Friday, December 4, 2015

Best Postseason Win: Boston Braves

The last post was about the Atlanta Braves, who had one of baseball's longest runs of regular-season success in the 1990s and early 2000s. The Braves of a century earlier were like them in essentially no ways.

First, they weren't in Atlanta; they were in Boston. Second, they weren't the Braves; they started the 20th century as the Boston Beaneaters, then went through such imposing nicknames as the Doves and the Rustlers before settling on Braves in 1912 (with a brief detour to Bees in the late '30s). And third, they were straight-up awful. The World Series was first played in 1903, and it featured the Beaneaters' Boston counterparts (then known as the Boston Americans, because they were in the American league... subtlety was not an omnipresent feature of early baseball nicknames). Meanwhile, the Beaneaters themselves, who had been reasonably successful in 1902 (a 73-64-5 record, good for third in the NL), slipped significantly to 58-80-2, and fell to sixth in the standings. (The last number in those records, of course, represents ties, because ties were a relatively common feature of formative baseball. If the sun went down and neither team was winning, there weren't a lot of options.)

That .420 winning percentage and sixth-place finish both represented the franchise's high point for the next decade. From 1904-12, the team that would eventually be known as the Braves came in last in the eight-team NL five times, and seventh in three other years. And they weren't merely a bad team; they tended to be a dreadful one, as six times in the nine years, they failed to win even 35% of their games. By comparison, the only team in the last decade to dip below 35% has been the abysmal Astros of recent vintage; they fell that far three times, bottoming out at .311 in 2013, their first AL season. Boston's NL franchise came in below that decade-worst winning percentage twice in the early 20th century: .294 in 1909, and .291 in 1911.

The recently-christened Braves turned things around a bit in 1913, finishing in fifth, with a 69-82 record. But in 1914, business as usual seemed to be resuming, as the team started off 3-16 and found themselves 10.5 games out of first after a month of play. The team started to play better from there; it would have been nearly impossible not to. But after getting swept in a July 4 doubleheader, they were 26-40, 15 games out and still in last.

After that... things turned around. The Braves won four straight, then three, then six. On August 1, they climbed back to .500, at 45-45, for the first time since they hadn't played a game yet. That was in the middle of an eight-game winning streak; once that was broken, they won seven more in a row (with the exception of a tie). On July 18, the Braves had been in last; 30 days later, they were in second, three games behind the Giants. They had gone 22-3 over the intervening month.

Much like their abysmal beginning, that pace was unsustainable, and the Braves did start to lose a bit more often - but so did the Giants. Boston pulled even for the first time on August 25, and two days later, started a 10-3 run that moved them from 1.5 games back to 1.5 games ahead. Then they really took off, unleashing a 20-2 sprint that emphatically ended any semblance of a pennant race.

The Braves, arguably the National League's worst franchise, were going to the World Series, making them the first team other than the Giants, Cubs, and Pirates to represent the Senior Circuit. Their opponents? The Philadelphia A's, owners of the storied $100,000 infield and winners of three of the previous four Series.

Naturally, the Braves went into Philadelphia and beat up on the A's just like they had on everyone else they'd faced for the last three months. They knocked Chief Bender around to take the first game 7-1, then had their young ace, Bill James (no, not that one), outduel future Hall of Famer Eddie Plank 1-0 in Game 2. The Series shifted to Fenway Park (the Braves played about a third of their home games there) for the third game, which doubles as our entry here.

1914 World Series Game 3: Braves 5, A's 4 (12). The pitching matchup was a pair of youngsters: Boston's 24-year-old Lefty Tyler, who two years earlier had led the NL in losses while pitching for a lousy Braves team, and Philly's 21-year-old Bullet Joe Bush, who two years later would lead the AL in losses while pitching for a lousy A's team. There's probably a full blog post in discussing each of their careers, and there's a full-length book in laying out the story of how the A's went from being great to terrible, but we've done enough lead-in already.

The A's got off to a fast start, as Eddie Murphy (not that one) led off the first with a double, moved to third on a bunt, and scored on an attempted sacrifice fly by Eddie Collins; it's classified as attempted because Boston left fielder Joe Connolly dropped the ball, allowing Collins to reach first while Murphy scored. Collins would steal second, and Stuffy McInnis walked with two outs, but Tyler picked Collins off to end the inning with only one run in.

Bush allowed a single and steal to Johnny Evers in the bottom of the first, but left him at second. Tyler posted a spotless second inning, and Bush recorded the first two outs routinely as well, but Rabbit Maranville then walked and stole second.

