June 2006 was not a fun time for the Braves. The team entered the month 28-25, in second place (though 4.5 games out) aaaand promptly faceplanted. They lost five straight, won a game, then lost three straight. Even after a win the next day, they were suddenly 30-33 and nine games back, though it had only been nine days. And then, things got even worse. After a sweep in Miami following a final loss in Houston, they had lost four straight. They returned home, and the Red Sox swept ‘em. Then the Blue Jays arrived, and delivered another sweep. It was Friday, June 22, and the Braves were now 30-43, in last place since Sunday, and a whopping 15.5 games back.
That losing streak was the longest for the team since 1987-1988, when they lost 12 straight, including 10 to open the 1988 season. There was at least some hope of ending it, though — the woeful Devil Rays, with a record nearly as bad as that of the Braves coming into this game, were next on the schedule. It took a while, and it almost didn’t happen, but eventually, it did. This is the story of that skid-snapping game.
The gist: The Braves went ahead on a two-run Andruw Jones homer in the first, but John Smoltz immediately gave up two runs in the bottom of the inning. Things got worse when Smoltz left in the third after pulling his groin fielding a grounder, but Oscar Villareal came on and ate the Rays up for the middle innings. Tied 3-3 in walkoff territory, the Braves survived multiple situations with the winning run in scoring position, and pulled out a win as Todd Pratt hit a go-ahead fielder’s choice in the 11th.
The set-up: You already know all about the Braves from above. They were bad, and things didn’t seem like they were going to turn around any time soon, not after weeks and weeks of losing and plummeting in the standings. To this point, the Braves basically had an average position player group and a fairly rotten pitching staff... which meant that the Rays, who had a fairly rotten everything, were still a relatively favorable matchup, even if they came in to this game 32-41, 1.5 games “better” than the Braves.
Pitching matchup-wise, the Braves had to feel good about John Smoltz, who was still killing it: 84 ERA-, 85 FIP-, 83 xFIP-. The losing streak was definitely not on him, as he’d basically strung together four average-or-better outings in June. The Devil Rays had Casey Fossum on the hill in his second year with the club. Fossum had managed to a generic fourth starter/swingman season (1.5 fWAR in 163 innings, including 25 starts) in 2005, but was much, much worse to start 2006: 122 ERA-, 134 FIP-, 125 xFIP-, getting blown up basically every other start.
How it happened: Fossum did not get blown up in this game, not by the skidding Braves, though they did get to him early. Marcus Giles and Edgar Renteria both reached base to start the game (single, walk), but Chipper Jones hit into a double play that seemed to put a damper on the rally. Not to worry, though — Andruw Jones followed with a majestic shot into left for a go-ahead two-run homer.
The June Braves weren’t strangers to leads, they just had trouble holding them. That transpired immediately in this one. The Rays also put the first two men on against Smoltz, with Julio Lugo reaching on an infield single to Renteria, and Carl Crawford turning a grounder into right into a hustle double. Smoltz got ahead of Rocco Baldelli, 1-2, but then plunked him, loading the bases with none out. Jorge Cantu then hit the first pitch he saw from Smoltz into an easy 6-4-3 double play, and there was a chance for Smoltz to escape with the lead intact. But, no dice. Aubrey Huff followed with a grounder through the infield, and the game was tied.
Fossum got through the second allowing just a two-out walk to Brian McCann, and then disaster struck for the Braves. With two outs in the bottom of the inning, Damon Hollins hit a weak roller to Smoltz’ left. At some point between his follow-through and hopping off the mound to try and field the ball, Smoltz strained his groin. He tried to take a couple of warmup pitches, and then departed. The legendary right-hander already had 1.9 fWAR on the season to date, so this was a pretty huge blow for the Braves’ chances of snapping their streak. Oscar Villareal, a replacement-level swingman in his first year with the Braves, came on for very long relief work. He walked Lugo to push the go-ahead run to second, but got Crawford to ground out to end the inning.
After that, things were quiet for quite a while. The Braves got a couple of walks against Fossum in the third, but wasted them with Jeff Francoeur’s inning-ending strikeout. The next four half-innings were perfect all-around, as Fossum and Villareal needed just 44 pitches to get 12 outs. The Rays attempted to rally in the fifth with a one-out Lugo single, an advance to second on a groundout, a steal of third, and then a weird sequence where Baldelli reached first on Wilson Betemit’s error on a grounder to third (Chipper was the DH) but Lugo didn’t advance, allowing Villareal to get out of it by getting Cantu to fly out.
