Saturday, May 28, 2016

Game of the Day (5/28/91)

Braves 8, Padres 6. Atlanta's Pete Smith, who was not a very good pitcher, took on San Diego's Adam Peterson, who was solidly worse.

Ron Gant started the game appropriately, with a leadoff homer. The Padres responded immediately in the bottom of the inning, as Tony Fernandez walked, Tony Gwynn tripled him home, and Fred McGriff singled to plate Gwynn with the go-ahead run. The lead lasted until the first batter of the second inning, when Sid Bream homered to even things up again. The lead changes continued in the third, as Terry Pendleton put Atlanta back in front with a homer, and the Padres scraped together a run to retie it when Fernandez walked, stole second, moved to third on a Gwynn groundout, and scored on a passed ball.

Things settled down for a little while at that point; Peterson worked around a Jeff Blauser single in the fourth, and the next three half-innings passed without a baserunner. The top of the sixth brought that to an abrupt end. Lonnie Smith led off with a single, and one out later, Bream reached on a Jose Mota error, putting runners at second and third. Blauser was intentionally walked to load the bases, Mike Heath hit a sacrifice fly to break the tie, and Peterson then balked Bream home to make it a 5-3 game.

Smith was perfect in the sixth, and Peterson was chased to start the seventh by a single by the opposing pitcher and a walk to Gant. Mike Maddux relieved, saw a sac bunt from Pendleton and walked Lonnie Smith to load the bases. Rich Rodriguez was then summoned and induced a double play ball from David Justice to end the inning. That escape became much more important in the bottom of the seventh, when Shawn Abner doubled, Mota reached on a Pendleton error to chase Smith from the mound, and Garry Templeton greeted Kent Mercker with a pinch-hit go-ahead three-run homer.

(Side note: Garry Templeton played for a very long time, but didn't pinch hit much, for two very good reasons. First, he was generally a regular and wouldn't start many games on the bench to begin with. And second, he was a TERRIBLE pinch hitter - 11 for 87 in his career. But six of those 11 hits went for extra bases, including two homers, one of which we see here. So while his PH batting average was a horrifying .126, his slugging percentage was a merely very bad .241!)

John Costello allowed a leadoff hit to Bream in the eighth, so Craig Lefferts was called in and retired the next three hitters. Mike Stanton worked a flawless bottom of the inning. Lefferts remained on the mound in the ninth, and that went less well. Mark Lemke led off with a walk, and Gant reached on a Fernandez error. Pendleton bunted the runners to second and third, Otis Nixon was intentionally walked to load the bases, and Justice then singled to score the tying and go-ahead runs. Bream added an RBI groundout before Lefferts finally stopped the bleeding. Juan Berenguer took over in the ninth and promptly put the tying runs on base, walking Scott Coolbaugh and allowing a single to Tom Lampkin, but the next two Padres went down to end the game.

This Braves team was the first of the many consecutive division winners Atlanta would produce over the next decade-plus. As the first, it's natural that they hadn't yet figured out everything about their team 41 games into the season. That's where you get things like Ron Gant leading off, or eventual NL MVP Terry Pendleton not just hitting second, but being called on to sacrifice bunt twice.

But the real lesson of this game for the Braves came in the identity of the starting pitcher. For the first 35 games of the 1991 season, Atlanta used only four starters: their trio of young stars, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Steve Avery, and veteran Charlie Leibrandt. It was a month and a half into the year before they were forced to extend to a five-man rotation, and they never fully settled on a fifth starter, getting appearances in the spot from Smith, Armando Reynoso, Kent Mercker, and Rick Mahler throughout the year. Outside of Mercker's excellent relief work, none of those men pitched especially well for the team this year.

Despite the ineffectiveness of the pitchers themselves, the Braves went 13-8 in the 21 games started by their quartet of fifth options. Which, for a team that would be best known for its exceptional front-line pitching, is a very nice result.

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