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'Knock'ahoma On Wood

Do you remember the days when the Braves were just an insignificant piece of dust on the windowsill of baseball life?

There have been these mini-eras in the history of the game in which the Braves were the team at which everyone poked fun. Two of them have actually occurred in my lifetime and I shall speak of the first one on this occasion.

The 1975-1979 Braves were a rather pathetic bunch They were a joke of a squad, with players whose names rang with mediocrity and good humor, such as Rowland Office, Pat Rockett, Biff Pocaroba and Pepe Frias. Yes, they were able to add the likes of Bob Horner and Dale Murphy to the squad, but this was the time before they made a significant impact. The most notable thing about the team was its biggest fan, an Indian mascot named Chief Noc-a-homa. The owner, Ted Turner, tried to manage the team, but even that didn't work. Bobby Cox, version 1.0, came around at the end of this run to turn things around a little bit, but even he suffered through the misery of bad baseball during this error of good feeling.

These Braves lost games the way that the current Braves win them. It became an ingrained trait, one that would surface again from 1985 to 1990. If you were facing the Braves, you almost always finished things up with a smile on your face. The Braves of the disco era were 141 games under .500. Even the Mets had a run of success in this period, winning 35 of the 60 games played, including 17 of 30 in Atlanta Fulton County Stadium.

These were the glory days of a reign of ineptitude, one that was particularly evident in the opening month of the 1976 season. The Braves came to Shea Stadium for a four-game series beginning April 26, with a cocky strut (I'm guessing here) and an 8-5 mark after taking two of three in Philadelphia. They came to Flushing tied for first in the NL West and left waggling their tails between their legs.

Mickey Lolich earned his first Mets win in the series opener, and Craig Swan and Tom Seaver pitched shutouts in the last two games of this matchup, but the major highlight was the second meeting.

Apparently not many were inspired to show up at Shea, because only 4,002 folks can claim to have been in attendance for this impressive triumph of the human spirit. The mighty Braves roughed Mets southpaw Jerry Koosman up a bit, scoring once in the first , three times in the fourth, and once in the sixth to carry a 5-1 lead into the final three innings.

Now surely you would say the Mets were done at this point, but the 1976 Mets were a team of character and one could sense that things were about to change as Dave Kingman led off the seventh inning (alright, maybe not. I stole that line from the narration of Game 3 of the 1986 WS on the highlight tape "A Year To Remember" and I like the way it sounds) Kingman, like Lenny Dykstra after him, led off the frame with a home run, cutting Atlanta's lead to 5-2.

The Braves put the first two men on base in the eighth, but almighty Hank Webb wiggled out of trouble, and the Mets sliced another run off Atlanta's edge on Felix Millan's RBI single. Still, they trailed by two, heading into the last of the ninth after closer-of-the-moment Pablo Torrealba (another great name from the past) came on to finish the frame and pitch the ninth.

Kingman led off the ninth and infused the Mets with energy, singling to bring the tying run to the plate. Torrealba got Wayne Garrett to fly out, but yielded a single to pinch-hitter Jerry Grote, putting the tying run on base. Bud Harrelson, not exactly a big-time threat, flew out for the second out, leaving the Braves one out away from a win.

There is often the lament of "What might have been?" and perhaps things would have been different had Torrealba secured that final out. Perhaps the Braves would have become a mini-dynasty, rattling off division title after division title, even getting a World Series triumph out of it. Perhaps there would be statues outside Pocaroba Field of Preston Hanna, Brian Asselstine, and Jerry Royster. Alas, it was not to be.

John Milner, hobbled by an injury, came up as a pinch-hitter and came through in the midst of what was a red-hot streak for him. Milner's single scored pinch-runner John Stearns and moved Grote to second. So now it was a 5-4 game, the Mets had two on and two outs but had another lefthander, leadoff man Bruce Boisclair, up against the southpaw Torrealba. What are the odds that two lefties in a row could get hits against a lefthander? Admittedly, such a prospect seemed unlikely, though the odds were helped greatly by Torrealba's total inability that season to get out hitters of any kind, let alone the lefties who batted .349 against him. Boisclair, a popular rookie, admitted afterwards that in the minor leagues, Torrealba could not get him out.

Murray Chass' game story in the New York Times relates the tale of this at-bat in great detail and I'll summarize what he related to his readers as follows. Boisclair went Mookie Wilson on the Mets, barely dribbling a two-strike pitch foul to keep the at-bat alive. He sent the next pitch into the right-center field gap. Grote scored easily and Milner, on a bad leg, followed behind him, not halted by a stumble as he neared home plate. The Mets had an improbable 6-5 win.

If there was a game to symbolize the Braves incompetence, you could take your pick from many, but we'll choose this one over one that took place five days previous, in which Atlanta blew an 8-1 lead against San Francisco with its ace, Phil Niekro, on the hill. This one is preferred because of what followed. The Braves, as we mentioned, got shut out by Swan and Seaver, and got blanked in their next game against the Phillies. With their hopes of success shattered and their season in shambles, Atlanta's losing streak ran to 13 games before the Braves snapped it with a walk-off win, albeit against the Mets. That one is easy to let go, a lot easier for Mets fans than the many losses they have dealt with against Atlanta over the past 15 years

True Metlanta know... By my count, the Mets have rallied from a 5-3 deficit in the final inning to win with a three-run rally on five different occasions, including once in the postseason.

For a cure for what ails you, might I also suggest the following entries.
"A Walk-Off Most Foul" and "The Day The Braves Hopes Were Dashed"

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