(Series Note: Baseball-Reference was used for a collection of players so this series is as complete as their database is. No coaches/managers were included and a number had to have at least four options to be considered with two exceptions. I started from the highest available number because as I approach #1, I’ll have much tougher decisions. For the complete series, click here.)
Best #61 in Franchise History
I began this series with the best intentions.
And then #61 came up and I struggled to find anyone to attach the label of “best” to. Throughout the history of the franchise, nine players have worn the old sixty-one and none did so for more than one year. Finding a true “choice” from this group proved quite difficult. Dave Schuler, who broke ground in 1985 by wearing the number the first time, nearly took this decision by default as I struggled to arrive at a better option. At least he was first, right? Sure, nearly half of the 50 batters he faced over nine games in ’85 reached base, but he had the guts to wear what seems like a cursed number first.
Damian Moss was mini-Glavine in 2002, but he wore #61 in 2001. Phil Stockman and James Parr shared the number in 2008, but no one was searching the Chop Shop trying to find an authentic Stockman or Parr jersey. The number has been used by a player in each of the last five years – most recently by Tyrell Jenkins. Before him, it was Williams Perez and before that, Chasen Shreve. Back when Braves fans had hope for him, Christian Bethancourt arrived in the majors in 2013 and wore the number. None of these players excelled while wearing #61.
I searched and I searched and then I remembered – this is my list. I don’t have to let results decide things for me. Who was the most memorable player to wear #61? Well, to me, that would be the one player I left out.
My choice for the Top #61 is…Livan Hernandez
Unlike pretty much every choice on this list, Hernandez adored the #61. He never played a game in the majors under a different number and that’s despite playing for nine different franchises. The Braves were #8 on that list during his 17-year career.
Of course, for Braves fans, Hernandez would be known more for his rookie season in 1997 than his work in 2012 despite the latter being the time he actually spent with the Braves. One of the first Cuban defectors to set the baseball world on fire, Hernandez arrived in the majors to stay in mid-June of ’97. He would face the Braves once during his 17-start rookie run in which he was the victor in his first nine decisions. But it was Game 5 of the NLCS that Livan Hernandez truly became a part of Braves’ history.
Hernandez pitched in relief in Game 2 of the NLDS during Florida’s 7-6 win over the Giants. He also pitched on October 10 during Game 3 of the NLCS and got the victory as the Marlins moved past the Braves 5-2. Hernandez entered in relief and surrendered a sacrifice fly to Javy Lopez that tied the game. A pair of run-scoring doubles by Darren Daulton and Charles Johnson off John Smoltz in the bottom of the sixth put the Marlins ahead and they would sail to the victory.
Hernandez tossed 22 pitches during Game 3. That’s why it was a bit shocking that two days later, he got the start in Game 5. The Atlanta Braves offense in 1997 was elite. They finished the season third in the NL in runs scored, fourth in OBP, and second in home runs and slugging. That date, Atlanta had Greg Maddux on the mound facing some 22-year-old kid. In a series that was tied 2-2, this was about as good as the Braves could hope for if they wanted to take the series lead before heading back to Turner Field – then in its first year. The scene was set, but the Braves had not prepared for one final thing – the man behind the catcher. Umpire Eric Gregg.
In the first inning, Kenny Lofton led off things with a triple. The next batter walked, but Chipper Jones and Fred McGriff struck out swinging. With the count 2-2, Ryan Klesko joined the previous duo, except he struck out looking. As did Lofton opening the third. Another player who was just browsing was Michael Tucker in the fourth and seventh innings. Jeff Blauser led off the 8th by staring at strike three. Along the way, the Marlins had scored twice off Maddux, who had struck out nine over 7 innings, including a pair of guys looking in Moises Alou and Gary Sheffield. The Braves had plated just one run off Hernandez – a solo shot by Tucker in the second. That was one of just three hits. They also added two walks. Entering the ninth, down 2-1, Hernandez had 13 strikeouts. Number #14 was Keith Lockhart to open the frame as he went down swinging. After Chipper lined out, it was all up for McGriff. He worked the count full. Hernandez threw a breaking ball that sailed a foot outside. McGriff, who later said the strikezone that day was “a little big,” naturally thought he had extended the game and given the Braves a chance to tie things up. Gregg rang him up.
It was the 15th strikeout of the game for Hernandez. During his long career, Hernandez struck out at least ten batters four times. This game was the gold standard for Hernandez followed by an 11-strikeout game and two 10-K games. Of the 143 pitches Hernandez threw that day, 88 were strikes. 37 of those strikes were called – a difference of 13% over the regular season for the number of called strikes to total strikes. Maddux did not benefit from an unusually high number of called strikes – just Hernandez. A deeper look, one that was done by Fangraphs’ Jeff Sullivan in 2013, shows that the difference may have been in the left-handed strikezone. The Braves that day had six left-handed hitters (including the switch-hitting Chipper Jones) in their lineup. Of the Braves who took a called strike three, only Blauser wasn’t a left-handed hitter.
Much like the Bill Buckner game in 1986, despite the Eric Gregg game being our lasting impression of the series, the Braves still had a chance to win the series. Two days later, Kevin Brown outpitched Glavine and the Marlins won 7-4.
Hernandez pitched the game of his life that day – with some help from Gregg. Two years later, he would be traded to the Giants and his nomadic journey would begin. After the Giants were the Expos and he lasted through the move to Washington. Next was Arizona, then the Twins, then the Rockies, and a 23-game stop in Flushing for the Mets in ’09. He finished that season back with the Natspos and would play the next two years with Washington. From 1997 to 2011, he pitched in 474 games – all starts minus two relief appearances in the playoffs. But at 37, the jig was up. It was time to extend his career as a reliever and the Braves came calling.
The 2012 Braves had one starter above the age of 25 in Tim Hudson. They were relying heavily on the arms of Mike Minor, Tommy Hanson, Randall Delgado, and Jair Jurrjens. Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen would later fill in, but adding Hernandez was a natural move for depth purposes. The signing would also allow the Braves to use Cristhian Martinez in a higher-leverage role. However, Fredi Gonzalez was never known for using his bullpen properly. The Braves manager began the season by using Hernandez in mop-up situations – the exact reason he was brought aboard. By May, however, Hernandez began to get higher-leverage calls. In a 2-0 game against the Phils with the Braves trailing, Hernandez was brought in to keep it a two-run ballgame. Instead, he gave up two runs. In Colorado two days later, he actually secured his first save after coming in during the eighth of a 12-9 game. After the Braves added a run in the ninth, Hernandez stayed in to get the save.
Rather than be utilized as a long reliever, Atlanta was using him in middle relief and he never looked all that comfortable in the role. Things came to a head against Hernandez’s old mates, the Nationals. With the game tied 2-2 in the sixth, Hernandez came in after Beachy hit the first batter of the inning. By the time the sixth was over, it was 6-2 Nats. Bryce Harper would add a solo bomb off Hernandez in the 8th as Hernandez took the one for the team. Hernandez would be buried for two weeks until he got the call in the fifth inning against the Blue Jays with Atlanta clinging to a 4-1 lead and the bases loaded. Three singles and a double later and it was 6-4. Hernandez would give up two homers the next inning to put the Braves down 9-4. He would be cut soon after.
Hernandez finished the season with the Brewers and gave up a combined eleven runs in his final two outings of his career. It would be an unimpressive end to a career that seemed headed to gigantic things during the 1997 NLDS. But, I guess, Eric Gregg couldn’t be his umpire every game.