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Braves Flashback/Recap: July 5

In 2003, the Braves got one of the strangest wins I can remember seeing

Florida Marlins v Atlanta Braves

If this game had a subtitle, it would be “wet, but weird.” Because that’s what it was.

The gist: Greg Maddux allowed essentially nothing but back-to-back homers to Orlando Cabrera and Brad Wilkerson in the fourth. The Braves got a run back on a sacrifice fly, but squandered a bunch of baserunners against the Montreal bullpen. They then had the strangest ninth inning rally ever, where a leadoff single, an error, a walk, and a hit by pitch tied the game, and then later, another walk gave them a walkoff win.

Box scores: Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs

The set-up: At this point in the season, believe it or not, the Expos were good. They had a 47-39 record that was fifth-best in the NL. Their problem was that the Braves were much better, such that Expos were seven games back despite being on pace for 89 wins. Not only that, but the Phillies were 47-36, so the Expos had some work to do. The Braves, meanwhile, were cruising with the NL’s best record (53-31), just half a game back of the Mariners for the best record in MLB.

The pitching matchup was enticing, with both teams throwing their ace. Greg Maddux was in his final (and what would be the worst) season with the Braves and was having a weird year so far: 113 ERA-, 95 FIP-, 89 xFIP-. He’d had a really great monthlong run from late May to late June, but had been roughed up in his last two outings, including another thrashing at the hands of the Marlins, who gave him one of his worst starts ever back in April. The Expos were starting the incredibly durable, incredibly dominant Javier Vazquez, who had had three straight years of 215+ innings and 4.6+ fWAR. His numbers were off a bit to start 2003 (92/88/79, compared to 85/78 the three years prior), but he’d had a scoreless outing in his only start against the Braves so far. Maddux, meanwhile, was roughed up by the Expos when he faced them on Opening Day.

Overall, these two teams were meeting in a weekend series for the first time since April. The Expos swept the Braves in Atlanta to start the season; the Braves repaid the favor with a road sweep in Puerto Rico two weeks later. Montreal took the first game of this four-game set, but the Braves won the game after, with this game being the third in the series.

How it happened: The first three innings of this game breezed by in expected fashion, given the pitching matchup. Maddux had a six-pitch first, including a one-out single and then a 1-6-3 double play two pitches later. The next non-out in the game was a Brian Schneider one-out single in the third. Vazquez bunted him over, but a second-pitch groundout neutered that threat. Vazquez was perfect through three with four strikeouts.

Maddux gave up a leadoff single to Jose Vidro in the fourth, but quickly erased him on an 0-2 double play from someone named Edwards Guzman, of whom I have absolutely zero memory. He was apparently a C/3B who appeared in games in 1999, 2001, and 2003 (but not 2000 or 2002) and had negative fWAR each year, but was somehow batting third in this game despite a 70 wRC+ on the season. That double play ended up mattering a fair bit, because on the very next pitch, Orlando Cabrera took Maddux deep to left to break the scoreless tie. The fireworks continued with the next batter, Brad Wilkerson, who went back-to-back with an opposite-field shot into left-center. A first-pitch groundout ended the inning.

The Braves, though, came right back against Vazquez. Rafael Furcal was their first baserunner of the night, reaching on an infield single to Cabrera to start the bottom of the fourth. Mark DeRosa followed with a single of his own, and Gary Sheffield walked on five pitches to load the bases with none out. Chipper Jones lifted a ball to left that went for a sac fly, and Andruw Jones drew another five-pitch walk to re-load the bags. Unfortunately, Robert Fick blundered by hitting a 3-1 pitch on the ground to second for an inning-ending double play.

Maddux elicited (and solicited?) his third double play ball of the night soon afterwards, doubling up Schneider on the first pitch after a Ron Calloway (another guy I have zero memory of) leadoff single. Vazquez went right back to being perfect in the bottom of the fifth, and then those summer Atlanta rains came, forcing a 90-minute delay. Maddux stayed in, but Vazquez was forced out. His day finished with 72 pitches in five innings with just four baserunners, all in the same frame (5/2 K/BB).

Post-rain delay, Maddux threw two perfect innings. He finished with just 64 pitches in seven innings, allowing two homers among his six hits. Something incredibly strange about this game: Maddux had zero strikeouts and zero walks — every single PA he had featured a ball in play (no foulouts either). While it was the fourth time in his career he had a 0 K, 0 BB outing, the first three of those were shortened starts and the last, in May 2002, also against the Expos, was only a six-inning stint. He actually had another zero-walk, zero-strikeout game against the Marlins in September 2003, and then never again.

