Sunday, December 18, 2016

Seasons in Time: 1914 (Part 3 of 5)

(In this series, I will recap in a series of posts one season of Braves baseball from Boston-to-Atlanta and everything in between. If you have a particular season you'd like to see reviewed, let me know in the comments.)

Part 1 - Prologue
Part 2 - The Road Trip that Wouldn't End

Part 3 - Finding Their Footing

The Boston Braves entered June 5 as afterthoughts despite the season's relative youth. Of the first 38 games, they had lost 26. They were already 12.5 games behind in the National League standings and had been on a seemingly never-ending road trip for nearly a month.

B. James | By Bain News Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
On the bright side, the team had showed some signs of snapping out of it. Eight of their eleven overall victories came in the final two weeks of the road trip. They also finally had their entire starting rotation as Otto Hess and Bill James, who both missed the beginning of the season, were back in the saddle with Lefty Tyler and Dick Rudolph. Further, after a month on the road, Boston's upcoming homestand would last thirty-one games and end on July 6. It was time for Boston to make some noise.

The Braves split a four-game set with the Reds to open the homestand before sweeping the Pirates in four games by a combined score of 23-10. Tyler, James, and Rudolph were each credited with wins during the series. After taking Sunday off, as the NL often did, Boston took three-of-four from the Cubs - including a double header sweep behind Tyler and James. After splitting a four-game series with the Cardinals from June 18-22, Boston had matched their win total before the homestand began (11 wins) in 23 fewer contests.

Things were about to take a turn for the worse, though. A tough six-game series with the Giants featuring two double headers stunned the Braves as they split the series. Philadelphia came into town next for a four-game set over two days - they won all but one against the Braves. Boston was run ragged after playing 10 games in eight days. After a well-deserved day off, a five-game set with Brooklyn loomed that included two double headers with an off day in between. Boston would win just two of the five.

A promising start to the homestand ended with the Braves leaving Boston at 28-40. While the 17-14 homestand gave the team a bit of a lift, they had only climbed out of the NL cellar for one day during the home swing and were now a game-and-half further behind the league lead than when they arrived home in Boston a month before. At the top of the league was the the New York Giants, who led the National League by the same amount of games Boston trailed 7th place by - four.

And then...the Braves finally hit rock bottom.

It was bad enough that they were twelve games under .500. All of the loses, both heartbreaking and blowouts, were tough on the players. What happened on July 7, though, was inexcusable. Lose to Christy Mathewson? You can handle that. Future Hall of Famer Rube Marquard rolls past you? These things happen. He's a major league pitcher and a good one.

But lose to the International League Buffalo Bisons in an exhibition game 10-2? That just cannot happen. As the players boarded the train for Chicago, their manager George Stallings lit into them. "You're not even Grade A sandlotters. I'm shamed of you all." The team held a player's only meeting in which young Rabbit Maranville challenged team captain Johnny Evers to play better with a question that had everyone else in the clubhouse asking themselves the same thing - "can you play better ball than you have been playing?"

The answer was the same for each player. They absolutely could and should be playing better.

The next day, they arrived in Chicago and Lefty Tyler pitched all eleven innings in a 7-4 win at the West Side Grounds. They would win two more games to take the four game set before splitting four games in St. Louis. They would lose just once more to finish the road trip at 12-4. Returning home, the Braves lost 5-4 to the Cubs, but followed with nine straight wins - besting their previous best win streak by three.

The win streak pushed them over .500 for the first time in 1914. It also propelled them into fourth place. They would add two more victories during the homestand before hitting the road on August 13 with a 51-46 record, a grasp of third place, and a six game hole.

Up next was the New York Giants, who continued to pace the National League. They had taken over sole possession of first place on June 2 and as they welcomed the Boston Braves on the 13th of August, they were up by 6.5 games on second place. The Giants were under the tutelage of one of baseball's greatest minds - John McGraw. The previous season, they had won 101 games in rout to a third consecutive NL Title. However, like 1911 and 1912, the Giants had failed in the World Series. A year older, the '14 Giants were still among the elite teams in baseball. Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard led a pitching staff that, despite the league's best offense, was finally showing signs of wear. Mathewson was 15 years into his magnificent career and two years later, he would be done. Marquard was younger, but struggling in his fourth full season. He would be dealt the next year and later was able to turn his career around in Brooklyn.

