One play can change a season. Everyone knows that. Fans across all sports have seen countless promising campaigns derailed by an untimely injury. That’s the negative. At other times, two teams simply meet at the perfect moment and the seemingly impossible becomes possible. In those moments, magic happens. Seasons and careers, changing trajectories in the span of a pitch.
July 26, 2011
On July 26, 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates faced the Atlanta Braves. Both teams entered play with winning records, the Braves at 59-44 and the Pirates at 53-47. The Braves were in their first season without Bobby Cox at the helm. The Pirates were chasing their first winning season in 19 years.
Nothing about the game seemed remarkable. The Pirates struck first, scoring two runs in the first inning and one in the second. The Braves answered with three runs in the third. It was simple, normal baseball. Until it wasn’t.
With the score tied at three after three innings, both pitching staffs settled in. The fourth through the ninth innings passed scoreless. The 10th through the 18th were scoreless as well. An otherwise unremarkable game had become remarkable, not for its quality but for its duration.
According to the final score and the standings, the Braves finally ended the game in the 19th inning. Joe Torre and the MLB office suggested otherwise. On a fielder’s choice off the bat of Braves reliever Scott Proctor, Julio Lugo raced to the plate. Lugo slid, appearing well short of the plate. Lugo was tagged, while still appearing short of the plate. And for whatever reason, maybe because it was the bottom of the 19th inning, home plate umpire Jerry Meals called Lugo safe.
The video seemed definitive, but MLB allowed the call to stand. Maybe it was because replay wasn’t an official part of the game yet. Maybe league officials mistakenly thought the Pirates were leaving town and didn’t want to reschedule. Or maybe it was Joe Torre’s silent apology to Scott Proctor for pitching him into the ground with the Dodgers. Whatever the reason, the game ended 4-3 in favor of Atlanta.
There were no victors in the end though. It was as though the loss took all the wind from the Pirates’ sails as they won just 19 games the rest of the way to finish at 72-90. The tired Braves experienced a historic September collapse and missed the playoffs by one game.
May 20, 2018
On April 14, 2018, in absolutely miserable conditions, the Chicago Cubs staged a mammoth comeback and beat the Braves. In what looked to be a tight division race, that loss loomed large when the Braves trailed the Marlins at home a month later.
Down 9-4 in the bottom of the ninth inning, it looked to be another tough loss for the Braves. Then a sacrifice fly, a defensive miscue, and a small parade of singles and walks happened, and it was 9-8. The bases were loaded, there were two outs, and Dansby Swanson faced a 2-2 count.
Swanson, bad wrist and all, promptly laced a line drive down the left field line, and the Braves walked off 10-9. One impossibly bad loss, one impossible win. The scales were balanced again. It mattered too. After that, the Braves really began to believe in themselves, and it carried them all the way to a division title.
April 20, 2019
After a rainout on Friday, the Atlanta Braves and the Cleveland Indians played a doubleheader. Cleveland took the first game 8-4, marking a fourth straight loss for the Atlanta club.
Touki Toussaint took the ball for Atlanta in game two, and it was clear from the beginning that he wasn’t working with his best stuff. Less than two innings later, he was out of the game with seven runs ultimately charged to his name. Shane Carle, the 26th man for the doubleheader, came in and suppressed the Cleveland bats (or at least didn’t walk and hit the Cleveland batters) for several innings, and the Atlanta bullpen held serve.
Meanwhile, Atlanta’s offense slowly began to emerge from its Trevor Bauer-induced slumber. Tyler Flowers hit a RBI triple to bring the score to 7-1. Dansby Swanson hit a two-run home run off Dan Otero in the seventh to make it a 7-3 ballgame.
And so the Braves entered the top of the ninth trailing by four. In a near-repeat of last season’s game against the Marlins, walks and singles piled up. Suddenly, it was a 7-5 game with the bases loaded and Freddie Freeman at the plate. Tyler Olson missed with three straight, then Freeman took strike one and swung through strike two. Full count, bases loaded, two outs – the stuff childhood dreams are made of.
Except Freddie Freeman is an all-star first baseman and not a kid messing around. Therefore, when Tyler Olson threw an 87-mph fastball slightly down and away, Freeman did what no kid ever does. He looked at the pitch, kept his bat on his shoulder, said “I’m going to let someone else win this one” and then jogged to first base. Two pitches later, Ronald Acuna Jr. doubled and the Braves then hung on to win, 8-7.
One Play Can Change a Season
Suddenly, instead of 9-11 and on a five-game losing streak, the Braves were 10-10 with a chance to win the series. If this year’s Braves end up repeating as champs, this game, and Freeman’s ability to absolutely spit on a well-placed fastball, will be a big reason why.
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