Sunday, September 4, 2016

Game of the Day (9/4/91)

Expos 8, Braves 4. Atlanta's Steve Avery was 21 and on the way to 18 wins in his second major league season. In his third year, Montreal's Mark Gardner was also heading for a to-date career high in victories... with nine. At the age of 29.

So it probably won't surprise you to learn that... Mark Gardner ended up throwing more innings than Steve Avery? Actually, that might surprise some people.

Atlanta took the lead before an out was recorded, as Otis Nixon led off the game with a bunt single and Jeff Treadway doubled him home. Gardner recovered to strike out the next two hitters and induce a popup, leaving Treadway at second. And those three outs were the first in a string of twenty in a row recorded by the two starters, unbroken until Ron Gant walked with two away in the top of the fourth. Naturally, Gant's out was only slightly delayed, as he was promptly caught stealing second.

The Expos finally broke up Avery's perfect game in the bottom of the fourth when Delino DeShields drew a leadoff walk; the no-hitter was promptly ended as well when Spike Owen singled to put runners on the corners. Avery rallied, retiring Montreal's 3-4-5 hitters to keep the Braves' 1-0 lead intact. But after Gardner worked around a Greg Olson single in the fifth, Marquis Grissom led off the bottom of the inning with a single, stole second, stole third, and scored on a wild pitch to tie the game. Avery's troubles were not yet over, as he walked Gardner and DeShields and allowed a single to Owen to load the bases with two outs before coaxing a flyout from Ivan Calderon to leave all three men on.

Atlanta responded quickly in the top of the sixth. Nixon led off with a walk and moved to second on a groundout. Terry Pendleton walked as well, and one out later, Gant singled to plate Nixon with the go-ahead run. This lead, however, was much shorter-lived than their last one. Tim Wallach and Larry Walker began the bottom of the sixth with singles, chasing Avery from the mound. Mark Wohlers coaxed a groundout from Grissom, moving the runners to second and third. Andres Galarraga then doubled them both home, putting Montreal in front for the first time, and Gil Reyes doubled as well to make it a 4-2 lead. Gardner followed with a single that would have extended the advantage had Reyes not been thrown out at home. Kent Mercker then came on to record the final out of the inning.

The Braves struck again in the top of the seventh. Pinch hitter Tommy Gregg doubled with one out, chasing Gardner from the mound. Brian Hunter greeted Mel Rojas with a walk, Nixon's groundout moved the runners to second and third, and Treadway then singled to score both men and tie the game. Rojas retired Pendleton to end the inning, however, and Montreal wasn't done yet. Jim Clancy gave up singles to Owen and Calderon and walked Wallach, loading the bases with nobody out in the home seventh. Mike Stanton was summoned to replace Clancy and got Walker to fly out, but Grissom then delivered a go-ahead two-run single before Stanton could bring the inning to a close.

Jeff Fassero was perfect in the top of the eighth, and the Expos iced it in the bottom of the inning. Dave Martinez and Owen singled, sandwiched around a DeShields walk, to load the bases with nobody out for the second inning in a row. Pinch hitter Mike Fitzgerald then singled in a pair of runners. Pete Smith replaced Stanton and allowed no further damage, but what had already been done was more than enough, as Barry Jones worked a spotless ninth to end the game.

This game feels like two contests folded together into one. The first was the exemplary pitcher's duel, in which it looked like Atlanta's first-inning run might hold up. Of the opening nine half-innings, only two of them featured so much as a runner in scoring position. That stretch of the game included only three hits, one of them a bunt single, and nine strikeouts against two walks.

And then, in the bottom of the fifth, everything changed. It started when the Expos scraped together a run with a single and some speed, then escalated when Steve Avery loaded the bases with two walks and a single. Two walks and a single were repeated in the sixth when the Braves pulled ahead again, and that was a drop in the bucket compared to Montreal's three-run rally in the bottom of the inning. In all, the teams combined to score in six of seven half-innings between the bottom of the fifth and the bottom of the eighth, and piled up eleven runs during that time (and it might have been more had one runner not been thrown out at home). The Braves in particular cycled through relievers with remarkable swiftness, scrambling to find someone, anyone who could stop the avalanche; the Expos just happened to find such a pitcher an inning earlier than the Braves did, and so they emerged on top.

The two teams split the two halves of the game, with the Braves winning the first 1-0 and Montreal taking the second 8-3. But since it wasn't actually two separate games, and Montreal's margin was wider...

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