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Braves Flashback/Recap: June 28

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In 2001, Javy Lopez obliterated the Mets with a game-tying homer and a walk-off grand slam

BBN-METS-BRAVES-05 Photo credit should read STEVE SCHAEFER/AFP via Getty Images

Do you remember that game, from 2011, where Brian McCann hit a pinch-hit homer in the ninth to tie the game, and then a walkoff homer two innings later to win it? This isn’t that game. That game happened on May 17, and for that date, we covered a 2010 game that marked the first time the Braves fell into fifth place in the division in half a decade. McCann’s feat was certainly awesome, but he wasn’t the first Braves catcher to do something similar in this millennium. On that note, I present to you this game, from 2001.

The gist: Tom Glavine and Glendon Rusch stranded tons of baserunners unti Joe McEwing’s homer in the seventh gave the Mets a 1-0 lead. Javy Lopez immediately homered on the very first pitch the Braves received when trailing. A few batters later, Rafael Furcal’s RBI single chased Rusch, but the Mets tied it up in the eighth. The game went into the 10th, which was when Javy Lopez came up with the bases loaded and one out. In an 0-2 count, he took Armando Benitez deep for a walkoff grand slam.

Box scores: Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs

The set-up: For me, this part of the 2001 season was great. The Braves were continuing their march to yet another division title, and the arc of their season was hurtling towards success. The team was under .500 in April and .500 but 7.5 games back in at the end of May. In June, the team began to hum and purr. The month started with a seven-game winning streak, and coming into this game, they had once again won six straight. Their last three wins were a sweep of the first-place Phillies in Philadelphia, and as the Braves returned home to start a four-game weekend set with the Mets, they held first place (with a half-game lead) for the first time since starting the season 1-0.

The Mets, meanwhile, were just kind of trudging along. A year after winning the NL pennant, the team just stalled. The Mets had won two series against the Braves in April, but then got swept by the team a few days before this game, starting a five-game losing streak (and the Braves’ six-game winning streak). They were 34-45 and 10 games back of the Braves at this point.

The pitching matchup for the game was fairly interesting. Tom Glavine was, of course, essentially a legend at this point, but his 2001 was fairly crappy. He came in with a 116 ERA- and 127 FIP-, with his two past starts against in 2001 against the Mets (including the one before this outing) being pretty mediocre, to put it generously (13 13 IP, 5 R, 3 HR, 9 BB, 7 K). Glavine was coming off three straight seasons of 4+ fWAR, but had really only managed a few good starts all season.

Glendon Rusch was a relatively unheralded member of the Mets’ pitching staff, as we detailed when he started the Mets’ 1-0 walkoff defeat of the Braves on April 12. Rusch threw seven scoreless with a 5/2 K/BB ratio in that one, and most recently, gave up three runs in six frames with a 9/1 K/BB ratio against the Braves. Speaking of that outing — Rusch actually opposed Glavine in it, five days before this game, with the Braves winning by scoring six runs in the 11th. Rusch had a 138 ERA- but a 91 FIP- coming into this game, continuing his absurd career-long-thus-far severe peripherals underperformance.

How it happened: This game was incredibly frustrating for the Mets, and Glavine’s outing had a lot to do with it, as he just kept wriggling out of trouble. (Or, alternatively, the Mets kept failing in key situations.)

In the first, Glavine randomly issued a four-pitch, two-out walk to Mike Piazza, but Todd Zeile flew out. Robin Ventura connected for a leadoff double over Andruw Jones’ head in the second, but the Mets couldn’t even move Ventura to third, much less score him. Rusch reached on a leadoff single to start the third, eventually moved to second, and made his way to third after back-to-back walks to Piazza (intentional) and Zeile (unintentional but also maybe intentional). Ventura grounded out to first, leaving the bags full. In the fourth, the Mets got back-to-back two-out singles (featuring Rusch notching his second hit), but again, no dice, as Jay Payton made a first pitch out on the ground. Piazza’s one-out double and Benny Agbayani’s leadoff single similarly failed to come home to roost in the fifth and sixth, respectively. Rafael Furcal’s dive robbed Rusch of a third hit to end the sixth and keep the game scoreless.

