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A reminiscence: Two relevant Braves’ games from May 2023

Two memorable games from five months ago may have given us a preview of playoff baseball

Baltimore Orioles v Atlanta Braves Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

To fill some of the gap resulting from a lack of Braves baseball this week, I wanted to do a small retrospective on the craziest games from the 2023 season. But, as I started pulling together the data for that exercise, I realized a few things: first, most of the team’s crazy games came before the offense really took off in June, or after they clinched and stopped organizing their lineup and pitching to win games; and, second, a lot of the games we think of as crazy (like the series in Cincinnati with the Reds) often had tension-less dead time and weren’t really a rough-and-tumble back-and-forth the whole way through.

With that said, though, two games, both walkoffs, both in May, one Braves win and one Braves loss, continue to stand out to me. This Braves team won its 104 games in myriad ways, and on the relatively rare occasion it couldn’t pull off a victory, those contests slipped away in a few different ways as well. I don’t think these two games are really “lessons” for the playoffs; I’m thinking about them this week only because they’re some of the best examples of how taut games can be the result of little going according to plan.

Sunday, May 7: Braves walk off Orioles, 3-2, in 12 innings

Recap | Box Score

On paper, this game looked like it could’ve been a shootout. Bryce Elder was only a month into being First Half 2023 Bryce Elder, and Baltimore starter Tyler Wells was more the beneficiary of good fortune rather than an effective pitcher through his first five starts of the year. That’s not what happened, though.

An Olson homer was all the Braves managed off Wells in five innings. Elder, meanwhile, had to dance out of trouble — a double play to erase a leadoff walk in the first, back-to-back strikeouts to escape a bases loaded, one-out jam in the third, and so on. The Orioles tied on an infield single, a double, and an RBI groundout, but Elder held them there. Elder actually got through 1-4 the third time through without much trouble, but walked two of the first three batters he faced in the sixth, and that was it for him. But, Collin McHugh went strikeout-walk-strikeout to keep it a 1-1 game. That started a sequence of 22 straight outs, taking the game to the top of the 10th.

Anthony Santander broke up the offensive doldrums with an RBI single off Jesse Chavez to start extra innings, but Chavez held fast afterwards. That set the Braves up to face the frightening prospect of Felix Bautista protecting a one-run lead, but a groundout that moved the free runner to third and, of all things, a wild pitch tied the game. In the 11th, the Braves got one of their defensive plays of the year, when Ronald Acuña Jr. threw out the free runner trying to advance to third on a flyout... but it was for naught as the Braves couldn’t walk it off in the bottom of the inning.

In the 12th, Michael Tonkin got through his second inning of work by going popout-groundout-popout, setting up Harris’ walkoff double to left center off Cionel Perez.

So, why focus on this game? Well, there’s a few things that seem useful to keep in mind, here:

  • The Braves don’t need an offensive outburst to win. They got just one homer, and scored just thrice in 12 innings, but it was enough. The tying run in extras scored on a wild pitch, one of just seven by Bautista all season. The Braves’ xwOBA in this game was .256, their tenth-lowest of the year. (And a .165 wOBA that was their third-lowest of the year.
  • In a single game, it’s possible to dance through the raindrops. Elder had a 4/4 K/BB ratio, but also managed to dig deep and uncover for two of his four strikeouts when they were the most beneficial. He even got through the top of the order the third time through, and even his two walks that chased him ended up being stranded.
  • Similarly, your bullpen depth can give you results similar to your best short-stint arms... sometimes. The bullpen pitched 6 23 innings in this one, with only 2 23 pitched by guys you’d think of as definite close game insertions (Chavez, Dylan Lee, and Raisel Iglesias). The other four frames were hurled by McHugh and Tonkin, with a combined 4/1 K/BB ratio.
  • Big defensive plays are rare, but can be super-helpful when they happen... or don’t. Acuña throwing out the runner at third was one of the plays of the month. In addition to that, both teams threw a runner out at third in extras, where a misplay would’ve been disastrous. Perhaps most importantly, though, Harris’ walkoff hit was on a 50-50 fly ball that maybe gets caught with a different outfield alignment by the Orioles... or if Ryan McKenna doesn’t take a terrible route to the ball.
  • Don’t forget: Harris can hit lefties now. He improved from a .229 xwOBA against them last year to .339 this year. Not that the Braves would swap him out given the defense he provides, anyway, but it’s not a slam-dunk maneuver by the opposing team to bring a southpaw in to face, say, him and Matt Olson (.348 xwOBA against lefties this year) in the same inning.

