Ed. note: This is the fourth in a series of posts by W.C.G. that is predicated on something Mac used to say: “I’ve mentioned before that I have a low opinion of hope, which normally plays you false.” Or, as W.C.G. noted in his introductory post: “Braves fandom has mostly been a series of pleasant, sometimes even inspiring, regular seasons spoiled by some giant turd of a playoff series. As the data set is fairly rich at this point, I have attempted to organize the turds into five different subcategories, which I have named and ranked. The series will begin with the least aggravating type of Miserable Braves Playoff Loss and work its way up to the most aggravating. I’ve also set odds for the likelihood of the 2013 Braves to join each category.”
These are the worst of the worst, and there are two of them.
The 2005 Braves were the tipping point of the cut-costs-and-let-the-coaching-staff-coach-’em-up philosophy that put the final nails in the Braves’ dynasty period. Jorge Sosa, cast off from an awful Rays team, cut a deal with the devil and wound up being the Braves’ #3 postseason starter before returning to awfulness the next year. A pack of rookies, including Brian McCann, Jeff Francoeur, Kelly Johnson, Ryan Langerhans, and Kyle Davies, helped the team recover from signing nothing but past-their-prime placeholder veterans that off-season. They drafted Joey Devine and called him up not two months later.
Speaking of the need to rush Devine: John Schuerholz was a legendary GM, but perhaps his greatest weakness was putting a bullpen together. The ‘05 bullpen was the nadir of this phenomenon; the top 5 innings-pitchers out of the bullpen (Dan Kolb, Chris Reitsma, Adam Bernero, Blaine Boyer, and John Foster) combined for a-0.9 WAR season, which actually seems to understate the number of games the Braves lost that year because they could not hold a lead.
They traded for Kyle Farnsworth at the deadline to shore this pen up, and for the most part it worked. Farnsworth pitched 26 games down the stretch for the Braves, saved 10, struck out over a batter an inning, and had a nasty 0.80 WHIP. So when Tim Hudson got into trouble in the eighth inning of a must-win NLDS Game 4 in Houston, the only logical move was to bring in Farnsworth to get the last six outs.
He got one before Luke Scott walked to load the bases and Lance Berkman cut the Braves’ lead to 6-5 with a grand slam. Farnsworth recovered to get the final two outs that inning, the Braves didn’t score in their frame, and who else were you considering for the bottom of the ninth? Farnsworth was his own set-up man by that point. He got the first two Astros in the bottom of the ninth, but hung a pitch to Brad Ausmus that Ausmus poked just over the fence line in left center.
Ausmus’ homer was the gut-shot that made the rest seem inevitable; the teams traded scoreless frames for nine more innings, but you had to figure the Braves’ suspect bullpen would wilt before Roger Clemens did. And in the 18th, Chris Burke homered off of Devine to finish it.
Realistically, even a win would have just sent the Braves home with a short-rested Sosa as the probable Game 5 starter (John Smoltz’s arm was just about falling off that postseason), but the manner of loss is what sticks. Up 6-1 with six outs to go, a grand slam off the only trustworthy reliever; up 6-5 with three outs to go, tying homer off the same reliever; then almost nine innings of somewhat ironic clutch relief pitching until the final shot. I discovered Braves Journal thanks to Stu after this game. It helped.
If 2005’s gut-shot was the final nail in the Braves’ dynasty, 1996’s was the first. The defending world champions came back from a 3-1 series deficit in the NLCS to get back to the World Series, then won the first two games at Yankee Stadium. They lost Game 3 at home, but jumped all over the Yankees for a 6-0 lead in Game 4.
Instead of bringing in usual setup men Greg McMichael and Brad Clontz, who had been shaky the night before, Bobby Cox (it’s a theme here) felt like he only had one guy in his bullpen he could really trust to nail it down, so he opted for a six-out Mark Wohlers save. The Braves were up 6-3 in the eighth when Wohlers gave up two singles and then lost one to Jim Leyritz. Leyritz’s homer was the gut-shot that did the Braves in; they scored no more runs that night, lost that game in the 10th, and then scored but two runs over the next two games as the Yankees ran off four straight wins to come back and win the series.
The historical significance of Game 4 can’t be overstated. Instead of launching the Braves into full-on, Nebraska-football-of-that-day-style dynasty mode, it kicked off a Yankee run of four world championships in five years. Could that have been us instead? We’ll never know, but we know why we’ll never know.
Chance of the 2013 Braves doing this: 5%. A lot of stars have to align to get kicked in the crotch like this, thankfully.