From his computer desk, Tommy Poe took a sip of water while checking Twitter. It was a quiet day on social media, which Tommy was thankful for. After all, with the coronavirus crisis weighing on things so heavily, a quiet afternoon was truly something to be cherished.
Opening another tab, he did the same thing he had done countless times before. After just two letters, Chrome could already sense where he wanted to go. “Baseball-Reference?” Chrome seemed to wonder. Pressing enter, Tommy was immediately thrown into the familiar world of baseball – his first love. Twelve pics of random players were underneath the page’s navigation with players he remembered, like Aaron Rowand and Eric Chavez, and others he had never heard of, such as Candy LaChance and Elmer Riddle.
Scrolling to the bottom, he found what he was looking for. Clicking “Frivolities,” he went to a part of the site that likely was not nearly as popular. This was where you found little oddities like a list of pitchers with 20 or more losses. Or maybe a list of players who only played in one game during their career. But Tommy was focused on his favorite list from the page – “Transactions on This Date.” Tommy liked to occasionally write long random blog posts about some of the most mundane of transactions. It was a way to make sure that his blog didn’t get too popular.
Clicking the link, he moved his cursor to the main menu of Chrome and selected “Find.” He typed his favorite team’s name and noticed that he was given 17 results. What had the Braves done on April 2 during their history? Oh, the Trevor Cahill deal, he thought. He had already covered that and the somewhat-connected exchange that included outfielder Victor Reyes going to Arizona for a draft choice that became A.J. Minter.
Tommy moved on. Pedro Beato was claimed off waivers in 2014. Hard to really motivate yourself to write about Pedro Beato, though.
He clicked the down arrow one more time. In 2011, the Braves signed Scott Proctor as a free agent.
“Huh,” he said out loud. “The Braves signed Scott Proctor? I wonder if that was the year…”
Sure enough, as he looked at Proctor’s hitting game log for the 2011 season, it was the year Tommy was thinking about.
From the sofa, the quite bored Abigail was reading a book based on the Ever After High series that she enjoyed watching. Not even looking up, she asked, “Who’s Scott Proctor?” Immediately, she regretted her question. She knew better than to ask her father a question like that. Hadn’t he mentioned the Braves? This was about baseball. Her eyes went to the door as she planned her escape, but to her dismay, her dad swiveled in his chair.
“Who’s Scott Proctor?” he said, repeating her question. “Well, let me tell you a little story.”
If the eight-year-old could have gotten away with saying, “shit,” she would have dropped the bad word. In fact, she may have even gone for the even worse word. She was about to get another story about baseball. And she thought she was bored before.
“The year was 2011,” he started…
Overall, the 2011 Braves will go down as the team that went from the second-best record in the National League on August 25 to blowing a 13.5-game lead they had on the Cardinals to finish a game behind – including losing their final five games of the season. They even got swept, AT HOME, by a Phillies team that had already clinched home-field advantage in the playoffs and had literally NOTHING to play for.
That somehow happened. And Braves fans watched it. And Braves fans somehow came back in 2012 to watch the Outfield Fly Rule game. And then in 2013. And 2014-17. And 2018. AND 2019?
Before the collapse that somehow didn’t cost Fredi Gonzalez his job, the Braves were rolling along in late July of 2011. Sure, the Phillies were pulling away, but the Braves were a good team. Definitely not a great one, but they did have the trio of Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters, and Eric O’Flaherty in the pen, a Tim Hudson-fronted staff that was getting boosted by young arms like Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor, Freddie Freeman in his rookie season and Jason Heyward in his second year. Brian McCann was just 27, too.
The Braves were on the rise. And on July 26, they were ready to play the second game of the four-game set with the visiting Pirates. Pittsburgh would see a collapse of their own. They entered play that day in a virtual tie with the Cardinals for the division lead. They would win just 19 of their remaining 62 games. Some like to think the game on the 26th of July broke their spirit, though it certainly didn’t damper the spirit of a young girl in the outfield bleachers.
“Is this story about her?” Abigail asked.
