• Sam Holbrook

    Stunned Silence After a Pair of Gut-Wrenching Losses

    The Top 10s of the 2010s, Part 4

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Welcome to part four of my top 10 most memorable moments of Braves baseball I watched in person in the 2010s, where we remember two of the most stunning losses in Braves franchise history, let alone just this decade: The ninth-inning implosion in Game 3 of the 2010 NL Division Series against the Giants and the impact it had on me after what happened that offseason, and two years later, the game not-so-fondly remembered as The Infield Fly Game (the 2012 NL Wild Card Game).

    You’re invited to catch up on the previous entries below:

    Part 1: A Big Bang … Then a Choke

    Part 2: What Could’ve, Should’ve, Would’ve Been

    Part 3: Saying Goodbye to The Skipper, and The Ted

    From Elation to Excruciation: Oct. 10, 2010

    A Painful Playoff Defeat, Followed by a Much Bigger Loss

    I dreamed of this moment from the time I accepted a newspaper job in the Atlanta suburbs and moved back from the Georgia coast in August 2006 with my wife and two preschool-aged kids in tow. The chance to raise our kids in the city where my wife and I both grew up, to experience life with both sides of our family and, hopefully, to share moments like the second Sunday of October 2010:

    My two boys’ first experience attending Choptober Baseball.

    We grilled hot dogs in the parking lot and my kids tossed a football with my wife’s uncle Billy. His being there made this day all the more special. He wasn’t just family; he had become one of my best friends. He worked for Delta as a mechanic and before he got married, Billy often would fly down to the coast on weekends and hang out with his favorite niece and her sports-loving husband. We would talk life, investments, fishing, Braves baseball, Georgia football and, starting in 2002 when my oldest was born, parenting.

    When I covered UGA in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on New Year’s Day 2003, I was able – as a credentialed member of the media covering the game – to buy two tickets at face value. I bought one for my best friend since middle school. I bought the other one for Billy. He married his wife in 2004; my oldest was the ring bearer, while I held my youngest in my arms during the ceremony. And now, we were at the NL Division Series, the wild-card Braves and NL West champs Giants tied at a game apiece. My sons’ first playoff game. My first postseason game since covering Game 2 of the 1999 World Series.

    It was, to me, absolute perfection. Billy and his wife, sitting a few rows down from us, delivering a whole pizza for the boys to consume in the fourth inning with the Braves trailing 1-0. Tim Hudson grinding through seven strong innings, surrendering only an unearned run on Brooks Conrad’s second error of the game. Jonathan Sanchez no-hitting the Braves until Huddy singled in the sixth. Tight. Tense. Can’t-breathe baseball, just like I watched in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in Octobers past, before I ever dreamed I’d be a husband, let alone a father times two.

    Then, the magical eighth. Alex Gonzalez’s leadoff single and, two hitters later, pinch-hitter Eric Hinske’s laser that just got over wall in the right-field corner. Turner Field absolutely turned upside down. It was the loudest I ever heard that ballpark. In the upper deck, you could feel the stadium swaying, and my 7-year-old screamed into my ear as I held him in my arms, “Daddy, the stadium’s shaking!”

    I screamed back, “this is how it used to be across the street!”

    Then, the ninth inning. You know the story. The rookie Craig Kimbrel, one strike away from nailing down the save, gave up a 1-2 single. Mike Dunn surrendered the game-tying hit. The Giants took the lead on Conrad’s third error of the game, won 3-2 to take a 2-1 series lead, and would finish the Braves and end Bobby Cox’s managerial career one night later.

    Leaving that night was devastating. My wife kept telling me, “it’s alright. We’re going to win tomorrow.” But my boys were crestfallen. Even the always upbeat, ever-grounded Billy admitted, “that’s tough to take.” I couldn’t imagine a worse ending. Yes, attending the three 1996 World Series games in Atlanta was awful. But this was my boys’ first playoff game. This was a moment Billy and I talked about back when I lived on the beach and the kids were in diapers, that one day we’d all cheer on the Braves to October glory together.

    I felt crushed. Nobody said anything on the way home. But as always, I started thinking of next season. We’ll get it right. We’re going to storm through the playoffs, and all of us will be there together to see it.

    Then came the phone call in January 2011, my wife crying uncontrollably on the other end. Billy had collapsed. By the time she got to the hospital, he was gone. Heart attack. 50 years old. A few days later, I delivered the eulogy at his funeral. I shared our Game 3 experience, him serving hot dogs to my kids, how he turned and pumped his fist at us after Hinske’s homer, how he patted my shoulder postgame as we walked down the stairs to the left-field gate.

    Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Billy. And while Game 3 in 2010 is heartbreaking to so many, excuse me if I say this one hurts me on a different level. My dear friend’s final time watching his ballclub play.