All that aside, though, the Braves were still trailing. Swingman T.J. Tucker came on after the rain for Montreal and had two adventurous but ultimately scoreless innings. In the sixth, DeRosa hit a one-out double and Sheffield walked, but the Jones boys both grounded out. In the seventh, Vinny Castilla singled and stole second on a full count strikeout. That ended Tucker’s day because the Braves pinch-hit with lefty-swinging Matt Franco. Montreal countered with LOOGY Scott Stewart, and the Braves burned one Franco to insert Julio Franco into the game. All that rearranging didn’t amount to much, though, as Stewart got the second Franco to strike out on four pitches.

Ray King was the first Atlanta reliever of the night, and he had another perfect inning, giving the Braves a streak of 11 straight Expos retired. The third out of the top of the eighth was actually Stewart, who stayed in the game in lieu of a pinch hitter, and was carved up by King on three pitches. Stewart then departed after throwing just one pitch, which got a groundout from Furcal. Julio Manon replaced him and got DeRosa and Sheffield to fly out.

Jung Bong worked the ninth for the Braves and allowed a leadoff double to Endy Chavez, but ended the inning with three groundouts (and an intentional walk to Cabrera). That brought this game to the bottom of the ninth, where it got stranger.

Still nursing that one run lead, the Expos gave the ball to Rocky Biddle, who was, to this point, a pretty effective closer for them (0.6 fWAR, 1.41 WPA). The Braves, though, had already obliterated him once in 2003, scoring six runs off of him in the top of the 10th in an outing where he walked five and hit a batter in two innings. This was even wackier.

Chipper started the frame with a single that rolled into right-center. Andruw then fouled out on a 3-0 count, which, yeah... Fick then rolled one to short which should have been a game-ending double play, but instead, was booted by Cabrera. Chipper reached third as the tying run. Biddle then walked Castilla, loading the bases. Both of his next two pitches, with Javy Lopez in the box, missed the zone. The second plunked Lopez, forcing in Chipper as the tying run. Marcus Giles pinch hit but struck out, bringing up Furcal for the fifth time on the night. Furcal took the first five pitches that Biddle threw. The first two were strikes, the next three were balls. He finally swung at one and fouled it off. Biddle’s seventh pitch was too high, and Furcal took it. The Braves had tied the game on a hit by pitch, and won it on a walk while down to their last strike.

Game MVP: Rafael Furcal, whose single in the fourth was the Braves’ first non-out (and led to their first run), and who had the presence of mind to let Biddle fully melt down and hand-deliver a win to the Braves. Furcal’s 2003 was a career-year-to-date (4.0 fWAR, 107 wRC+), though he played better on a rate basis during his rookie year in 2000.

Game LVP: Rocky Biddle, of course. I actually feel pretty badly for Biddle, not just due to this game, but due to the complete meltdown he suffered afterwards. Remember: Biddle came into this game with 0.6 fWAR. With about half a season left, he turned that +0.6 into -0.7. How? Including this game, Biddle threw 30 innings through the rest of the year. In those 30 innings, he allowed eight homers, walked 17, and struck out just 14. He had 12 negative-WPA outings in 34 tries, including seven bonafide meltdowns in just half a season. His lowlights included two separate games where he turned a one-run lead into a one-run loss (like in this game) against the Marlins, and giving up a three-run walkoff homer to Adrian Beltre.

Biggest play: The walkoff walk, of course.

The game, in context of the season: The Braves won this game and the next one, giving them another series win over the Expos. This Braves team, of course, won 101 games, with 12 of them at Montreal’s expense. They had sole possession of first place from May 2 onward, and July was their second 20-win month of the season (20-8 in both May and July).

The Expos had a bad time of it in June and July (22-29 combined), and as a result, ended up hovering near .500 for much of the second half of the year. They finished with 83 wins, but that was only good enough for a fourth-place finish in the NL East.

Including this game, Vazquez had an insane end to the year (56/62/78 in 16 starts). That vaulted him to his second 6.0+ fWAR season in three tries, a peak he’d come very close to during his 2009 with the Braves, but not otherwise. Maddux, by comparison, finished with “only” 3.6 fWAR. He too finished much more strongly than he started (70/85/81).

Video? Nope. For some reason, getting any retrospective information about this game is really hard, much harder than for most other games in 2003 or even earlier. I guess it just broke everyone’s brain.

Anything else? This game only took around two-and-a-half hours of game time, though the rain delay of course extended the duration substantially. Marcus Giles, who struck out as a pinch hitter, had the worst WPA among the Braves. Edwards Guzman (whoever he is) hit third just twice all season, once in this game, and once about a week later.

Baseball is dead to me, tell me something else cool about July 5: This date in 1996 marks the birth of Dolly the sheep, who as you may remember, was the first mammal cloned from an adult cell, at least until those wild Orphan Black ladies came along.

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