The Braves sure could use Zip Zabel.
Their ever-combustible bullpen turned in yet another pyrotechnic performance Sunday. This time, Brandon Cunniff and Luis Avilan provided the fireworks. They surrendered four hits (two homers), two walks, and four runs (all earned) in a mere one and two-thirds innings pitched.
Oh, yes. Cunniff also allowed an inherited runner to score.
Not that starter Mike Foltynewicz was any less culpable. He couldn’t hold 5-1 and 8-3 leads. But when you turn the game over to your bullpen with an 8-5 lead, you don’t expect to be trailing, 10-8, within two-thirds of an inning.
Looking at the big picture, the Braves—the rebuilding Braves— missed an opportunity to move within a game-and-a-half of first place. They wasted eight runs and 14 hits.
They allowed the Mets to win a game at Citi Field in which the Mets allowed at least eight runs for the first time since 2011.
How bad is the Braves bullpen? Through Sunday, the bullpen’s earned run average of 4.64 ranked 29th out of the 30 big league teams. Thank you, Oakland.
Only five teams bullpens have a collective era above 4.00. Texas is the only team with a winning record.
The Braves bullpen’s 15 losses are tied for the most in the majors. The other three teams (Arizona, Seattle, and Oakland) are a combined 24½ games out of first place.
Most maddening of all: those bases on balls. The 85 walks issued by Braves relievers ranks second in all of baseball, to the Phillies (last place, 12 games out), who have 94. But the Phils pen has pitched nine more innings.
All of which means that the Braves could sure avail themselves of a relief pitcher like Zip Zabel.
Exactly 100 years ago today, on Thursday, June 17, 1915, at the West Side Grounds in Chicago, George Washington Zabel made baseball history.
And he was a most unlikely candidate to do so. 1915 was Zabel’s third—and final—year in the big leagues. He pitched a career total of 296 innings, finishing with an overall record of 12-14, with a 2.71 ERA. He pitched in only 66 games, starting 25.
The Cubs starter that day, Bert Humphries, pitching in the last of his six seasons in the majors, got into trouble immediately. He allowed hits to two of the first four Brooklyn batters he faced.
That brought future Hall of Famer Zack Wheat to the plate. A career .317 hitter, 1915 would be Wheat’s worst season. He’d hit a career low .258. As he stepped in to face Humphries, his average hovered around .230.
Wheat cracked a line drive that hit Humphries in the hand, splitting a finger. Wheat literally knocked Humphries out of the box.
In from the bullpen came Zabel. He got the third out of the inning, and watched the Cubs score twice in the bottom of the first for a 2-1 lead.
Zabel kept the Robins, as the Dodgers were called in those days, at bay until the eighth inning, when they scratched out a run. But Zabel remained in the game.
He was still pitching in the 15th inning, when the Robins scored another run. But in the bottom of the 15th, Cubs first baseman Vic Saier homered into the rightfield bleachers to tie the score again.
Zabel pitched on. Finally, in the bottom of the 19th inning, the Cubs shortstop, Bob Fisher, singled. Cy Williams sacrificed him to second. From there, he scored on a throwing error by Robins second baseman George Cutshaw.
Zabel got the win, allowing two runs on nine hits, with six strikeouts and one walk. He had pitched 18 1/3 innings. It remains the major league record for the most innings pitched by one reliever in a single game. If ever there was a record that won’t be broken, this is it.
And get this: the entire 19 innings took three hours and fifteen minutes.
Jeff Pfeiffer pitched a complete game for the Robins, taking the tough loss after 18.2 innings pitched.
Besides Wheat, who went 2 for 7, the Brooklyn lineup featured future Hall of Famer Casey Stengel in rightfield. Long before he became the Ol’ Perfessor, Stengel went 1 for 6 to raise his season average to .156.
Both managers became Hall of Famers, too. Wilbert “Uncle Robbie” Robinson managed Brooklyn for 18 years, after a 17-year career as a catcher. In 1932, he came to Atlanta as President and manager of the Crackers. He died in Atlanta in 1934.
The Cubs manager, Roger Bresnahan, caught all 19 innings that day and went 1 for 8. He popularized the use of shin guards, and was the first catcher to wear a padded mask. After a severe beaning in 1907, he designed the first batting helmet.
But make no mistake. June 17, 1915 belonged to Zip Zabel.