Fossum and Villareal then each threw a perfect sixth for good measure. Definitional journeyman Edwin Jackson, in his last year before he became a bouncearound starter, did the same in the top of the seventh. The Braves, at this point, hadn’t had a baserunner since the third, nor a hit since Andruw’s homer in the first. Fossum finished his outing with just six baserunners in six innings, but four of those were walks and one was a homer against five strikeouts — this was basically his version of a “good start” and it could have gotten a lot uglier at any point.
As soon as Villareal departed, the Rays took the lead. New reliever Tyler Yates was definitely more of the problem than the solution for the 2006 Braves, and after he got two quick outs, Lugo tagged him for a single, his third of the game (he walked in his other PA to this point). Crawford followed by creaming one over Andruw’s head in center, ending up on third as Lugo scored the go-ahead run. Yates was able to strand Crawford at third by walking Baldelli and getting Cantu to fly out to right, but once again during this streak, the Braves had allowed an early lead to turn into a deficit.
This time, though, they’d actually battle back. With Jackson still in there, Giles and Renteria once again combined to put some runners on at the top of the order. Giles lined one to center with one out; Renteria laced an opposite-field double into right. Jackson pitched around one Jones to get to the other, and Andruw drove in his third run of the night with a sacrifice fly to right. Jeff Francoeur hit a cue shot to first to end the inning.
With a new lease on life, the Braves replaced Yates with Macay McBride. The eighth was legitimately terrifying to start, as Huff lined a single on an 0-2 pitch, and Jonny Gomes worked a walk after seven pitches. On the next pitch, Ty Wigginton lifted one into right, allowing pinch-runner Tomas Perez, in for Huff, to take third. There was very little room to escape the ninth without trailing, but McBride somehow found it. On McBride’s first pitch to him, Toby Hall hit into a routine 6-4-3 double play, and the game was still, somehow, tied. Perhaps the Braves could snap the losing streak after all?
Well, if they were going to, it wasn’t going to happen in the ninth. Shawn Camp got two quick groundouts, and after McCann doubled and was pinch-run for, Scott Thorman hung tough with two strikes for three more pitches, but ultimately grounded out to first. That brought the Braves back into the proverbial danger zone, this time with walkoff territory in the mix. To navigate it, the Braves tabbed rookie Phil Stockman, making just his fourth major league appearance. Once again, the inning was terrifying. Stockman started the frame with a walk to Hollins, and Lugo bunted him to second. At that point, Stockman walked Crawford to set up a double play, but it turns out he didn’t need it. Baldelli went down swinging after a seven-pitch battle, and Cantu flied out to right yet again to end the inning. It was Cantu’s third consecutive inning-ending flyout to right, each of which came with two on.
In the tenth, the Braves were once again stymied by Camp. Renteria managed a one-out walk, but the Jones boys couldn’t come through. In the bottom of the inning, a second Braves pitcher went down with injury — Stockman was supposed to start his second frame of work, but hurt his hamstring and had to be replaced by Jorge Sosa. Sosa, as you might recall, started 2006 in the rotation after a miraculous starting run in 2005, but had fallen apart utterly and completely, and had finally been banished from the rotation a few days ago. This was his first relief appearance after being booted from that role. (Stockman, by the way, didn’t reappear in the majors until 2008, as injuries basically kept him from any kind of major league career.) Well, guess what? McBride’s inning was terrifying, Stockman’s inning was terrifying, and you bet that Sosa’s inning was terrifying, too. Gomes walked with one out, and Hall’s two-out, 0-2 single moved him to third. The Braves were once again very close to losing 11 straight, but Greg Norton, pinch-hitting for Hollins, hit one to Andruw in center to end that frame.
And, finally, in the 11th, a measure of salvation for this bedraggled Braves team. The Rays gave the ball to long man Chad Harville, another bouncearound reliever whose sole above-replacement season consisted of three innings in 2001, and who was awful (-0.6 fWAR) in 2005. Turns out, Harville was just what the Braves needed. He started by issuing a five-pitch walk to Francoeur, not an easy thing to accomplish. Matt Diaz bunted Frenchy to second, which prompted the righty-throwing Harville to intentionally walk switch-hitting Betemit to bring up Todd Pratt, the 39-year-old backup catcher that had entered the game after the Braves pinch-ran for McCann. Somehow, someway, the Braves pulled off a double steal. What happened then was befitting a team finding a way to end a ten-game losing streak in the 11th inning.
