25 May Airo AV Stated: Braves Flashback/Recap: May 25 – Talking Chop
In 2003, Greg Maddux was pitching his last season in a Braves uniform. Tom Glavine had already departed to play for the Mets, and John Smoltz was in his third season as the Braves’ closer. On May 25, 2003, the Braves hosted the Mets, and both Maddux and Smoltz appeared. This was hardly a rarity — the Braves winning Maddux-started games with Smoltz closing them out with a high frequency from 2001 through 2003. Still, this was a fun game with vintage Maddux, vintage closer Smoltz, some homers, and a weirdly good turn from a non-Glavine Mets starter.
The gist: For one afternoon, Maddux nearly met his match in Jae Weong Seo, a Korean rookie with a great 2003 season. The Braves went ahead on an Andruw Jones homer, but lost the lead two pitches after Maddux departed. They got it right back with a two-run Marcus Giles homer after the New York bullpen replaced Seo, and Smoltz slammed the door.
The set-up: In the way of set-up, not much is needed. You already know about Greg Maddux, though you may be surprised to know that he came into this game with very un-Maddux-esque numbers: 129 ERA-, 113 FIP-, 96 xFIP-. Those numbers were inflated by his shellacking by the Marlins in his second start, which we covered earlier in this series, but even since that start, he was pitching more like an average guy (99 FIP-) than Greg Maddux.
You may not know or remember at all about Jae Weong Seo, a righty from Korea who was signed by the Mets after helping Inha University win the Korean collegiate championship in 1997. After some elbow issues cost him a full season of development, he started 2003 in the Mets’ rotation (having pitched just one major league inning in 2002) and had been very, very good over his first eight major league starts: 82 ERA-, 84 FIP-; albeit with a more worrisome 107 xFIP-. In a rotation that featured Tom Glavine, Al Leiter, Steve Trachsel, and the very-bad-idea comeback attempt of David Cone, Seo was the Mets’ best pitcher coming into this game, already having compiled 1.1 fWAR in just eight starts and one relief outing.
The Mets, though, were pretty miserable. They came into this game 22-27, in fourth place and already ten games back of the 33-16 Braves, who had a two-game lead in the division and the majors’ best record. Neither team actually had good starting pitching to this point, with the Mets’ rotation actually faring better than the Braves’. But, the difference was that the Mets had an awful bullpen and poor position players, while the Braves’ bullpen was good and their position players were the best in baseball to this point. Still, the two teams had split the first two games of this series, with the Mets edging the Braves in the first game and Atlanta crushing Glavine in his return to Turner Field. The first series between these two teams was on the line on this Sunday afternoon on Memorial Day weekend.
How it happened: This was a super-fast game, because both Maddux and Seo largely dealt. Maddux breezed through the first (I’m going to be typing this a lot) on 12 pitches, allowing just a Robbie Alomar grounder up the middle with two outs. Seo matched him with an 11-pitch, 1-2-3 inning. Maddux gave up a one-out grounder through the right side from Jeromy Burnitz in the second, but Henry Blanco gunned him down trying to steal, and Maddux struck out Vance Wilson to end the inning. Seo countered with another 12-pitch 1-2-3 frame. Remember, the Braves were just brutalizing opposing pitching to this point, so this kind of start was jarring.
Maddux had his first perfect frame in the third, striking out Seo looking for the second out. He was also the Braves’ first baserunner of this game, reaching first with two outs when shortstop Joe McEwing threw away a grounder. (McEwing was primarily a second baseman and outfielder in his career, but was pressed into the starting shortstop role in Queens while Rey Sanchez missed some time with injury. The Mets had Jay Bell as a theoretical alternative, but the 38-year-old Bell couldn’t really hit or field at this point.) With Maddux on base, Rafael Furcal lined out to short to end the inning.
The Mets got another Alomar groundball single in the fourth, but once again, did nothing with it. Seo found another way to allow a baserunner without a hit or a walk in the bottom of the inning, plunking Marcus Giles to give the Braves a leadoff baserunner. On a full count, Gary Sheffield smashed one to third, with Giles running on the pitch. Unfortunately, Sheffield smashed it right to Ty Wigginton, who threw back to first for the double play. Chipper Jones then hit one deep to right, but not deep enough to elude the glove of outfielder Roger Cedeño. Maddux then had a very Maddux-esque inning in the fifth, featuring a first-pitch groundout, a four-pitch strikeout in which Wilson took all four pitches, and then a second-pitch pop-up.
Andruw Jones had popped out against Seo in the second, but got the Braves on the board in the fifth. Seo fell behind 2-0, Andruw fouled a pitch off, and then crushed the next one into very deep left for a solo homer. Vinny Castilla later connected on Seo’s first pitch for a double down the line, but the combination of Blanco, Maddux’s personal catcher, and Maddux himself couldn’t bring him home. Actually, Cedeño forgot how many outs there were when retiring Blanco on a fly down the right-field line, allowing Castilla to tag up and move to third, but Maddux fouled out to render Cedeño’s gaffe an embarrassing but costless mistake.
With the lead, Maddux was perfect from here on out. He needed just 11 pitches to get through the sixth, and after Seo had a nine-pitch inning, Maddux wrapped up with a 13-pitch seventh. He didn’t come out for the eighth, giving him a very Maddux-esque line of seven innings on just 84 pitches with three hits, zero walks, and three strikeouts. It was arguably one of his best outings of the season, though those things are always tough to judge with…