The Braves were having similar issues with Rusch. They went 1-2-3 in the first, but also wasted baserunners after that. Bernard Gilkey’s two-out walk in the second and Mark DeRosa’s leadoff single in the third were the first victims. Chipper Jones and Gilkey both singled in the fourth, but Javy Lopez only managed a weak fly that was caught in shallow right. DeRosa once again singled to lead off the fifth, and moved to second when Wes Helms got plunked, but Andruw followed with a similar weak fly to right as ended the prior inning. Rusch had himself a four-pitch sixth — Chipper singled on the first pitch, but Brian Jordan hit into a double play on the next one. Two pitches later, B.J. Surhoff grounded out. (Glavine’s fourth with back-to-back two-out singles, was similar in that he faced five batters but only threw eight pitches.

Both pitchers therefore carried lines of six scoreless into the seventh. Glavine had given up six hits and three walks to three strikeouts; Rusch was stingier with five hits and a walk, but also only struck out three. At that point, though, both starters faltered and both teams got on the board. With one out, Joe McEwing popped an 0-1 Glavine pitch over the fence in left for a go-ahead solo homer. The other three Mets in the inning grounded out, and as a result, Glavine’s seventh was actually his second-fastest inning of the game despite it being the one where he allowed a run.

But, that Mets lead didn’t last more than one pitch. Lopez crushed Rusch’s first pitch with a lead out where McEwing sent his, immediately tying the game. DeRosa followed by also jumping on the first pitch he got and blooping it to right — it was DeRosa’s third hit of the game, with all three being hit into right field, and all three coming on the first or second pitch of the at-bat. Glavine bunted DeRosa over with the next pitch, which brought up Furcal for the fourth time in the game. The Mets left Rusch in there, and on an 0-2 count, Furcal sprayed one through the infield the other way, allowing DeRosa to hustle around third and score the go-ahead run. That was it for Rusch, whose seventh was his undying. Still, it was a fine outing for him, and in a fairly uncommon occurrence for him, one where his ERA sat below his FIP.

With two on and one out, the Mets summoned quirky reliever guy Turk Wendell to try and keep the deficit at one. He did so, but with some help from the Braves, who had a pinch-hitting Rico Brogna lay down a bunt for some reason, fulfilling the horrific “tactical” move of using a pinch-hitter to deliver an out. Post-bunt, Wendell struck out Andruw, intentionally walked Chipper, and got Jordan to fly out to center.

Glavine started the eighth, walked Ventura on five pitches, and promptly departed, given that Agbayani was next and had the platoon advantage. The Braves replaced Glavine with Jose Cabrera, one of those relatively forgettable late 90s/early aughts righty middle relievers who only spent one season with the Braves. It didn’t quite work out, though — Agbayani singled, pushing Ventura to third. The Braves stuck with Cabrera, and lefty-swinging Timo Perez lifted a sacrifice fly into left to tie the game. Rey Ordoñez followed with a single, and at that point, the Braves lifted Cabrera for a higher-leverage reliever, Steve Karsay.

A few days before this game, the Braves had sent John Rocker to Cleveland for both Karsay and Steve Reed, but they hadn’t yet figured out the closer role going forward. Cabrera had gotten the only save since the trade, and Karsay was used both early and late. In this case, he came on and the Mets countered with Lenny Harris, which backfired — in an 0-1 count, Harris hit into a 4-6-3 double play to get Karsay and the Braves out of it.

The rest of regulation was scoreless. John Franco and Dennis Cook each threw scoreless innings for the Mets. Karsay stayed in for the top of the ninth, issued a one-out walk to McEwing, and then moved him to second on a wild pitch which let him intentionally walk Piazza. However, he recovered by getting a groundout from Zeile, and striking Ventura out to end the frame with two men in scoring position.

Steve Reed, the other part of the Rocker trade, worked the 10th for the Braves. He gave up a leadoff hit to Desi Relaford, and after a successful bunt, chose to intentionally walk pinch-hitter Darryl Hamilton (in for the light-swinging Ordoñez) before getting the last two outs. He struck out Payton after a seven-pitch battle to send the game into the bottom of the 10th.

Despite not having a lead, the Mets used closer Armando Benitez in the bottom of the 10th. You hate to see it, but the move backfired horribly. Benitez started his night with a first-pitch strike to Andruw, but then missed with four straight. On the very next pitch, Andruw stole second; two pitches later, he moved to third on Chipper’s lineout to right. The Braves inserted Keith Lockhart in Reed’s spot, and Benitez and the Mets responded by intentionally walking both him and Surhoff to load the bases, setting up a double play opportunity, a force at home, and a righty-righty matchup with Lopez.