“What?” Tommy replied, torn from his commentary. “No, absolutely not. Well, a little.”
Quietly, he added, “she haunts my dreams…”
Abigail stared at her dad, half-hearing what he said. Seeking clarification, she asked, “what was that?”
“Oh, nothing,” Tommy said with a wave of his hand. “Let’s get back to the story.”
It was a muggy evening as a shade over 22,000 fans filed into Turner Field. Atlanta’s young fireballer Tommy Hanson took the ball for the Braves. It was just his third summer in the bigs. Unfortunately, it was also the last time Hanson really had his A-game working. His ERA was near 3.00 at the onset of the game and he was so difficult to hit. Anytime he took the ball, you had the thought that something special could happen.
Atlanta gave a pair of players the night off to rest nagging injuries – or so they thought would be a night off. Martin Prado shifted from left field to third base to spell the aging star, Chipper Jones. That allowed Eric Hinske an opportunity to play. In center, Nate McLouth started ahead of Jordan Schafer. Another regular took a seat, too. At shortstop, Julio Lugo got the call over Alex Gonzalez. Lugo would play in just 22 games with the Braves and only started two more times with Atlanta before they let him go a month later. But he becomes a star in this story.
The Pirates countered with Jeff Karstens, who finished 2011 with a 3.38 ERA. He would appear in a major league game for the last time the following season. The first pitch from Hanson to Xavier Paul came at 7:11.
“The game wouldn’t end for another six-and-a-half hours,” Tommy said, smiling at his daughter.
“SIX HOURS?” she replied. “I would never play a game for six hours.”
“You played Minecraft for that long yesterday,” Tommy pointed out.
“Oh,” the nearly nine-year-old said. After a second she added, “But Minecraft’s fun.”
Rolling his eyes, Tommy continued with his story.
Hanson ran into trouble almost immediately. After the first pitch to Paul, the righty got ahead 1-2 before giving up a base hit. Paul swiped second and scored on a one-out triple by Neil Walker. After getting Andrew McCutchen to fly out to Heyward, Hanson was one strike from getting through the first without further damage, but Pedro Alvarez ripped a base hit to bring in Walker. The Braves were down 2-0 and they hadn’t even got to bat yet.
After the Braves wasted a prime opportunity to score following a McLouth walk and throwing error on a stolen base that put McLouth on third with no outs, the Pirates padded their lead in the second. Michael McKenry, whose bad throw put Karstens in a world of trouble in the first, hit a solo homer with one out. The Pirates were already up 3-0. It wouldn’t stay that way, though.
In the bottom of the third, Atlanta got going on a two-out rally. McCann singled and Freeman did the same. Dan Uggla ripped a base hit to center to score the Braves’ catcher. After Hinske walked to load them, Heyward singled up the middle, scoring a pair and tying the game.
“And just like that,” Tommy said. “The scoring stopped.”
“What do you mean?”
“Inning-after-inning, pitch-by-pitch, neither team was able to break the tie. Even the Pirates using a traitor like Matt Diaz didn’t help change the score. Atlanta loaded the bases in the sixth with one out, but the end result was the same as if they had simply struck out three times.”
“So, nothing happened?” Abigail asked
“Oh, plenty happened, sweetie,” Tommy explained to his daughter. “This is baseball. Something is always happening. Especially in the ninth. See, in the seventh, the Braves removed Hanson and brought on O’Ventbrel.”
“What the heck is an O’Ventbrel?” she asked.
Tommy smiled. “You remember the Hydra in Percy Jackson? That big thing with all the heads?”
“Yeah?” she replied, suddenly interested.
“Well, O’Ventbrel was kind of like that,” Tommy said. “Except it was a three-headed monster the Braves could use at the end of the game. O’Flaherty, Venters, and Kimbrel. Or O’Ventbrel.”
“And if you chopped off one of their heads, ten more would grow back?”
“Well, no,” Tommy said. “And you didn’t chop off their heads. Instead, their ulnar collateral ligament snapped and you had to replace it with another tendon.”
