Baseball is an imperfect metaphor for life, but that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of lessons. Looking back across the spate of July 4 games over the last 20 seasons, I come back to this one not because it was notable, but because it wasn’t — just your run-of-the-mill disappointing outcome that makes you wonder what the point of it all is.
The gist: The Braves roared out to a three-run lead, but Marcell Ozuna tormented Julio Teheran enough to knot the game over the next three innings. After that, both offenses were held at bay, and the Braves sent Craig Kimbrel in for the top of the ninth. Kimbrel went walk-strikeout-walk-strikeout to bring up the pitcher’s spot, where pinch-hitter Donovan Solano flicked one over the infield for a go-ahead single. The Braves got a leadoff walk in the bottom of the ninth, but Giancarlo Stanton robbed Dan Uggla of an extra-base hit with a diving catch, and the Braves lost the game and the series to one of the worst teams in baseball.
The set-up: The real point of this game was that it was a minorly-perturbing aberration. The Braves entered this series finale with the fourth-best record in baseball (49-35) and a seven-game lead in the division. The Marlins had the worst record in the NL and nearly the worst in MLB, and were 17.5 games behind the Braves. The Braves had swept them in April and won the first game of this series before dropping the next one for just their second loss in eight games. The Marlins actually had a good June and had also lost just two of nine coming into the game. Still, they were hardly favored in this game.
The matchup was one reason why. The Braves had rookie Julio Teheran on the hill, and Teheran was doing pretty well for himself so far: 85 ERA-, 99 FIP-, 95 xFIP-. He had allowed just two runs and had a 23/2 K/BB ratio over his last three starts. Aside from his first three starts of the year, which were not good, his pitching improved to 62/79/87. The Marlins, meawhile, were having an Independence Day debut of an offseason acquisition: Henderson Alvarez III, who was part of the massive 12-player deal between Toronto and Miami that sent Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, and others up north in exchange for seven lesser-known players. Alvarez had an interesting 10-start debut in 2011, but followed that up with a much worse full 2012 campaign (0.3 fWAR, 115/123/107). He got lots of grounders, but didn’t do anything else well, including limiting the longball. However, before he could get into any game action with Miami, he was shut down with shoulder inflammation. It took him half the season to work through it and get ready for a major league start, which happened to fall on this game.
How it happened: The first inning could hardly have gone better for the Braves. Teheran started the game with three straight swinging strikeouts. All three outs came on 93-94 mph fastballs basically thrown down the pipe as full-count challenge pitches; the first was particularly impressive as Teheran started the game with three straight balls and then got back-to-back whiffs on grooved pitches. Alvarez’ first inning was very different. Andrelton Simmons led off the home half by “singling” to third on a ball that Ed Lucas just straight-out flubbed. Jason Heyward followed with a looper of a double into right. After Justin Upton popped out, Freddie Freeman did his thing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZH4ExLM41uI. (Again, for some reason no 2013 embeds, because MLB is the worst.)
After that two-run single, it was Brian McCann’s turn, and he clubbed a double into right-center to score Freeman. It took Alvarez until the fifth and sixth batters to finally get some groundouts and end the inning.
Teheran started the second by catching Logan Morrison looking at a two-seamer at the knees, giving him four straight punchouts. Unfortunately, the streak ended right there, as Marcell Ozuna found a hanging 2-2 curveball around his shoulders and obliterated it into left. The ball landed many rows up, and Miami was on the board. Teheran got the next two batters, blowing away Adeiny Hechavarria to end the frame. On the flip side, Alvarez was already looking settled in after his problematic first. He had an 11-pitch second that started with two looking strikeouts and ended with a groundout.
Teheran then bled another run. Non-hitting catcher Jeff Mathis led off with a single, and after Alvarez struck out, Justin Ruggiano blooped one to right that allowed even Mathis to get to third. Lucas followed with a groundout to Dan Uggla’s left to make it a one-run game; a bouncer to third got Teheran out of the inning. Alvarez countered with another perfect, 13-pitch inning.