Up next was Hank Gowdy. If you've read the previous entries in this series, you might recall Gowdy as the catcher who stepped in his own mask, helping the Senators kick off the decisive rally in Game 7 of the 1924 World Series. In this at bat, he earned a bit of preemptive redemption (or predemption, if you will), doubling Maranville home with the tying run.

Both starters worked 1-2-3 third innings. The A's pulled ahead again in the fourth on a McInnis double and a single by Jimmy Walsh, but the Braves retied the score later in the inning on a single by Butch Schmidt, a runner-advancing groundout, and an RBI hit from Maranville. Maranville then moved to third on a steal-and-error, and Gowdy walked to put runners at the corners with two outs. Tyler was up next, and if this situation came up in 2015, you'd figure the team would either take their chances on him getting a hit (his .202 average in 1914 was non-embarrassing by pitcher standards, and if anything, it slightly understated his ability as a hitter), or maybe roll the dice with a pinch hitter and turn the game over to the bullpen. But this was 1914, so instead of waiting out the at bat, Maranville tried to steal home and was thrown out to end the inning.

The next four half-innings featured one hit apiece. Murphy doubled in the top of the fifth, and Evers singled in the bottom; both hits came with two outs and were promptly followed by the third. Collins led off the sixth with a single and was erased on a double play ball from Home Run Baker. Charlie Deal then doubled with two away in the bottom of the inning and was stranded at second. The pitchers settled down even more after that, retiring the respective sides in order in both the seventh and eighth innings. The A's threatened in the ninth on a one-out Baker double, but Tyler sandwiched the last two outs around an intentional walk, and Bush worked a third straight perfect inning to send the game to extras tied at 2.

Wally Schang led off the top of the tenth with a single. Bush bunted foul with two strikes for the first out, and Murphy grounded back to the mound - but Tyler (apparently) attempted to get the lead runner at second and failed, putting two men on with one out. Rube Oldring grounded out to advance the runners to second and third, Collins walked, and Home Run Baker didn't hit a home run, but he did single, putting Philly in front 4-2.

With a two-run lead and a pitcher who'd retired the entire Braves lineup in order over the last three innings on the mound, it looked like the A's were well on their way to making the series competitive. But the first batter of the bottom of the tenth was Gowdy, whose predemption tour continued with a solo home run. Josh Devore hit for Tyler and struck out, but Herbie Moran walked, Evers singled him to third, and Connolly tied the game at 4 with a sacrifice fly. Bush recovered to get Possum Whitted to pop up, but the A's had let a great chance slip away.

Bill James, having thrown a complete game two-hitter two days earlier, was naturally summoned for the eleventh inning and worked around a Schang walk to keep the A's off the board. Bush threw a flawless home half of the inning, and Philadelphia had a chance in the top of the twelfth as Murphy drew a leadoff walk and moved to second on a groundout. But Collins popped up, Baker was intentionally walked, and McInnis hit into a force to end the threat.

Gowdy stepped in to lead off the bottom of the twelfth, and of course, he hit a ground-rule double to put the winning run in scoring position. Les Mann ran for Gowdy, and Larry Gilbert hit for James and was intentionally walked. Moran was up next, and laid down a bunt, hoping to advance the winning run. Just like Tyler two innings earlier, Bush attempted to cut down the lead runner, and just like Tyler, he failed - but Bush's failure was more spectacular, as he threw the ball away entirely, allowing Mann to race home on a walkoff throwing error.

The Braves would take Game 4 as well, capping not just the World Series sweep, but also what will likely remain the greatest in-season turnaround in baseball history for a very, very long time - going from the league's worst record in mid-July to winning the pennant by 10.5 games and taking the world title. They remained in contention for the next couple years, finishing in second (7 games out) and third (4 games out) - and then reverted to their old form, with losing records in 13 of the next 14 seasons. They would not win another pennant until 1948, when the team featured the pitcher who was largely the focus of the writeup on the Milwaukee Braves' best game. They would lose that series 4-2, but despite that, the Boston Braves cemented themselves as Atlanta's opposite in one more respect: they won the World Series exactly as many times as you'd expect given their number of chances.

We've already essentially covered the honorable mention section, such as it is; Game 2 of the 1914 Series was the Braves' second-best win, a 1-0 pitchers' duel in which the only run scored in the top of the ninth. For the next entry in the series, we'll stay in Boston and check on the team that's stayed in Boston, the Red Sox.

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