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Ashway: Lightning strikes, Braves bullpen, and Ray Caldwell
Denton Ashway

The Braves closed out the first quarter of their season Sunday in what has become typical fashion. Their bullpen got lit up like Ray Caldwell. More on him in a moment.

The bullpen’s latest act of arson resulted in six walks, three hits, and five runs in a mere 3 2/3 innings of arduous work.

Jesse Biddle, the initial reliever to make the scene, forced us to endure a sequence in which he hurled 13 consecutive pitches out of the strike zone. Prior to Sunday, such a feat was deemed impossible. Biddle’s wildness caused the Braves to remain behind despite an astounding seven-run rally in the seventh inning.

As fast as hope sprang eternal, a relief corps encore extinguished it. The once-reliable Josh Tomlin surrendered a walk, a hit, and two runs while recording a single out. Sean Newcomb added another walk and a hit for good measure.

Luke Jackson, suddenly among the most dependable bullpen inmates, recorded the only 1-2-3 inning of the entire game. He’s the only righthander in the pen with an ERA under 4.50.

Sunday’s game concluded a week in which the bullpen surrendered 18 runs in 20 innings for a nifty 8.10 era. And don’t forget the 22 hits and 10 walks.

Thursday marked their fourth loss in 18 games in which they’ve led after seventh innings. Last year, they were 23-0 in such games.

At least they’re consistent. Their ERA of 4.95 ranks 25th in the MLB; their WHIP of 1.49 ranks 26th, and their batting average allowed [.253] ranks 25th. With this crew in the ‘pen, the Braves were fortunate to be 19-21.

Nothing in baseball is more deflating than an unreliable bullpen. Even if they were hitting like they did last year, the lineup would be hard-pressed to outscore this bullpen. That’s quite a morale buster right there.

The eternal optimist inside tells me that once Chris Martin and Shane Greene take control of the seventh and eighth innings, the bullpen will right itself. The pessimist inside says the rest of the crew will drag Martin and Greene down to their level of futility, and lightning will continue to strike the Braves bullpen.

Which brings us back to Ray Caldwell.

On Aug. 24, 1919, Caldwell made his first start for the Indians against the A’s at League Park. He would be one of 17 spitball pitchers allowed to continue throwing the pitch after it was outlawed following the 1919 season.

After a decade with the Yankees in which he’d had some success [18-9, 1.94 ERA in 1914], his love of nightlife finally outpaced his performance. He was traded to the Red Sox before the 1919 season, and rooming with Babe Ruth proved a boon to his carousing. The Sox released him in mid-summer.

Cleveland needed pitching help while trying to chase down the soon-to-be-notorious White Sox. Manager Tris Speaker devised a plan for Caldwell. After each game he pitched, he was encouraged to go out drinking. He wasn’t to report to the clubhouse the next day. The day after that included lots of running to cleanse his system. Then he’d ready himself for his next start.

The Indians backed Caldwell with a pair of runs in the bottom of the fourth. Ray Chapman scored the first run. A year later, Chapman was hit by a pitch from Carl Mays and became the only player to die from injuries sustained in an MLB game.

The second run scored on a ground ball to short hit by Bill Wambsganss. In the 1920 World Series, Wambsganss would become the only player to pull off an unassisted triple play in the Series.

Shortstop Joe Dugan made a throwing error on Wambsganss’ grounder. He’d become the regular third baseman for the famous ’27 Yankees. Dugan was also one of Babe Ruth’s pallbearers. The day was brutally hot, and as they struggled with Ruth’s casket, Dugan said to former teammate Waite Hoyt, “I’d give a hundred bucks for a cold beer.” Replied Hoyt, “So would the Babe.”

Dugan was in the batter’s box with two out in the ninth, Caldwell and the Indians leading, 2-1, and storm clouds converging overhead. Suddenly, lightning struck.

“The bolts flashed here and there, causing much excitement,” Harry P. Edwards wrote in The Sporting News. “There was a blinding flash that seemed to set the diamond on fire, and Caldwell was knocked flat from the shock of it. He lay stretched out in the pitcher’s box.”

According to The Cleveland Press, catcher Steve O’Neill had his cap and mask knocked off, and A’s third-base coach Harry Davis lost his hat. When Cy Perkins came up to feel Davis’ head, his whole body tingled.

Chapman complained of numbness and almost fell on his way to the mound to check on Caldwell, who remained unconscious for five minutes. He came to and took inventory of all his limbs. A teammate touched him and jumped into the air. Caldwell seemed to be “crackling with electricity,” per one wire report.

Caldwell stayed in the game and induced Dugan to ground out. He told the Press the strike “felt just like somebody came up with a board and hit me on top of the head and knocked me down.” He had slight burns on his chest, but was otherwise unscathed.

Caldwell would go on to rattle off the best streak of his career. He’d go 5-1 with a 1.71 ERA down the stretch, including a Sept. 10 no-hitter against the Yankees. In 1920, he won 20 games for Cleveland’s World Series champs.

Caldwell retired after the 1921 season and was 79 when he died on Aug. 17, 1967. He was inducted into the Chautauqua, New York, Sports Hall of Fame in 2010.