The classic pitcher’s duel between future Hall of Famers Tom Glavine and John Smoltz ended up being a contest decided by nondescript relievers. But more on that later; first, we’ll begin with the initial pitch of the ballgame.
On April 8th in Atlanta, Kelly Johnson sat on El Duque’s first pitch of the game and redirected it into the right field stands.
Now, I realize it was El Duque on the mound, and Ramon Castro catching, but I’m certain that both Tom Glavine and Paul LoDuca were present for that game, in the dugout, and saw the same thing we all saw.
Yet, on the first pitch of game 17, Tom Glavine threw a mediocre, chest-high fastball over the middle of the plate to Kelly Johnson. And if you weren’t there to see it, you can guess what happened.
As Yogi Berra used to say, “It’s deja vu all over again.”
John Smoltz was his usual filthy self — until the sixth inning. In particular: the third inning, men on second and third, two outs, Paul LoDuca up with a 3-1 count. With Carlos Beltran on deck, you’d figure Smoltz would throw a fastball, right? Why take a chance on walking LoDuca to face the hottest hitter this side of Alex Rodriguez? But he is John Smoltz, and Smoltz does not give in. Instead, he throws a nasty, knee-bending curve on 3-1, and follows it up with another dirty breaking pitch that LoDuca barely got his bat on to ground out weakly to short and end the inning.
However, as Smoltz cruised, he was getting away with high sliders that had too much of the strike zone. David Wright in particular let a few go by that should have been crushed, and Carlos Delgado saw a few as well.
In the bottom of the fifth, Shawn Green evened things up by blasting the first pitch of the inning — a flat slider — into the AZEK sign in right field. But the real excitement came one inning later.
Delgado began the inning with a single up the middle, beating the shift. After Wright struck out looking, Moises Alou knocked another single. Then Green walked to load the bases. Smoltz might have been able to recover at this point, but Braves manager Bobby Cox went out to argue with the home plate umpire over the final two balls to Green — which were close, but not quite strikes. Cox was eventually tossed from the game, but left Smoltz out on the mound getting cold for about five minutes. The next batter, Jose Valentin, hit a dying quail into no-mans-land in shallow left-center to score one and leave the bases loaded. Pinch-hitter Julio Franco flied out to shallow right, not far enough for Alou to score. But Jose Reyes jumped on another hanging slider from Smoltz and cleared the bases with his fifth triple of the season. He scored a few moments later when Paul LoDuca got the bat head out in front and lined a tough inside fastball into left for a single. Smoltz was finally shown the showers, exiting the game behind 6-3.
However, the Braves came marching back in the top half of the seventh, getting to the Mets bullpen. Ambiorix Burgos rebounded well after a tough outing in his last appearance, getting a grounder from Matt Diaz and a popup from Craig Wilson. It should have been a 1-2-3 inning but Shawn Green misjudged a fly ball by Scott Thorman that bounced off his glove. Thorman was awarded a double, but in reality Green should have been charged with an error. Scott Schoeneweis came on to walk Kelly Johnson and then gave up an opposite-field homer to Edgar Renteria, nullifying the possibility of Tom Glavine earning his career 294th win. The pitch to Renteria wasn’t bad — it was down and away and was hit off the end of the bat. But, Schoeneweis was brought in to retire the lefthanded hitting Johnson, and walked him after getting ahead 1-2.
Schoeneweis is puzzling. He normally gets ahead of guys using a good running fastball, but then nitpicks around the zone and ends up falling behind. He seems to be trying to strike everyone out, rather than making good pitches. He threw a total of 29 pitches before getting Brian McCann to fly out to center on a 3-2 count.
McCann, by the way, is an outstanding, dangerous hitter. He gets really good swings even when behind on the count, and doesn’t seem to have a weakness. He reminds me a lot of young Chipper — er, Larry — Jones.
The Braves kept right on marching in the eighth, taking advantage of a rare error by Jose Valentin, followed by a questionable HBP, to set up the second homerun of the game by Kelly Johnson.
Jose Valentin made a spectacular play in the sixth, when Tom Glavine had Jeff Francoeur picked off first. The Stache snared a high throw from Carlos Delgado and somehow came down in time to nab Francoeur as he slid into second. It seems like every game Valentin is making a great defensive play, and though it’s still early in the season, he has to be impressing people with the glove this year. While he likely won’t be a Gold Glove recipient, if he keeps his game at the present level, he at least need to be in the conversation.
David Wright is absolutely clueless at the plate. You can see it by the look on his face, by the defensive swings he’s taking, and the pitches he’s letting go by. Smoltz gave him two hanging sliders, chest-high, over the middle of the plate that Wright should have crushed, but Wright took them both because he had already committed himself to letting the pitch go. He’s taking weak cuts when ahead on the count, instead of swinging with authority. Some pitches, he’s letting the ball get too deep, others, he’s giving up on too early. It’s a tough slump for David, and luckily the Mets have been able to weather his troubles. Hopefully he’ll get hot when someone else starts slumping.
In the eighth inning, Craig Wilson was hit by an inside pitch by Aaron Heilman. Wilson did not move, and should not have been awarded first base. As it turned out, he scored the 8th Braves run, chased by Kelly Johnson’s second dinger of the day. Unfortunately, the umpires today have no cojones to make the right call, so we’ll continue to see batters stand on top of the plate and take an HBP without moving. It’s a disgrace and another injustice to pitchers trying to throw inside.
Heilman, by the way, is still releasing the ball with a low elbow, which is causing his fastballs to stay up rather than sink. I have a feeling that angle has something to do with the elbow problem, and we’ll be finding out eventually that he’s hiding an injury.
Bob Wickman is the ugliest closer in the NL. Not face-wise, but the way he gets saves. The Mets had a chance to tie up the game in the ninth, and with two outs and runners on first and third, red-hot Shawn Green ripped a grounder up the middle; normally, a base hit. However, Edgar Renteria was playing behind second base, and barely moved to scoop up the ball and retire Green to end the ballgame.
The Colorado Rockies come in to Shea on Monday night. Game time is 7:10 PM and will pit John Maine against Taylor Buchholz.