, Reynolds started filling the bases, as usual. A single and a walk with one out could have been painful, but Pat Burrell lined out to short, and Rafael Furcal flipped the ball to Marcus Giles to double up Placido Polanco.

In the second, it was the Braves’ turn to waste baserunners. Chipper Jones hit Myers’ first pitch back up the middle for a single, and moved to third on Robert Fick’s first-pitch, one-out double into deep right. Myers intentionally walked Javy Lopez to bring up Vinny Castilla, and was promptly rewarded with a 5-4-3 double play. Reynolds once again gave up two baserunners in the bottom half of the inning, a one-out double and a two-out walk, but was helped by Jimmy Rollins getting thrown out trying to steal third for the second out. The Braves only got a one-out single in the third, and Reynolds once again gave up two baserunners, this time on back-to-back one-out groundball singles.

After Myers sat the Braves down in order in the fourth, the Reynolds timebomb had its first little paroxysm. Mike Lieberthal and Rollins started the inning with another pair of consecutive groundball singles. David Bell hit a comebacker to Reynolds that went for a groundout but advanced the runners, and Marlon Byrd followed with a walk to load the bags. Myers followed with a grounder to first that seemed like it might bail Reynolds out once again, especially when Fick’s throw to home for the forceout was fine. But, Lopez tried to double Myers up and erred, with his throw hitting Myers and ending up in right field. Rollins scored, and Myers was safe at first. Bobby Cox of course ran out to argue that Myers was inside the baseline, but to no avail. He got ejected a little bit later for arguing balls and strikes. Reynolds then walked Bobby Abreu on four pitches, re-loading the bases, before Polanco grounded out. Myers then quickly sat the Braves down again in the fifth, and so Reynolds had to go back to work shortly thereafter.

That’s where he exploded. The bottom of the fifth started with an egregious four-pitch walk to Jim Thome. Burrell then laced the first pitch he saw for a hard single into left, and Lieberthal followed by poking an 0-2 offering into right, loading the bases for the third time in six batters, this time with none out. Reynolds was somehow allowed to keep going at this point, and Rollins crushed a ball into right for a two-run double, putting the Braves in an 0-3 hole. That was it for Reynolds, and the Braves asked rookie reliever Jung Bong to somehow limit the bleeding. And he did! Despite lacking the platoon advantage, Bong first struck out Bell. He walked Byrd to bring up Myers, and struck him out as well. Needing just one more out to escape with no further damage, he leveraged his platoon advantage over Abreu into a first-pitch groundout.

Bong’s very effective tourniquet helped the Braves turn the game around on Myers and the Phillies. Furcal started the sixth by muscling a pitch into left for a leadoff double, and moved to third on a Giles groundout. Gary Sheffield followed by smashing a grounder back at Myers that ricocheted off of the Philadelphia hurler, allowing Furcal to score and Sheffield to reach first safely. Myers then made a mistake on an 0-2 pitch to Chipper and the latter didn’t miss it, destroying it into the opposite field for a game-tying homer. Oh, but the Braves weren’t quite done. With two outs, Fick hit one into the right-center gap for his second double of the game off Myers. The Phillies once again opted to put Lopez on to face Castilla, given how well it worked the first time, but this time, it backfired. Myers walked Castilla on five pitches, and then with pinch-hitter Matt Franco at the plate, threw a wild pitch on 2-2 to allow Fick to score the go-ahead run. Franco walked on the next pitch, and that was it for Myers. Terry Adams came on and got Furcal to ground out to end the inning.

The sixth completely undid Myers’ good work until that point. Three of his four walks came in the inning; he finished the game with 11 baserunners in 5 23 innings, a homer allowed, and just three strikeouts. Still, it was better than Reynolds, who only pitched four-plus innings with a 3/5 K/BB ratio. Still, the Braves had the lead...

...and it would evaporate almost immediately. With one out, Trey Hodges walked Thome, and then gave up a double to Burrell. Lieberthal followed with a sacrifice fly that scored Thome, and the game was knotted at four. The rest of Hodges’ inning was also a mess — wild pitch while trying to throw an intentional ball, intentional walk, stolen base — but he struck Bell out on three pitches to at least preserve the tie if not the lead.