    The Infield-Fly Rule, Ruined Forever: Oct. 5, 2012

    One of MLB’s Worst Calls Ever Incenses Braves Country

    It was Oct. 2, 2012, and I sat in the third-base dugout at Coal Mountain Park in northern Forsyth County, Ga. Fall baseball, and my 10-year-old was behind the plate, getting extra reps after a full season of travel baseball. The few moments we had free that spring and summer, we snuck down to Turner Field to cheer the Braves to a playoff spot, one that young (how strange that is to type at this decade’s conclusion) first baseman Freddie Freeman clinched with a walk-off homer against Miami one week before.

    As the second inning began, I got my son’s attention and held up five fingers, and he nodded. He knew no 10-year-old throws five pitches. He turned to the home-plate ump and shared the news with him: The wild-card game would start at 5 p.m. Friday. I swear, we got three or four borderline calls that night (for the record, we knew the home-plate ump and we knew he had corporate tickets; he may or may not have delayed the bottom of the second inning texting people after the news broke … To be fair, the opposing head coach was on the phone a good bit after the ump shared the news with him).

    Fast-forward three days. A 5 p.m. first pitch on the first Friday in October, so that meant I checked the kid out of school at 11 a.m. and headed inside the perimeter. We gathered with friends on the grassy knoll across Hank Aaron Boulevard from the right-field gate, tossing a football while watching the most impressive tailgate setup I’ve ever seen roll in a few hours before first pitch, a long-bed pickup truck complete with multiple TVs streaming sports, open bars along each side of the truck, the whole nine yards.

    There is zero value in sharing the proceedings of what happened inside Turner Field that evening. All it would do is fire me up like it happened seven minutes ago, not seven years ago (although my son and I still cuss it at every mention). I am thankful we had seats high in the upper deck. As the bottles rained down on the playing surface after Sam Holbrook lost his freaking mind and made that unbelievable, inexcusable, garbage call, I couldn’t help but think how cursed my city was when it comes to big sports moments, while making sure my 10-year-old didn’t wear a Bud Light bottle across the back of his neck.

    Niekro getting rained out in the 82 NLCS opener, one out from an official game? Game 7 in 91 in the awful Metrodome? Games 3, 4 and 5 in 96, in a stadium in which I sat in the upper deck hoping to see the Braves win the World Series in person for the second straight October? The 18-inning loss in Houston in 05? All the other playoff missteps in the late 90s and the 2000s? The Falcons and Eugene Robinson the night before the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance in January 1999? Cliff Levington’s ill-fated left hook in The Omni against Boston in Game 6 of the East semis in 1988, with a conference finals berth on the line? The Falcons with a lead at home against the Cowboys in the NFC semis in January 1981 before Danny White took over in the final minutes? The Thrashers going belly-up in the first round of 2007 against the Rangers? The “most excellent” insult from the IOC at the conclusion of the 96 Olympics?

    After the wild-card game, sitting on the trunk of my car with the windows down and the Braves Radio Network postgame show playing, my son and I were silent. We sat there for at least an hour. Neither of us said a single word. In retrospect, the Braves flubbed up plenty of chances in the decade. They didn’t need any help.

    But at the worst possible time, Holbrook made a call that will live in franchise infamy for as long as the Braves exist.

    —30—

    On Deck: The Newest Baby Braves Usher in a New Era

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    5 Burning Questions with Braves & Cards Ready to Rumble

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – We have the opposition. We have some of the game times. We even have the umpiring crew (and lord have mercy, if you could’ve seen my face when I opened that press release Monday afternoon and saw Sam Holbrook’s name).

    Welcome to Choptober, Braves Country. The National League Division Series kicks off Thursday at SunTrust Park and, depending on who wins Tuesday’s NL wild card matchup, the first pitch will cross home plate around either 5:02 p.m. ET or 6:02 p.m. ET. Holbrook, infamous in Atlanta sports history for making the wretched, still-jaw-dropping-seven-years-later infield fly rule call in the wild card game (against the Cardinals, of course) in 2012, will take the field as crew chief.

    Certainly, the 42,000 or so who jam into SunTrust on what may be the hottest October day ever in Atlanta temperature-wise (forecast high is 94 degrees) certainly will greet Holbrook warmly. Memories of that disastrous call and the ensuing storm of beer bottles and other debris that littered the field still make Braves fans cringe, as the ruling squelched a late rally and subsequently not only ended the Braves season, but the Hall of Fame career of third baseman Chipper Jones.

    There will be ad nauseum references to Holbrook and his moment of infamy in the days ahead. Still shaking my head at the level of tone deafness exhibited by Major League Baseball, we move on from that talking point and focus instead on the matchup between the champions of the NL East and NL Central. The Cardinals had to battle until Sunday’s regular-season finale, holding off the hard-charging Brewers to win the division and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2015.

