Braves 6, Astros 5. Houston's Joe Niekro, who led the NL in starts in both 1983 and '84, faced Atlanta's Rick Mahler, who headed the same category in 1985 and '86. They may not have pitched brilliantly in those seasons (although they certainly weren't bad), but they sure did pitch frequently.
Niekro walked leadoff man Claudell Washington in the first, but erased him on a double play. Mahler also walked the leadoff man, Bill Doran in this case, and came out rather worse than his counterpart. Denny Walling singled Doran to third with one out, then stole second; Jose Cruz brought Doran home with a sacrifice fly, and Jerry Mumphrey singled to plate Walling for a 2-0 lead.
Atlanta tied it in the top of the second. Chris Chambliss walked, moved to second on a groundout and third on a wild pitch; Brad Komminsk then walked and stole second. Randy Johnson (not that one) then grounded to short, where a Craig Reynolds error allowed Chambliss to come home, and an Alex Trevino sac fly scored Komminsk with the tying run.
Mahler was spotless in the second, as was Niekro in the third. A Walling double in the bottom of the third went for naught, and the Braves struck again in the top of the fourth, starting with a walk to Chambliss. A passed ball and a Komminsk single put runners at the corners with one out. Johnson popped up, but another passed ball brought Chambliss in with the go-ahead run, and Trevino then doubled Komminsk in for a 4-2 lead.
The bottom of the fourth and top of the fifth both passed without baserunners. Alan Ashby led off the bottom of the fifth with a single, Niekro hit into a force, and Phil Garner walked, but Reynolds and Walling were both retired to leave the tying runs on. Chambliss singled in the top of the sixth, and Cruz and Mumphrey both matched him in the bottom of the inning, but double play balls from Ken Oberkfell and Terry Puhl allowed both starters to escape the inning unscathed. Johnson led off the seventh with a single and made it to third on a groundout and a passed ball before being stranded there.
Houston rallied in the bottom of the seventh, starting with an Ashby single. Pinch hitter Kevin Bass and Garner both singled as well, bringing Ashby around to score. Reynolds bunted the runners to second and third, and Mahler was pulled for Pete Falcone; Jim Pankovits hit for Walling and swatted a go-ahead two-run single. Falcone retired the next two hitters, but the Astros were now in front, 5-4.
The lead didn't last long. Julio Solano took the mound in the eighth and allowed a single to Rafael Ramirez, then a two-run homer to two-time defending NL MVP Dale Murphy. The Astros did not go quietly after the go-ahead blast; Solano struck out the next three Braves, and his teammates rallied in the bottom of the inning against Steve Bedrosian. Enos Cabell led off with a single, and Ray Knight and Garner singled and walked, respectively, to load the bases with two outs, but Reynolds flied out to strand all three men..
Frank DiPino allowed hits to Johnson and Trevino in the ninth, then struck out Glenn Hubbard and coaxed a double play from Washington. Pankovits led off the bottom of the inning with a double, but Bedrosian induced three consecutive flyouts to leave the tying run in scoring position for the second straight inning.
This is a fine game in the obvious ways - lead changes in the seventh and eighth, a go-ahead homer by one of the best players in the league and a career game off the bench for 28-year-old Houston rookie Jim Pankovits, whose +.530 WPA exceeds his next-best effort by nearly 50%.
But more than the highlights from Pankovits and Dale Murphy, what really made this game excellent was a subtle touch: there was nearly always something going on. The leadoff hitter reached base in a remarkable 13 of the 18 half-innings played in this game, including every one after the top of the fifth. And given that the margin of the game was never greater than two runs, there was never really a chance for either side to breathe easy.
Which is how a 9-inning game gets a WPL of 5.06, fourth-highest among regulation contests so far this year.