The Miami comeback, such as it was, tied the game within two batters in the third. Logan Morrison led off the frame with a first-pitch double down the line that was nearly a homer and hit off the base of the wall instead. Ozuna followed by tormenting Teheran once again: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ueebNJwn6wM.
Just like that, the game was tied. Ozuna later stole second, prompting the unthinkable: an intentional walk to Mathis (career 50 wRC+ coming into this game) to set up the third out from Alvarez.
After that, things were mostly calm for much of the rest of the game. Alvarez again went 1-2-3, throwing just three pitches to each batter. The outs gave him a streak of 11 straight Braves retired after giving up his three runs. The Marlins got a couple of baserunners (dinky hit past first, walk) in the fifth, giving Ozuna another a chance to punish the Braves, but instead he flew out to right-center. The Braves got their first hit in four frames with Chris Johnson’s single to lead off the fifth, but in a 2-1 count, the Braves arranged for a hit-and-run (not with Johnson but with pinch-hitter Tyler Pastornicky, who only reached base due to a dropped double play relay at first) and Simmons lined it right to short, taking them out of the inning.
Both Teheran and Alvarez were done after five innings, and neither pitched particularly well. Teheran had a 7/2 K/BB ratio but gave up a dinger; Alvarez had his usual low-peripherals two strikeouts, zero walks total. One contrast was the pitch count — it took Teheran over 100 pitches to get through five; Alvarez left the game after just 68 pitches.
David Carpenter was the first man up in Atlanta’s bullpen, and his sixth was an adventure. Derek Dietrich started the inning by banging one off the wall in right-center for a double. Hechavarria’s single to center moved Dietrich to third. But, Carpenter blew Mathis away on three pitches, and though the Marlins lifted Alvarez for a pinch-hitter, all that got them was a popout. Ruggiano grounded to short for the third out. Dan Jennings was Miami’s first reliever, and he too had a perfect inning. The Braves hadn’t sent more than three batters to the plate since the first. Carpenter stayed in for the seventh and struck out Lucas and Stanton, but the Braves then made the swap for Luis Avilan given that lefty-swinging Morrison was coming up. Avilan ended up walking Morrison and was allowed to face Ozuna, who singled for his third hit of the day, but Dietrich grounded out weakly to end the inning. Jennings also stayed in, but after a leadoff single by McCann, he gave way to rookie reliever A.J. Ramos. Though Ramos got three straight outs, including two strikeouts, the seventh was the first inning since the first in which the Braves actually sent four or more batters to the plate.
Both teams got one-out baserunners but nothing else in the eighth. Jordan Walden somehow walked Mathis but ended the frame with two strikeouts. Ramos collected another two punchouts of his own around a single by Simmons. The bottom of the eighth ended on a big Justin Upton hack that resulted in a ball going just to shallow center.
In the ninth, the Braves called on Craig Kimbrel, who was coming off a 3.1 fWAR relief season and hadn’t allowed a run since May 7. His line so far was a little worse than 2012, but still, it was 40/73/63 (compared to 26/21/23 in 2012, which is unthinkable), so he wasn’t exactly tossing grapefruits up there. Yet, he was the Braves’ undoing in this one. Kimbrel started his inning with a walk to Lucas, who took all six Kimbrel pitches he saw. Stanton then missed a high fastball and a low breaking pitch for Kimbrel’s first out. Kimbrel kept missing low and in to Morrison, and walked him on five pitches, all takes, as well. But, Ozuna didn’t seem to have learned the lesson — he fouled off two curves (one borderline, one a ball), and then got blown away by a high fastball in the zone.