A year after leading the NL in ERA, the Giants dropped to sixth. Their offense, led by George Burns, remained excellent. The smart money was on the Giants regardless of how old they were getting, but the team simply could not score enough runs to make up for a surprisingly ineffective pitching staff for its time.

Gowdy | Public Domain via Wikipedia Commons
Over the three game set with the visiting team from Boston, the Giants went with Marquard and Mathewson in the bookend games with Jeff Tesreau taking the ball in the middle outing. The Braves countered with their Big Three - Dick Rudolph, Bill James, and Lefty Tyler. In the opener, the Braves jumped out a 4-0 lead by the sixth inning to roll 5-3. Les Mann had two hits, including his third homerun, while Ted Cather, went 3-for-5 with a pair of doubles. The next day, the Braves again got to the Giants pitching early and often. This time, it was Joe Connolly hitting a homerun. The outfielder would actually finish a triple short of the cycle as the Braves rolled 7-3. The finale was a pitcher's masterpiece. On one side, Tyler was excellent. He tossed ten scoreless innings while yielding just five hits and striking out seven. Mathewson was nearly as good, but after nine shutout innings, the Braves got to him in the tenth. Hank Gowdy tripled in a run and scored on a wild pitch to give Boston the edge they would need to sweep the Giants in New York.

Now just 3.5 games back, the Braves had every reason to believe that fate was on their side. Two days later, they swept the Reds in a double header. After a loss stopped their mini win streak, they would win four of their next six games to end August 25 in a previously unthinkable position - tied for first place.

A week later, as they swept the Phillies in a double header, they took over sole possession of first place. They would hand it back to the Giants a day later, but on September 8, they beat the New York 8-3 with James out-pitching Marquard to take over the lead for good. After winning the second game of a double header on September 9, Boston put on the afterburners and lost just five times the rest of the way. On September 30, Boston beat the Giants 7-1 to clinch the NL Title.

There were a lot of heroes who led the way after the humiliating exhibition loss on July 7 to a pennant win less than three months later. Bill James pitched 27 times with 24 starts after that exhibition loss. The team won all but two of those starts with James being credited with 19 wins to go along with a 1.55 ERA over 214.2 innings. Hitters batted just .215 with a .531 OPS during that time. Dick Rudolph was nearly as dominant with a 1.83 ERA over his final 23 games. The team lost just three of those games and hitters managed a measly .488 OPS against Baldy, which was Rudolph's nickname. The team wasn't as good in Lefty Tyler's games, though he had a 1.94 ERA during his final 162.1 innings.

At the plate, first baseman Butch Schmidt slashed .285/.354/.367 after the exhibition loss. Outfielder Joe Connolly, who one of the few stars who hit all season, upped his production for the stretch run with  a .325/.413/.509 slash after the exhibition loss despite being benched often against left-handed pitchers. The double play combo of Johnny Evers and Rabbit Maranville remained steady throughout and the team found solid performances from Red Smith and Ted Cather. Smith had been bought from Brooklyn in mid-August while Cather had been acquired from the Cardinals for pitcher Hub Perdue at the end of June. With the performances from other pitchers in the mix, the Braves didn't need the veteran Perdue all that much anymore. Also acquired in that trade was Possum Whitted, who would OPS .703 over 66 games in a utility role before becoming a fixture of the lineup in the World Series.

In the middle of the miraculous comeback was Hank Gowdy. The 24 year-old former first baseman had spent nearly all of the previous year in the minors just to improve his game behind the plate. While his offensive numbers (.250/.361/.327) may not approach Connolly or Schmidt, Gowdy started 60 of the remaining 88 games and his manager, George Stallings, later referred to Gawdy as his choice for MVP of the 1914 Boston Braves.

With the season clinched, the Braves started to look to the future and a matchup with the Philadelphia Athletics. They would once again have to succeed when the cards were stacked against them as the A's were possibly the best team in baseball that season.

But Boston was kind of getting used to the idea of shocking the world.

Seasons in Time: 1914

Part 1 - Prologue
Part 2 - The Road Trip that Wouldn't End
Part 3 - Finding Their Footing
Part 4 - Unfazed on the Biggest Stage
Part 5 - Epilogue

No comments:

Post a Comment