In contrast to the game thus far, the next few innings featured very few baserunners. Adams went three up, three down in his first full inning of work, giving him 1 13 perfect frames on the night. Hodges and Ray King combined for a perfect bottom of the seventh, and then Turk Wendell threw a nine-pitch inning despite a one-out walk, as Lopez hit into an inning-ending double play. Darren Holmes followed with a ten-pitch, perfect bottom of the eighth.

The Braves had a decent chance to take the lead against Wendell in his second inning of work, as Julio Franco, who had been swapped for Fick, shot a double down the right-field line with one out. But, neither Furcal (strikeout) nor Giles (first-pitch groundout) could bring him home.

So, with Wendell having thrown two scoreless, the Braves looked to Holmes to do the same and send the game to extras. But, it was not to be. Holmes had been a revelation and a fun story for the Braves in 2002, when he went from being out of baseball to a 1.0 fWAR, 1.7 RA9-WAR reliever. He wasn’t doing much too differently in 2003, but the run prevention was going in the opposite direction — he came into this game with just 0.2 fWAR and RA9-WAR due to a HR/FB spike despite a much better strikeout rate than 2002. This inning, though, wasn’t about any of that, but it was still very unfortunate.

Lieberthal started the inning with an 0-2 bloop into left that went for a single. On the second pitch, Rollins hit a comebacker that could have been a double play... but Holmes tried to go to first and muffed the throw, putting the winning run on third with none out. The Braves didn’t have a lot of options, and it also didn’t matter. Bell, who had been 0-for-3 with a walk and two strikeouts in big spots coming into his final at-bat, hit Holmes’ first pitch on a line into left-center to end the game, giving the Phillies a 5-4 walkoff win.

Game MVP: Jimmy Rollins, who ended up going 4-for-4 with a walk. It was Rollins’ first and only no-out game of the season, and his highest single-game WPA mark for the year. Rollins’ two-run double was the big Philadelphia blow in the game before Bell’s walkoff, and of course, it was Rollins’ ball in play that prompted Holmes’ grievous error. 2003 was actually Rollins’ last season before he got going — he put up a career-high 2.3 fWAR and started playing much better defense this year, but his bat wouldn’t get to league-average or better until 2004. Rollins put up less than 6 fWAR over his first 2,000 PAs, and then around 13 fWAR over his next 2,000.

Game LVP: Holmes’ error was definitely the biggest problem in the game, but Myers completely melted down in the sixth, and warrants the nod here. Myers had a perfectly fine 2003 (2.3 fWAR), but his June was by far his worst month — he never had a higher xFIP in another calendar month until 2008.

Biggest play: Chipper’s game-tying two-run homer in the sixth.

The game, in context of the season: The Braves lost this game, won the next one, and then lost the one after, again in walkoff fashion. It was the second and last time they would lose consecutive series all season, en route to a 101-61 record. For the Phillies, this game was part of a great, 16-9 June. They were in playoff position (for the Wild Card spot, the Braves had already run away with the division) as late as September 19, but lost seven of their last eight games (including a three-game sweep in Miami) to drop behind the Marlins (who ended up winning the World Series). The Phillies finished with an 86-76 record. 2003 was their first of four seasons in which they had a mid-80s win total but failed to make the playoffs, a streak finally snapped in 2007, which was their first playoff appearance since 1993.

Shane Reynolds was painful to watch in 2003, but lasted the whole season with the Braves and put up an okay-ish 1.4 fWAR. Holmes finished the year with 0.6 fWAR but a negative WPA and 0.0 RA9-WAR, and retired after the season.

Bell played the hero in this game, but his 2003 was awful: 0.1 fWAR, 57 wRC+ in 348 PAs during his first year in Philadelphia. It was his worst effort since 1997, when he was still getting irregular playing time and putting up sub-/replacement-level performances.

Video? Nope, not even of the walkoff.

Anything else? Turk Wendell finished his career with three consecutive sub-replacement seasons, of which 2003 was the second. He at least rode a low BABIP to positive RA9-WAR and WPA in 2003, but his 2001 (he didn’t pitch in 2002 due to an elbow injury) and 2004 were terrible. With that said, though, he was at least good to start 2003, coming into this game with a 20 ERA- and 78 FIP- (but a 117 xFIP-; he ended the season with a 118 FIP-).

This game snapped a three-game homerless streak by the Braves. They wouldn’t have a four-game homerless streak all season, making a stretch of over a full year between July 2002 and September 2004 when the team always hit at least one homer in every four-game span.

Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about June 17: The arrival of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor in 1885.