That brought up the pitcher’s spot, which was now sixth because Dietrich had been double-switched out after making the last out of the seventh. The Marlins didn’t even have a lefty pinch-hitter to send in against Kimbrel, instead resorting to Donovan Solano, their Opening Day second baseman who had spent most of the last two months recovering from an injury. Kimbrel started him with two curves, one taken for a strike, one fouled off. Solano just got a piece of 99 over the plate. Kimbrel went for another backbreaking curve at the knees, and...
Yep, that low, not-particularly-hard-hit liner is what sunk the Braves. Kimbrel struck out Hechavarria to complete striking out the side, but the damage was done.
Miami closer Steve Cishek came in to shut the door. However, his inning started with the same mistake that Kimbrel made — he walked Freeman on five pitches, throwing four straight balls after Freeman whiffed on the first pitch. After McCann flew out, Uggla followed by giving one a ride, but...
Well, that’s pretty much the ballgame when you get robbed like that. And it was, as B.J. Upton was no match for Cishek and struck out to end the game.
Game MVP: Who else but Donovan Solano? His pinch-hit single was his biggest single WPA play of 2013. His highest WPA on a play to date also came against the Braves, when he hit a two-run, go-ahead homer off Kris Medlen in the seventh of a game in September 2012.
Game LVP: Craig Kimbrel. You can’t walk guys like that. You just can’t, even if it’s the woeful Marlins. After this game, Kimbrel wouldn’t give up runs for another ten weeks; this was his only run allowed between May 7 and September 14, and he allowed just 10 runs on the season. This was actually Kimbrel’s “worst” year as Atlanta’s closer, with “only” 2.2 fWAR.
Biggest play: Solano’s single, of course.
The game, in context of the season: This game was brutal, but it didn’t matter, big picture-wise. The Braves were running away with the division. This loss dropped the division lead to six games, and it fell further to four after they lost their next series in Philadelphia. But, the end of July was the start of a 14-game winning streak, and no one else had a chance after that, even if they hoped for one before. The Braves finished the season with 96 wins, and we all know what happened with Craig Kimbrel’s (non-)usage to end their season in the NLDS. The Marlins finished 62-100, last place in the NL East. They immediately lost five straight after this one, including the first two to the Braves in Miami. June remained their only above-.500 month of the year.
The Braves went 9-4 against the Marlins the rest of the way. This was their first series loss to Miami since September 2011.
Julio Teheran finished his 2013 rookie season with 2.6 fWAR; he was slightly less consistently good in July and on than he was to start the year (89/102/104 from this start onward, compared to 85/99/95 coming into it). Henderson Alvarez was very good in his half-season from here on out, though it was mostly just homer suppression — 98/87/105. Still, it was good enough for 2.0 fWAR in 2013, and he followed it up with 2.5 fWAR in a full season in 2014 before injuries basically destroyed his career: he’s only made seven starts since the end of the 2014 season. Alvarez faced the Braves three other times in 2013, and got roughed up by them each time. The Braves won a rematch of this pitching matchup five days later, 6-4.
Solano finished 2013 with 0.2 fWAR and a 74 wRC+ in 395 PAs.
Condensed game: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJQ5c3IG7Hw
TC Commentariat Zeitgeist: Mostly, just disappointment and frustration at this out-of-nowhere series loss. There was some broad concern about the offense, which was strange because the Braves had: A) a top-10 offense in baseball through the year; B) a top-five offense in baseball through this game; and, C) a top-10 offense in baseball over the last month coming into this game. The complaining about this team is funny in retrospect, given that it was the only division winner in 12 seasons between 2006 and 2017.
Anything else? This game featured a light rain throughout.
The Marlins lost eight straight to the Braves before this win. This was their fourth consecutive series win; the most consecutive series they won otherwise during the season was two (twice). Meanwhile, this was the Braves’ first home series loss of the year.
Teheran hadn’t lasted only five innings in a start since April 18.
Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about July 4: Skipping past the obvious, on this date in 2005, the NASA space probe Deep Impact successfully collided with a comet (intentionally) for the first time. (Or, to be fair, the comet actually collided with it.)