What Clayton Kershaw did last night was pretty amazing. Two days after throwing 110 pitches during Game Four of the NLDS against the Nationals, Kershaw got the call in the ninth inning with one out and two runners on base with his team clinging to a 4-3 lead. After a pop-up, Kershaw struck out the final batter of the game to send the Dodgers to the NLCS. It’s the kind of thing that basically only happens in the postseason that we, as fans, love to see.
It also reminded me of something very similar that occurred in 1999. That year, another big fireballer took the ball in a save situation two days after a start when called upon by his manager. While it wasn’t an elimination game for his team, what Kevin Millwood did in the ’99 NLDS was still pretty impressive considering the dominant start that came in Game Two of that series.
The ’99 Braves were loaded on the mound. Of course, you have the Big 3 of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz. In a time of skyrocketing offensive numbers, the Braves pitching staff led the majors with a 3.63 ERA. Surprisingly, on a staff with three future Hall of Famers, the best starter the Braves had that season was Millwood. He K’d 205 that year. In franchise history, only six other Braves have reached 200 strikeouts in a season. He led the staff in ERA as well and at just 24 , Millwood gave the Braves a young gun in an increasingly aging staff.
The bullpen was also loaded with a relatively mild version of John Rocker, a healthy Kevin McGlinchy, and a dominant Mike Remlinger along with other plus arms like Rudy Seanez and Russ Springer. The offense had seen Chipper Jones post MVP-type numbers while Andruw Jones was coming into his own. While the Braves were missing Javy Lopez (injury) and Andres Galarraga (lymphoma), they still bashed 197 homeruns – good for 4th in the NL.
After winning 103 games during the regular season, the Braves met the Houston Astros in the first round of the playoffs. For Houston, it was a chance at redemption. Built around the Killer B’s (most notably, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio), Houston had ended a drought in 1997 of over 10 years by making it to the playoffs. Atlanta quickly sent them home with a sweep that year. The next year, they lost in four to the Padres. Now, they drew the Braves once again.
Game One of the NLDS saw Greg Maddux face Shane Reynolds. It’s easy to forget – especially for Braves fans who recall Reynolds’ mediocrity with the Braves in 2003 – that Reynolds was a pretty good pitcher in the late 90’s. In fact, from ’95 to ’99, Reynolds had a 3.73 ERA with 16 complete games and six shutouts over 165 starts. In a league that included such control artists as Maddux and Glavine, Reynolds led the NL in fewest walks per nine innings and K/B ratio in ’99. Houston never trailed in Game One and pounded Remlinger in the ninth for four runs to cruise to a 6-1 win.
Rather than go with another future Hall of Famer in Game Two, Braves manager Bobby Cox tabbed Millwood as his guy. While Millwood had started 37 games the previous two seasons for the Braves, he had never appeared in a playoff game until that afternoon for the Braves. He would match up with the eccentric and exciting Jose Lima. After the Braves and Astros traded early runs, both pitchers would settle in until the sixth when Eddie Perez followed up a single-and-a-double with a sacrifice fly to plate Ryan Klesko. An inning later, Atlanta added three runs to extend their lead to 5-1. Meanwhile, Millwood was awesome. He gave up just one hit the entire afternoon – a homerun by Ken Caminiti. Only one other batter reached and that came via an error by Chipper Jones. Millwood would strike out eight batters, including Carl Everett and Ricky Gutierrez twice each. A Game Score of 89 is the highest postseason effort that any Braves pitcher has earned since at least 1903. That means what Millwood did that day was better than any postseason start by Smoltz, Glavine, Maddux, Johnny Sain, or even Warren Spahn.
In a short series, an effort like Millwood had in Game Two is usually the final time we see that player until the next round provided his team advances. But Millwood’s 1999 was about to get even more special. As the series moved to Houston, Glavine matched up with future Brave, Mike Hampton. Many of us recall that Glavine sometimes struggled badly in his career in the first inning. This isn’t just something we think happened – it did happen! In the first inning over his 22-year career, Glavine had an ERA of 4.58. His second “worst” inning is the 7th, where his ERA is 3.91. Glavine could look terrible in the first and settle down shortly thereafter to coast to a win. For a time, it looked like Game Three would be no different. Five of the first seven Astros reached, aided by a hit-by-pitch and two walks – the latter of which came with the bases loaded. Quickly, Hampton was staked to a 2-0 lead. It took two times through the lineup, but finally, in the sixth, the Braves figured out the lefty. With two outs, Bret Boone singled to left. After a wild pitch, Chipper Jones worked a walk. That set the stage for Brian Jordan and he did not disappoint. With one swing of the bat, Jordan put the Braves on top 3-2.
Glavine was replaced to begin the seventh by Terry Mulholland. He yielded a one-out double and Cox appeared to get a little too aggressive with his stacked pitching staff. He brought in Maddux to face Biggio. The battle of the Hall of Famers went to Biggio as he earned a walk. Cox then brought in Remlinger, who gave up a base-hit to tie the game. Remlinger would load the bases with one out by walking Bagwell intentionally, but got out of the jam from there. It remained tied at 3-3 in the tenth when Russ Springer loaded the bases with nobody out. Rocker got the call to try to put the flames out and extend the game into the 11th. After a groundout to first base led to a force-out at home, what happened next would become one of the biggest defensive plays of the 90’s for the Atlanta Braves. Tony Eusebio rocketed a grounder up the middle. The infield was drawn in and the Astrodome turf did nothing to slow down the grounder, but as he did so often during his playing career, Walt Weiss was ready for the task. He dived to his left to get to the ball, did a 360 and threw to the plate to nail the runner trying to score.
The game continued with Rocker throwing a solid second inning of work in the 11th. In the 12th, the Braves’ bats woke up once again and also once again, it was Jordan bringing the lumber. With two outs and a pair of runners on, Jordan ripped a double to right off future Brave, Jay Powell. Both runners scored. After an intentional walk, Rocker’s spot was due up and the Braves opted for a pinch hitter. Needing a new arm on the mound, Cox again went with a starter. This time, it was Millwood. Rather than plug-and-play with a starter trying to defuse a rally, Cox allowed the big righty to begin an inning and it worked much better this time. Millwood got Caminiti to pop-up to third before a liner and a Carl Everett strikeout finished the 12-inning affair. A day later, the Braves would win 7-5 to advance to the NLCS – which ended on a walk-off walk (i.e. this blog’s namesake).
Kershaw’s save opportunity was definitely more impressive considering it was an elimination game with two runners already on base. That said, Millwood’s start two days before the save was much more impressive. Which feat was greater?
Who really cares? Both were awesome and show just how exciting October baseball can be.