Benitez got a whiff on his first pitch to Lopez, and a foul on his second pitch. His third pitch, though was a high fastball that just wasn’t quite high enough, and Lopez connected for his second homer of the night, this time a walkoff grand slam.

Random fact: walkoff grand slams aren’t actually that rare, with multiple happening most/every season. Now you know.

Game MVP: Javy Lopez had the most notable performance, of course, but it’s also worth acknowledging Steve Karsay, who got out of a nasty situation in the eighth and threw a scoreless ninth (despite two walks) as well.

Game LVP: Armando Benitez, because, well, yeah. Total meltdown. Benitez only had ten negative WPA games in 2001, and four of them came against the Braves. Usually a good if not shutdown reliever, 2001 was Benitez’ worst year (0.3 fWAR) since his pre-establishment days in 1996 and earlier. He wouldn’t be as ineffective again until the start of his collapse in 2005. Yet, he still set a then-career high in saves in 2001 with 43, which is pretty silly.

Biggest play: You’d think it would be the walkoff grand slam, but the Braves were reasonably certain of victory at that point anyway. That wasn’t the case with Lopez’ first homer of the game, which was the single biggest WPA play of the game.

Lopez had a bunch of two-homer games in his career (he never had a three-homer game, though), but this game did set a new career high with 5 RBI (which he’d eventually break). It was, however, his only two-homer game of 2001 — but not necessarily his best offensive game (he’d go 2-for-3 with a single, homer, and walk against the Mets later in the year, giving him two fewer outs than in this game).

The game, in context of the season: Amazingly, despite this win, the Braves actually lost ground in the division, as the Phillies swept a doubleheader against the third-place Marlins to move within a half-game of first. The Braves’ now seven-game win streak was snapped the following night, and the Braves split this four-game series with the Mets overall. They then took a series from the Phillies. While their ascent was in many ways largely complete, this wasn’t the type of season where one team just rockets up to the top of the division while everyone else falls away. Instead, the Braves and Phillies duked it out right to the end, being tied for first as late as Game 150, on September 24. They won the division by just two games in the end, with the tight race giving them only 88 wins, making them by far the least-endowed playoff team in that regard. In fact, they had fewer wins than the Giants, and as many as third-place Cubs. Still, what a ride that season was.

The Mets, meanwhile, just kind of puttered around. They had a crazy-good, 18-9 finish to the year to end above .500 at 82-80, and at one point came into Atlanta with a chance to really make things interesting with a sweep that could have given them a share of first place if things fell right, but instead lost two of three. The Braves and Mets played to nearly a standstill in 2001, with the Braves winning just 10 of the 19 games.

Glavine’s 2001 was a disappointment, as he finished with 1.7 fWAR, his lowest total since his debut season in 1987. Rusch remained above-average (3.2 fWAR) with much worse outcomes than his FIP suggested.

Despite his heroics in this one, Lopez actually had a down year in 2001, finishing with just 1.7 fWAR and a 95 wRC+. The former stat was his lowest in a full season since 1996, the latter his lowest since his 1994 rookie season. Lopez struggled even worse in 2002, becoming essentially unplayable (0.2 fWAR, 72 wRC+) before his mind-boggling 2003 campaign (170 wRC+, 6.8 fWAR).

Steve Karsay eventually took up the closer’s mantle for the Braves, though he was soon supplanted by the returning John Smoltz, who slid into that space on the bullpen flowchart in mid-August, about a month after transitioning to the bullpen due to injuries making it difficult for him to keep starting. 2001 was actually Karsay’s career year (2.0 fWAR), though three-quarters of that was accrued with Cleveland before the trade.

Video? You’d think someone would at least have video of the slam, but nope.

Anything else? Rusch had more hits in this game (two) than he did otherwise in the season (three total, including this game). In 2002, though, Rusch had something like a top-50 pitcher-batting-season in the current millennium, when he put up a 66 wRC+ (.288/.299/.333) over 81 PAs.

Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about June 28: This date in 1919 marks the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I (it was also the five-year anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which had prompted the war). While most people commonly figure the war’s conclusion to have been November 11, 1918, that was actually just an armistice that didn’t formally end the state of war between belligerent nations. In the intervening six-plus months, the Allied forces negotiated the terms of this treaty in Paris. Some cite the terms of this treaty as a driver of World War II based on the discontent it created among the defeated Germans, but given that we can’t run experimental trials using real-world history, it’s hard to know how much of an effect it truly had.