Abigail rolled her eyes, replying, “So, it’s like a Hydra how?”
“Three-headed monster!” Tommy exclaimed. “Anywho…”
Atlanta followed a tried-and-true blueprint as the starter, Hanson, threw six innings and O’Ventbrel, “the three-headed monster,” each went an inning. The ninth was a bit rougher than the two frames that preceded it, though. With one out, McKenry singled. Brandon Wood came off the bench and also singled with McKenry moving to third. The go-ahead run was 90 feet away.
Paul stepped in and took a first-pitch strike. And then, Clint Hurdle made a confusing choice. He asked his catcher to come home hard on a squeeze attempt. Again, the count was 0-1.
Fredi Gonzalez found a manager he could out-manage as he called for a pitchout. Paul squared, but McKenry was dead meat at the plate. And to add insult to injury, Paul struck out swinging to end the threat.
In the bottom of the ninth, Gonzalez was ejected arguing a disputed strike call with McLouth on the plate. McLouth also got the heave-ho. That brought in Schafer. The Braves offense continued to struggle. Even a cameo by ex-Brave Chris Resop in the 10th didn’t help. On the pitching side, George Sherrill stranded two baserunners that Scott Linebrink put on to end the tenth. But the Braves were beginning to really dig into their depth. The Braves were down to Cristhian Martinez and the aforementioned Proctor. As the 11th started, Martinez took the ball.
The Pirates had their own problems. Their tired bullpen was getting smaller by the inning. After the tenth, they called on Jason Grilli, who was appearing for just the third time as a Pirate. Grilli and Martinez did the heavy lifting for the next three innings. Martinez was more-or-less cruising while Grilli pitched in-and-out of trouble. In the 11th, Lugo singled and Schafer was hit by an 0-2 pitch. Martinez bunted them ahead for the second out, but Prado failed to deliver to end the game then. In the next inning, the Braves had runners on first-and-second and no outs and then the bases loaded and two outs, but couldn’t come through. Martinez even tried to get a rally going in the 13th, singled with one out. David Ross walked with two outs, but Freeman struck out.
While the Braves couldn’t deliver the knockout blow, they did push Grilli to 50 pitches. That’s when Hurdle went to Daniel McCutchen, his final option. McCutchen, not to be confused with the center fielder, was a decent reliever and a former starting pitching prospect. It would be his game for the foreseeable future. He kept Atlanta mostly at bay, though he walked Freeman and Uggla back-to-back with two outs in the 18th. Alex Gonzalez, who loved to swing, grounded out weakly to end the frame.
The previous inning, the 17th, was the first inning Proctor entered. Martinez was sensational, throwing six scoreless innings while allowing just a pair of hits, no walks, and striking out six. He even helped out at the plate. He did all he could to give the Braves a chance to win the game, but after 88 pitches, he was taken out and Proctor entered.
“Oh, thank goodness,” Abigail said with far too much sarcasm for an eight-year-old. “Our hero has arrived.”
“Funny,” Tommy countered. “Proctor was anything but a hero. He pitched three or so dozen times for the Braves and had a terrible run of things. Remember when Daddy tried to teach you ERA and I said anything above 5 was bad?”
“No, not really.”
“But I did!” Tommy loudly replied. “I taught you how to calculate ERA and everything.”
Tommy ignored her shrugging as she played with her toes. Checking the player’s profile on baseball-reference, he turned back to Abigail.
“Proctor’s ERA with the Braves was 6.43. That’s like bad times bad. It’s bad squared. But…it was a weird night.”
Weird was an understatement. The game slowly made its way to midnight and beyond. Those that stayed were true die-hards as the game played on. Down the right-field line, some fans put together a stack of souvenir cups and ran with it like they were holding a battle-flag and running into battle.
But the most memorable thing from the game of absolute weirdness may have not happened on the field, but in the left-field stands. A group of Pirates fans was sitting in the front row. In the middle was a young blonde girl. Her name is Hannah and her screeching voice pierced through the night.
