April 30, 2015
The Nationals’ comeback against the Braves Tuesday night will be remembered as a turning point in their season, if their season ends up being worth remembering. They entered the night at 7-13, and with their ace sidelined by a thumb injury, they asked rookie A.J. Cole to begin the process of turning things around. Cole got shelled, surrendering nine hits and nine runs in two innings of work, a mess that got worse than it needed to be because of Cole’s own error in the field. Atlanta led 9-1 after two innings and 10-2 after four. The Nationals stormed back. A fielding error opened the door to a four-run fifth inning, and ultimately, Washington chased Braves ace Julio Teheran with two outs in the sixth inning, down by the more manageable score of 10-7. The Braves led 12-10 after eight, but Dan Uggla—facing the team who pays the bulk of his salary, the team who cut him outright last summer—came up with a second huge hit (a three-run homer), and Drew Storen bravely held off Atlanta in the bottom of the ninth.
I’ve said nothing, so far. You all saw the game, or at least the highlight package, or at the absolute bare minimum, the win probability graph. I can’t add much to the conversation about the game itself; I’m more likely to be the naysayer downplaying the narrative value of it. I’m only bringing this up as an excuse to talk about another April game involving a sputtering would-be favorite, over 20 years ago.
This one took place on a Sunday afternoon, not a weeknight. It was the last of a four-game series between the Braves and the Giants, in 1993. Both teams were off to stuttering starts, flashing the things that would make them the combatants in baseball’s last great pennant race, but not racing out ahead of the field. San Francisco had taken the first two games of the series. Barry Bonds drove in five runs in a Giants blowout on Thursday, and scored the only run in a 1-0 win on Friday. In those contests, San Francisco beat Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, respectively. Only a two-out, two-run, ninth-inning Terry Pendleton homer could break a scoreless tie on Saturday, as Steve Avery was finally able to match the dominance of a Giants counterpart. Through three games, the Braves had managed only three runs.
On Sunday, though, the dam broke. The Giants sent Dave Burba to the mound; Burba barely survived the first frame. He threw 52 pitches. The top of the first went this way:
· Hit batsman
· Stolen base (and throwing error by the catcher, allowing the runner to take third)
· Error by shortstop Royce Clayton
· Wild Pitch
Five runs scored on two hits. The final out of the inning came only because, after Tom Glavine’s RBI single plated the fifth run, the Giants tried to nail Greg Olson at third base. They failed; Olson was safe. Glavine tried to take second as the trailing runner, though, and recorded the final out. The Giants were down 5-0 before they came to bat, against one of the Braves’ Big Three.
On that day, though, Glavine wasn’t able to capitalize on his good fortune. Bonds led off the bottom of the second with a double, and the Giants hit Glavine hard enough to turn the rally into three runs. Bonds doubled again in the third, this time with two runners on base, putting the tying run at third base and chasing Glavine from the game. The Giants pushed across two more runs in the inning against Greg McMichael, taking an improbable lead—whereupon, the Braves took it right back.
Bryan Hickerson was the third pitcher of the day for the Giants when he took the mound in the fourth. Still, he managed to have the shortest outing of the day, in terms of outs. He got just one, giving up a game-tying bases-loaded walk and a two-run single. Olson, the first batter to greet Kevin Rogers, hit a three-run homer to really blow things open. It was 11-6, then, and Glavine or no Glavine, the Braves were back in control.
Of the game, at least. The fans at the stadium were quickly out of control. Following Olson's home run, fans started hucking baseballs down onto the field—it was Fotoball Giveaway Day at the park that Sunday, with all fans 14 and under getting a baseball with a Giant's face printed on it. The game was delayed—crew chief Bruce Froemming considered clearing out the fans, and he told Dusty Baker the game was in danger of forfeit—while players dodgers baseballs bearing their smiling head shots. Finally, things settled down.
Matt Williams led off the Giants’ half of the fifth with a home run off McMichael, inching San Francisco closer. Bonds singled home a run in the seventh, though the Braves got it back in the eighth (off of Rogers, still; he pitched 4 1/3 innings in relief). The bottom of the ninth came, with Atlanta still holding a 12-8 lead. Bobby Cox sent in his closer, Mike Stanton, just to keep this edition of the Braves’ fat lead from getting away.
Stanton promptly went about giving it away. He walked the leadoff batter, then allowed two singles and Bonds’s third double of the game, before leaving without recording an out. Bonds represented the tying run. Two sacrifice flies brought in Williams and Bonds, and the game went to extra innings.
Rod Beck had entered in the top of the ninth, and struck out two without allowing a threat to percolate. In the 10th, he one-upped himself, striking out the side in order. Pendleton and David Justice went down on three pitches each. (It was getaway day. Everyone kind of wanted to get the thing over with.)
The Giants took aggressiveness and short at-bats to an extreme in their half of the 10th. Pinch-hitter Mark Carreon singled on the first pitch of the inning. Willie McGee tried to bunt him over, but reached base when Pendleton threw the ball away. Since the runners had to hold at first and second, Darren Lewis tried to bunt, too, but he bunted too hard back to the mound, and the Braves cut down the lead runner. That mattered a great deal, because Will Clark then grounded into a first-pitch double play to kill the rally.
The Braves went down in order in the 11th, and Matt Williams led off the bottom of the inning for the Giants. He, too, swung at the first pitch, and one could have been forgiven for rolling one’s eyes at the two teams’ sudden refusal to wait out pitchers—except that Williams’ swing produced a walkoff home run. After trailing twice by five runs, and down four with three outs to their names, the Giants had won.
The two games aren’t all that similar, in a narrative sense. The 1993 Braves were 7-7 even after losing this game, hardly in the kind of trouble the Nationals were in, and of course, the Nationals won their wild affair. Mostly, I just thought this game deserved your attention. The Braves scored 12 runs on fewer than 10 hits, a feat matched or exceeded only 45 times since expansion began in 1961. Barry Bonds had three doubles for the first time in his career (he would do it only one other time, in September of that year). The way that game set up the tremendous summer that was to come, I feel sure it holds some place in the hearts of Giants fans even now, despite the fact that the Giants were unable to turn the miraculous win into a playoff berth at the end of the year.
Though analytically void, it’s fun (from a trivia and a fan perspective) to ask: Which team accomplished the rarer feat, the Nationals or the Giants? I’m sure you know the answer, though: it’s the Giants. The Nationals came back from eight runs down, which doesn’t happen often. It only happened once in 2014, and it didn’t happen at all in 2013. Since 1950, it’s happened some 90 times, and since 1991, that number is 44. It took something special to do what Washington did, but to come back from down by five runs twice, as the Giants did 22 years ago, takes more than special. It takes Barry Bonds. Aside from the game described above, there has been only one instance of a team coming back from five runs down at two different points to win a single game. The other one took place almost exactly two years earlier, on April 21, 1991. That day, in Pittsburgh, the Cubs and Pirates were scoreless through four innings, before the following happened:
· Pirates score two in the fifth
· Cubs score three in the sixth
· Each team scores four in the eighth
· Pirates score one in the ninth
· Cubs score five in the 11th (the last four on a grand slam by Andre Dawson)
· Pirates score six in the 11th (with Bonds singling home the fourth run, then scoring the winning one on a Don Slaught double)
Just as in the Braves/GIants game, the final score was 13-12 in 11 innings. So there you have it. Dan Uggla might be a hero in Washington, but his own manager was the hero of a more amazing comeback game. And just for the record, neither of them have ever been as good as Barry Bonds.
Huge thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance.