Many Atlanta Braves fans were apprehensive as new management rebuilt after a disappointing second half in 2014.1 The front office seemed to be willing to write off at least the 2015 season in anticipation of moving into a new state-of-the art ballpark2 for the 2017 season. General manager John Hart, who replaced Frank Wren on September 22, 2014, actively moved names big and small over the offseason.
Jason Heyward, still just 24 and seen by many as the new face of the franchise since he debuted with a splash in 2010, was dealt to the Cardinals in mid-November with setup man Jordan Walden for starter Shelby Miller and a prospect. Fan favorite Evan Gattis, scrappy Tommy La Stella, and slugger Justin Upton were gone to the Astros, Cubs, and Padres respectively. Then, on April 5, the eve of the season, four-time National League All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel, generally viewed as an Atlanta fixture, was traded with Melvin (“B. J.”) Upton Jr.,3 to San Diego for Cameron Maybin, Carlos Quentin, and two highly-regarded prospects: outfielder Jordan Paroubeck and right-handed starting pitcher Matt Wisler.
The Justin Upton deal brought in infielder Jace Peterson, a first-round (58th overall) San Diego draft pick in June 2011. He had debuted with the Padres early in the 2014 season, hitting .113 in 58 major-league plate appearances before spending most of the season with the Padres’ El Paso affiliate in the Pacific Coast League.4 Peterson had a good 2015 spring training with Atlanta, competing with Phil Gosselin, a product of the Braves’ farm system, for second base. Gosselin had the benefit of a cup of coffee with the Braves in 2013 and more substantial time in the majors in 2014, when he hit .266 in 136 plate appearances.
The retooled Braves got off to an unexpected fast start in 2015, winning their first five and still holding on to first place at 6-3 on April 15. But by May 2 they had fallen to third. As the Mets and Nationals traded places atop the NL East from mid-May through June 18 Atlanta stayed in third, bouncing around .500. The Braves had already tried journeymen Eric Stults and Trevor Cahill and young Mike Foltynewicz5 in the No. 4 and 5 slots of their starting rotation, with minimal success. With rookie Williams Perez, a 24-year-old Venezuelan, showing promise as a back-end starter, Atlanta opted for more youth and summoned Wisler, 22, from AAA Gwinnett (International League) on June 19 to make his major-league debut that night.
The Braves were home, having just finished an odd four-game interleague series with the Red Sox in which the first two games were played in Boston, the next two in Atlanta. The visiting Mets, at 36-32, led the division; Atlanta was 3 ½ games back at 32-35. Wisler’s debut start posed some pressure–a two-game swing in the standings was on the line.
Fellow San Diego draftees in 2011,6 Wisler and Peterson had been teammates coming up the ladder in the Padres’ system and roomed together while with AAA El Paso in 2014.7 Peterson had won the second base job out of spring training and was hitting a respectable .279 at the top of the order when he and Wisler, reunited, took the field as Braves on Friday evening. Just under 30,000 were at Turner Field, many of them anxious to see what Wisler might add to the rotation.
The rookie struck out the Mets’ leadoff hitter, Curtis Granderson, on five pitches, but Ruben Tejada lined his next offering to center field for a long single. Wisler bore down to retire the Mets’ number three and four hitters, Lucas Duda and Michael Cuddyer, to end the inning with Tejada stranded.
Impressive second-year righty Jacob deGrom8 started for the Mets. He rolled along effectively, yielding only a first inning leadoff walk to Peterson and harmless singles to Andrelton Simmons in the second and Peterson in the third. He persevered through Granderson’s two-out, two-base error and his own wild pitch to strand Chris Johnson on third base in the fourth inning with a swinging strikeout of A. J. Pierzynski. But Wisler matched him, only allowing singles in the third and fourth innings and hitting a batter in the fifth. Through five, the young righties were in a scoreless deadlock.