Every inning, she was there. Somehow, she didn’t lose her voice. She’d even return the next night and still made her presence known. But as the innings piled up, she became a meme. With so many people driving away from Turner Field as the game got far-too-late, the crowd noise was pretty minimal. Except for her.
Except for her.
“You okay, Dad?” Abigail asked of her father.
“Yeah, honey,” he replied. “I’m okay. I just had a bit of a flashback. But it’s okay.”
Abigail could tell that this was a moment that her father needed a hug. With one arm, she moved to grab her book and started to read again.
“Anyway, McCutchen and Proctor were the last two pitchers in,” Tommy said after a few moments of silence. Abigail rolled her eyes and put her book down. “And things were getting closer to the witching hour. Perhaps that’s why things took an even sharper turn into straight-up nutty.”
Since entering in the 17th, Proctor allowed a single and three walks, but to be fair, two of those were intentional. He also got an at-bat in the 17th, grounding out to end the frame. McCutchen had already logged five innings and allowed two hits and three walks. It was the longest outing of the season for him and it wasn’t over yet.
After a 1-2-3 top of the 19th for Proctor, Heyward led off the 19th with a groundout. Lugo earned an eight-pitch walk. The Pirates reliever got ahead of Schafer, but the outfielder lined a base hit to center field with the count 1-2. Lugo scampered to third. Schafer would later take second on defensive indifference. In probably the most obvious case of a suicide squeeze play in history, Pittsburgh didn’t pitch-out as Atlanta had done. Instead, they got ahead of Proctor 0-2. The infield remained in for the play at the plate.
On deck, Prado waited for his chance. He was 0-for-9 on the plate. Surely he would get a tenth chance to make something happen.
“Proctor swung and not only connected, but he also hit a grounder to third base,” Tommy said, his voice beginning to climb as he reached the apex of his story. “At third base, Pedro Alverez went to his right to field the ball. Proctor completely – and this is true – belly-flopped out of the batter’s box.”
To try to give his daughter a visual, Tommy stumbled and act like he was going to fall on his stomach.
“Scrambling to his feet, he tried to run to first base. Meanwhile, Alverez, who Daddy has a bobblehead of from his Hillcats days, grabbed the ball and threw it home. Lugo, who ran home on contact, was beaten by two feet. He was absolutely dead meat. The catcher swiped with the glove.”
Again, Tommy stopped to visually show his daughter what he meant. “Lugo slid short, not even reaching home plate at first. He was out. There’s no doubt about it. Except…for that moment…the home plate umpire, Jerry Meals, had a complete brain fart and called Lugo safe! He said the catcher missed the tag!”
Undeterred by his daughter’s lack of joy, Tommy continued. “Proctor gets mobbed in short right field by his teammates and in 19 innings, the Braves win 4-3! It was one of the craziest, wildest, weirdest games I’ve ever watched, honey.”
He sat down next to her, shaking his head in amusement. After a few seconds, Abigail figured she would throw her dad a bone. “So, they became champions?”
He slowly looked her way. His smile vanished. “Oh, no. No, no, no, no. They collapsed and missed the playoffs. But even had they made the playoffs, they wouldn’t have won because the Braves can’t win in October to save their friggin’ lives! How do you not start Soroka more than once? Why are you hitting an obviously hobbled Freddie Freeman third? Oh, and the bullpen usage? Come one! Oh, but I guess that’s better than leaving the best reliever in the game rotting in the bullpen while Juan ‘friggin Uribe crushes a homer! Good idea on that one, Fredi! Way to tip your hat! But hey, I guess even that’s better than getting beat by Chris Burke! Nobody even knows what Chris Burke looks like! I swear, this team…”
Abigail softly closed the door behind her and walked away from the room as her father continued to rant and rave. She thought about stopping her younger sister, Riley, from checking on her dad. But instead, she grinned as Riley opened the door to see what the fuss was about. Finally, Abigail had control of the Roku. Time to watch Frozen 2 for the 15th time.