Friday, May 23, 2014

One Weird Night Involving a Big Cat and Backup Catcher-Pitcher

The Braves open a series with the Rockies tonight and it made me recall one of my favorite Braves/Rockies matchups from the summer of 2000. Playing the middle of a three game series, the Braves were in a close divisional race with the Mets, a race they would win by one game. Colorado, under the stewardship of Buddy Bell, was trying to get back to .500 in a season they would finish with just two more victories than losses.

The pitching matchup saw John Burkett face Masato Yoshii. Burkett would be an All-Star the following season, but in 2000, he was pretty below-average, finishing with a 4.89 ERA and 1.59 WHIP. Yoshii sucked in his only year with Colorado and after two years in Montreal, his career state-side was over. He would back overseas and wasn't that good in Japan, either.

Atlanta's offense in 2000 was spearheaded by the rookie Rafael Furcal and by August, the Braves had also added B.J. Surhoff. In addition, former Rockie and cancer-survivor Andres Galarraga was producing quite well in his return to the bigs and has notably homered off his former team on opening day. The Rockies were led by Todd Helton, who was having an explosive season, with support from Jeffrey Hammonds and Jeff Cirillo. Even Juan Pierre was having a very productive season.

The Rockies built a 6-1 lead on the Braves by the end of the fourth, but the Braves battled back in the fifth. Enjoying his first big offensive year batting between Furcal and Chipper Jones, center fielder Andruw Jones homered with one out in the fifth. After a Chipper single, Surhoff doubled him in and scored on a Galarraga single. A lead is never safe in Coors Field.

In the seventh, the Braves completed the rally. Chipper homered off Mike DeJean and with two outs, Javy Lopez singled in Surhoff. It was probably a breaking ball knowing Lopez's uncanny ability to go down and get them.

Atlanta squandered a leadoff single by Chipper in the ninth. Foolishly, Surhoff bunted him to second and after Galarraga was walked, the rapidly declining Brian Jordan grounded into a twin-killing. Kerry Ligtenberg stranded the bases loaded in the ninth.

In the eleventh, things got nutty. With two outs, John Wasdin entered to face Galarraga. On a fullcount pitch, Wasdin hit Galarraga. It was probably not intentional, but according to reports, Wasdin gestured to Galarraga. While Galarraga has a well-known cheerful demeanor, nobody likes to get hit by a pitch and to get gestured at, even the mellow guys lose their composure. The Big Cat did just that, charging the mound and beginning a benches-clearing, extra innings brawl. Both players, along with Bell, were ejected and Bell was a little pissed off about it after the game. "If Galarraga's going to instigate, he's the one who should be thrown out of the game... What's Wasdin supposed to do? Run out into left field? It's unbelievable. Unbelievable."

Paul Bako replaced Galarraga at first as the last remaining position player the Braves had. In 789 games during a 12 year career, Bako played all of 1.2 innings at first base. All of that occurred because of an unlikely brawl. Scott Kamieniecki pitched a quiet 11th and tossed two perfect frames during the game.

Things got straight-up ridiculous in the 12th. Out of relievers after using eight guys after Yoshii was removed after five, the Rockies called upon Brent Mayne. A catcher by trade who played in over 1250 games in 15 years in the majors, Mayne was a reliable backup catcher. What he wasn't was a pitcher. We have seen many cases of position players pitching, typically in blowouts. Often, they pitched in high school or college and at least have some experience. How much experience did Mayne have? "I'd never been on the mound before in my life."

Advantage to the Braves, right? Tom Glavine hit for Kamieniecki, but he grounded back to Mayne, who quipped later, "He's a better hitter than I am a pitcher." Future Rockies manager Walt Weiss flew out to center. However, Furcal singled and suddenly, it looked like the Braves would get at least a run across, especially with the help of a wild pitch. Andruw worked a five pitch walk. However, as if he should be a current Brave, Chipper went up hacking and grounded out to third to end the 12th and strand a pair. Imagine that. A likely first-ballot Hall of Famer retired by a catcher making his first and only appearance as a pitcher.

John Rocker came in for the 12th, but Rocker was not sharp (and wasn't for the entirety of 2000...possibly because of backlash due to his idiotic comments to Sports Illustrated). He came up back-to-back singles, but after Hammonds lined out, Bobby Cox went with Stan Belinda. In Atlanta, Belinda's only claim to fame was that he served up the RBI single to Francisco Cabrera in Game Seven of the 1992 NLCS. In 2000, Belinda opened the season with the Rockies and had recently joined the Braves for a ten game run that was beyond ugly (1.91 WHIP). He would not pitch professionally again after 2000. In fact, he would only make three more appearances after this one.

Belinda struck out Terry Shumpert looking on three straight. With Cirillo up and Mayne on deck, the Braves chose to go after Mayne and walked Cirillo instead. The Rockies countered with Adam Melhuse, a third catcher who hit .234 in 735 AB at the major league level. On the first pitch, Melhuse singled to left, ending the game and making Mayne the first position player to win a ballgame since 1968. The last NL pitcher to do so? 1956. What made the moment even more odd was that Melhuse was 0-for-6 in his career with 3 K's.

The Rockies tied an NL record by using ten pitchers in the game while the Braves used all but three members of their 25-man roster in the game.

As the Braves open a three game weekend series with the Rockies tonight, here's hoping we don't get another odd one like we did on that August night in 2000. Actually, you know what, here's hoping we do. I don't remember the first or third games of that series, but that middle game is unforgettable for me.

(This original write-up from Sports Illustrated was incredibly helpful for this column.)

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