Sunday, May 14: Braves lose on walkoff to Blue Jays, 6-5

Recap | Box Score

Most baseball games are weird. This one was especially so. After losing the first two games in Toronto to start this series, there was maybe the hope that this team wouldn’t get swept by the Blue Jays, not on Mother’s Day. But they did, albeit in a sequence of events that wasn’t what anyone expected.

The Braves pitched a bullpen game in this one; the Jays countered with Yusei Kikuchi. Atlanta opened the scoring with an Acuña leadoff homer, and added another run in the second. Collin McHugh escaped trouble in the first despite a two-out double putting two in scoring position, but the Braves made life much harder for themselves in the second. The inning started with a dropped pop-up; the next batter hit a grounder that Austin Riley couldn’t corral on a sliding attempt. After a bloop single, Riley couldn’t convert a slow roller into an out, loading the bases with none out. McHugh then got a 1-2-3 double play ball from George Springer, and seemed like he might get out of it with a lead. But, after a walk, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. smashed a ball up the middle. Maybe with the lack of a shift restriction, Ozzie Albies gets to the ball, but instead it was a two-run single. After another walk, McHugh departed in favor of Tonkin, who got a generous strike three call to end the inning.

The Braves came right back, with a two-run Albies homer that scored Acuña to put them back on top. In the fourth, Kevin Pillar added a solo shot to make it 5-3 Braves, but Springer hit a homer off Tonkin in the bottom of the inning to restore it to a one-run game. Starting in the fifth, it became a battle of the bullpens, but this one wasn’t like the one by the Orioles above. On this Sunday, from the fifth through the eighth, the bullpens yielded three hits and four walks against six strikeouts, and there were two (more) reach-on-errors as well. Still, the quartet of Tonkin, Chavez, Kirby Yates, and Nick Anderson only yielded that one Springer homer off Tonkin.

In the ninth, the Braves squandered a leadoff walk, and the doom fell upon them shortly thereafter. Guerrero nearly hit a game-tying homer on a 1-2 pitch from Iglesias, but had to settle for a barreled single. There were two outs sandwiching a walk, and then a slow infield bouncer that loaded the bases. Up next was Danny Jansen, who ended up hitting quite well this season but had a 56 wRC+ to this point, and he hit a slow roller through the infield to end the game. So, in terms of takeaways:

  • No matter what you do right, anything can happen in one game. The Braves outhomered the Jays 3-1, but lost anyway. Even though we know that teams that outhomer the opposition win 70-80 percent of the time, and perhaps even more in the postseason, that’s only cold comfort when you happen to end up on the 20-30 percent side, and there aren’t many, or any, more games to swing things back around in your favor.
  • Bad defense can make all the other preparations fairly meaningless. Some of the things in this game weren’t the Braves’ fault, but a lot were. With better defensive play, the Jays don’t get to the six runs they ended up needing. The Braves have had multiple stretches of terrible defensive play this year; even their prodigious offense and strong pitching staff can’t make up for a certain level of defensive ineptitude.
  • Anyone can screw up in one game — your weakness won’t always be what kills you. In this game, the Braves got eight innings of 6/3 K/BB ratio, one-homer ball from two long relievers, two of their better relievers overall, and Yates. Then Iglesias imploded. That’s all it takes to lose a game, sometimes, despite the yeoman’s work for eight innings prior. In the long haul, talent prevails. In the short haul, there’s only chaos relative to expectations.
  • You can even get burned by your good ideas. A common refrain: “Austin Riley should play on the line.” The game-winning hit in this one is an easy game-ending out if Riley is playing more away from the line. Should he still play closer to the line in general? Yes! Taking away doubles is more important than stifling singles. But that doesn’t mean that you won’t pay the price for it here and there... and unfortunately, in the playoffs, “here and there” can mean everything.

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