New York broke through in the sixth. Tejada led off with a sharp double off Wisler into the left-center gap and moved to third on a fly to deep right. Cuddyer then hammered a wickedly-hopping shot between Chris Johnson at third and Simmons at short to score Tejada. Next up, Wilmer Flores also hit a sharp ground ball toward third, but Johnson, Peterson, and Kelly Johnson, subbing for injured Freddie Freeman at first base, turned it into an inning-ending double play.
deGrom put away Atlanta in the sixth and seventh, retiring six straight. Wisler was nearly as effective; Kevin Plawecki nicked him for a two-out single in the sixth, but that was the extent of the damage. Through seven innings Wisler had thrown only 78 pitches. And although Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez had shown a tendency to go to his bullpen in similar situations, he and pitching coach Roger McDowell sent Wisler back out for the eighth. The rookie responded solidly, dispatching the Mets on 10 pitches; the half-inning ended with Duda looking at a called third strike.
Simmons opened the Atlanta eighth with the third hit off deGrom, a double to left, and advanced to third on Eury Perez’s sacrifice. With one out, deGrom was looking for a strikeout and got an 0-2 count on Pedro Ciriaco, pinch-hitting for Wisler. Ciriaco, though, got wood on the next pitch and chopped the ball into the left side of the infield. Shortstop Flores handled it, but Simmons’s feint toward home froze him long enough for a hustling Ciriaco to beat the throw to first.
With Peterson coming up, Mets manager Terry Collins surprised more than a few by playing “the book,” lifting righty deGrom for left-hander Sean Gilmartin to get a lefty-lefty matchup.9 Peterson worked a 3-1 count, then ripped a double over centerfielder Juan Lagares’s head, scoring both Simmons and Ciriaco, off from first with the crack of the bat. Braves 2, Mets 1.
“I honestly felt more calm than I probably should have,” Wisler said.11 He added that he was nervous warming up, but once on the mound it felt like just another game, apparently more secure with his former roommate Peterson there, too.12 “We talked when I got here,” Wisler said. “He promised to get me a couple runs.”13
Peterson did. Those runs, Gonzalez’s prescience in stretching Wisler’s debut to eight innings, and the rookie’s own solid performance gave him a spot in Atlanta Braves history. From the inception of the franchise in 1966, the only other pitcher to go at least eight innings allowing one or fewer runs in a debut had been John Smoltz. Smoltz, an Atlanta legend, was elected to the Hall of Fame on January 6, 2015.14
I watched the game events unfold in real time on the Braves’ television broadcast. In addition to the broadcast and the sources cited in the Notes, I also utilized the Baseball-Reference.com website for its excellently-detailed game box score, player, team, and season pages, pitching and batting logs, and other material pertinent to this article.
1 The Braves were 52-43 over the first half of the 2014 season and 27-40 in the second half, including 7-18 in September.
2 SunTrust Park is under construction in suburban Cobb County northwest of Atlanta. AtlantaBraves.com. Atlanta itself and Turner Field, home of the Braves since 1997, are in Fulton County.
3 Melvin Upton Jr. is Justin Upton’s older brother. The Upton brothers came to Atlanta in separate transactions during the 2012-13 offseason, Melvin (then known as “B.J.”) from Tampa Bay, and Justin from Arizona.
4 Peterson hit .306 in 299 plate appearances with El Paso in 2014.
5 Foltynewicz, 23, was acquired from Houston in the Evan Gattis trade.
6 Wisler was selected out of high school in the 7th round of the June 2011 draft as an 18-year-old. Peterson, the first-rounder, was 21. He played college baseball at McNeese State.
7 Mark Bowman and Carlos Collazo, “Braves rally vs. Mets, give Wisler first win,” MLB.com, June 20, 2015.
8 deGrom was 9-6 with a 2.69 ERA in 22 starts as a rookie with the 2014 Mets. He was already 7-4 with a 2.33 ERA and making his 14th start of 2015 in the June 19 game.
9 deGrom had thrown 97 pitches when Collins removed him.
10 The game was played in a crisp, Greg Maddux-like, 2 hours and 29 minutes.
11 Charles Odum, Associated Press, “Wisler shines in debut as Braves beat deGrom, Mets 2-1,” NYTimes.stats.com, June, 20, 2015.
12 Wisler’s last start for Triple-A Gwinnett wasn’t memorable. Although his offense allowed him a no-decision, he gave up 8 hits and 7 runs, all earned, in 3 2/3 innings at Indianapolis on June 12, just a week before his call-up. MiLB.com.
13 Odum, “Wisler shines in debut as Braves beat deGrom, Mets. 2-1.”