    Here’s my five questions to consider as the hours tick toward first pitch:

    The Braves “malaise” … not a big deal or matter of concern?

    Much has been made of the way Atlanta finished the season, losing five of its final six games and dropping eight of its last 12 games while falling three wins short of 100. But at some point, this team had to cool off a little bit, considering before those final dozen contests they went 75-37 since May 10. That’s a .669 winning percentage, which is a 108-win pace. The 4-8 mark to close the season? That’s a 54-win pace.

    The Braves are far closer to playing .600 ball than .400 ball, the difference between winning and losing a best-of-five series. Once the Braves took care of Washington in early September, the air came out of the balloon, especially after clinching. It almost looked to me like a classroom with a week to go before summer vacation and all the course work completed. Yes, you can’t just “flip a switch” and turn it on again, but also remember the Cardinals have three days off entering Game 1, too. I don’t think it’s a big deal.

    How healthy are Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr.?

    I won’t lie: seeing Acuna limp toward the fence in the right-center field gap at Kansas City on Tuesday froze me in my tracks. Yes, it derailed his quest to reach 40-40, and that stings. But more important to me was the correct decision to shut down the 21-year-old for the final four games of the regular season. Acuna took batting practice with no issues in New York and will ramp up his running in the days leading to Game 1. But until I see him race full speed Thursday, I’ll have a bit of hesitation.

    Freeman – whose right elbow bone spur should have its own Twitter feed, as much as it’s been discussed – played in all three games in New York, leaving after two at-bats in the finale. It’s been an ongoing issue nobody knew about publicly until it started barking two weeks ago. It’s not going to get any worse by playing. A couple of his swings this weekend looked painful, but most of his hacks looked fine to me (including the base hit in his final AB of the season Sunday). If I’m marginally concerned about Acuna, I’m only slightly worried about Freeman.

    Should Mike Soroka start one of the first two games in Atlanta?

    Conventional wisdom says you start your best two pitchers in the first two games of a series, especially at home. Conventional wisdom says you do not start a 22-year-old rookie pitcher on the road in his first postseason contest, especially in a place like St. Louis where the fans will be loud from first pitch to final out.

    But The Kid from Calgary has long since bucked conventional wisdom. Soroka has been the best pitcher in baseball on the road this season. Even with allowing three earned runs yesterday in New York, he wrapped the regular season 7-1 in 16 away starts with a 1.55 ERA, five homers (one Sunday) allowed in 98 2/3 innings and a 0.96 WHIP. He allowed two runs (one earned) on five hits with one walk and five strikeouts at St. Louis on May 25. Most of the time, he would get the ball for me on Thursday or Friday. This time? I like the call of him going Sunday.

    How beneficial is it that the Cardinals do not have a left-hander in their rotation?

    Since the Braves are deploying both Nick Markakis and Matt Joyce in the outfield, it is helpful that neither will have to deal with left-handers for most of the series (the Cardinals have Andrew Miller and Tyler Webb as lefties in the bullpen; Miller has struggled at times this season). Markakis is hitting .298 with a .816 OPS against right-handers (compared to .245 and .653 against southpaws). Joyce also is batting .298 against righties with a .871 OPS (compared to .273 and .748 against lefties).

    There are places where not having more left-handed bats due to injuries to Ender Inciarte and the switch-hitting Johan Camargo will sting against a right-handed-heavy St. Louis staff. Dansby Swanson has a .734 OPS against right-handers while posting a .803 OPS against left-handers, for example. But consider Tyler Flowers, who crushed left-handers at a .348 clip last season. In 2019, Flowers is hitting just .155 with an anemic .574 OPS against southpaws, but a respectful .262 with a pretty good .817 OPS against right-handers – one season after hitting just .184 vs. righties.

    How critical is Dallas Keuchel’s start in Game 1?

    Game 1 in a five-game series is massive, especially at home. Lose that game, and you must win three out of four to advance. For the final-two-months brilliance of Mike Foltynewicz, for the outstanding rookie campaign by Soroka, Dallas Keuchel is exactly what Atlanta needs in the opener. He pitched the 2015 AL wild card game, Game 1 of the 2017 ALCS and Game 1 of the 2017 World Series.

    In those three games, Keuchel went 2-1 with a 1.37 ERA, giving up three runs on 13 hits in 19 2/3 innings with three walks and 20 strikeouts. Keuchel has allowed two earned runs or fewer six times in his nine career playoff starts while surrendering five hits of fewer in each of those six outings. He gave up two homers in two of his final three starts, but that came during the team’s mini-slump down the stretch. In his six previous starts, Keuchel posted a 0.97 ERA while going 5-0.

    Now if Holbrook can avoid screwing up fundamental interpretation of the rulebook, we should have a great series (sorry, couldn’t resist one more shot).

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.