On the next pitch, Pratt hit it hard, but right to Lugo at short, who was in great position to cut Francoeur down at the plate given that the Rays had pulled the infield in. And then! Lugo didn’t get a clean grip on the ball! Francoeur scored, and while Lugo easily threw Betemit out at third, the Braves had a lead! Thorman struck out on three pitches, and it was up to Sosa to bring it (metaphorically) home.
Lugo had a chance to atone for his flub, but didn’t. Seven pitches later, he flew out to Francoeur for the first out. Crawford popped out on the next pitch, which left just Baldelli between the Braves and their first win in what felt like forever. On a full count, Baldelli took Sosa for a ride deep to left, but mercifully, the ball just didn’t have enough carry. Diaz snared it, and the Braves were winners for the first time in 11 games.
Game MVP: This was really a team effort, but Jorge Sosa gets the nod for not succumbing to whatever afflicted him during his starts. Even given this game, Sosa was ineffective as a reliever and got DFAed about a month after this game. He was picked up by the Cardinals and even worse, finishing with -0.9 fWAR in 118 innings.
Game LVP: This was foreshadowed earlier, but good lord, Jorge Cantu. Three inning-ending flyouts with two men on base, combined with a double play with the bases loaded and none out in the first (that at least scored a run), and further, a strikeout in his only other at-bat. After a 2005 in which Cantu showed he could at least hit (112 wRC+) if nothing else (1.1 fWAR in 631 PAs), he did neither in 2006 (78 wRC+, -1.0 fWAR). This game, with -.334 WPA, was Cantu’s worst career mark in that department to date, and his worst of the entire 2006 season.
Biggest play: Macay McBride getting Toby Hall to hit into a double play with runners on the corners and one out in the eighth.
The game, in context of the season: With this win, the Braves actually won a series, their only such victory in June. After June, the Braves played at an 89-win pace, but of course, it wasn’t enough to save their season, not after the 6-21 black mark smack dab in the middle of the season. They finished with 79 wins, 18 games out of first place, snapping their epic division title streak. The Rays, meanwhile, were the literal dregs of MLB in 2006, with a 61-101 record. June was actually their only above-.500 season at 14-13; even so, 2006 was the second-worst year in their franchise history, and they haven’t been close to as bad since.
Despite the early exit, Smoltz did not end up missing a start as a result of the groin tweak. He put up 5.5 fWAR in 2006, his highest total since 1997, when it was a bit more normal for pitchers to pitch well in excess of 200 innings. Fossum, meanwhile, floundered to just 0.4 fWAR in 130 innings despite making 25 starts.
Macay McBride had a quality, 0.6 fWAR relief season, though everyone was perhaps a little disappointed that he didn’t really build on his 2005, where he put up the same 0.6 mark in just 14 innings. Sadly for him, he lost his control in 2007 and was eventually traded to Detroit after bouts of ineffectiveness. A broken elbow basically cut short his career.
2006 was also the beginning of the end for Toby Hall, who had put up 4.5 fWAR in parts of six seasons (1.4/600) prior to the season, but fell apart to -0.6 fWAR in in 234 PAs with Tampa Bay before he was traded to the Dodgers. He rebounded a bit in Los Angeles, but his career ended with two sub-replacement efforts as a backup catcher on Chicago’s South Side in 2007-2008.
The Braves didn’t have another losing streak this bad until the accursed 2015 season, when they lost 12 in a row. Let’s just skip right on past that.
Video? This would be a fun one, but I haven’t been able to find any highlights at all.
Anything else? Oscar Villareal should definitely get credit for allowing just three baserunners in 4 1⁄3 innings, with a 2/1 K/BB ratio. It was his longest relief appearance of the season, though he also had three five-inning starts. Villareal had nine pitcher wins in 2006 despite a replacement-level line, which is pretty funny if you think about it.
Jeff Francoeur said this after the game: “I think it was more exciting than when we clinched last year,”
Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about June 23: This date in 1991 marked the release of the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise (obviously with the first game, just titled Sonic the Hedgehog). I was definitely more of a Sonic kid than a Mario kid growing up, and I have this very clear set of memories of being at home with the chicken pox in second grade or so and just playing through Sonic 3 and Sonic and Knuckles every day out of a lack of anything else to do.