Entering the finale of their three-game series with the Cardinals at Atlanta on May 15, the 1977 Braves were the worst team in the big leagues. The Braves had lost 19 of their last 20, including a stretch of 17 in a row, and their record was 9-24.
When the Cardinals built a 10-1 lead through four innings, it appeared the Braves were headed for another loss. Imagine the Cardinals’ surprise when Atlanta rallied for a 15-12 victory.
This year, on July 20, 2012, the Braves rallied from a nine-run deficit in the sixth inning for an 11-10 victory in 11 innings against the Nationals. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that tied the largest comeback victory in Braves history. Since their founding in 1876, the Braves rallied from nine-run deficits to beat the Padres in 1987 and the Cardinals in 1977.
Under first-year manager Vern Rapp, the 1977 Cardinals took a 20-11 record and three-game winning streak into their May 15 game at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
Before a Jacket Day crowd of 36,693 (the Braves’ largest since their home opener), the Cardinals broke a 1-1 tie with nine runs in the fourth against starter Phil Niekro and relievers Frank LaCorte and Dave Campbell.
St. Louis sent 14 batters to the plate in the fourth and collected seven hits and three walks in the inning. The Cardinals also were helped by a pair of Braves errors. Three runs scored on a double by center fielder Bake McBride and three more came in on a pair of singles by catcher Dave Rader (who was 5-for-5 in the game).
The Braves responded with three runs in the fifth (right fielder Jeff Burroughs had a two-run home run off starter John Denny) and five runs in the sixth (left fielder Gary Matthews hit a grand slam off Buddy Schultz), getting within a run, 10-9. With two on and one out in the sixth, Rapp brought in closer Al Hrabosky, who induced pinch-hitter Cito Gaston to ground into an inning-ending double play.
When McBride and left fielder Jerry Mumphrey hit solo homers in the eighth, stretching the lead to 12-9, it appeared the Cardinals were poised to complete the series sweep. Hrabosky had not allowed Atlanta a run in 14 games covering 20 innings since 1975
But the Braves weren’t done. They scored three times off Hrabosky in the bottom of the eighth, tying the score, 12-12. With two out and shortstop Pat Rockett on first, Rapp replaced Hrabosky with John D’Acquisto.
A right-hander who had started just three days earlier against the Reds, D’Acquisto unleashed a wild pitch, advancing Rockett to second. He then walked second baseman Jerry Royster and third baseman Junior Moore, loading the bases.
That brought center fielder Barry Bonnell to the plate. Braves manager Dave Bristol said afterward he considered having Brian Asselstine, a left-handed batter, pinch-hit for Bonnell.
Bonnell had been promoted to Atlanta from Class AAA Richmond (Va.) on May 4. He was batting .380 with an 11-game hitting streak when he got the call to join the Braves. Bristol decided to let the rookie face D’Acquisto.
Bonnell worked the count to 3-and-2. The runners were moving with the next pitch. Bonnell laced it into center for a single. With their big jumps, all three runners scored, giving Atlanta a 15-12 lead.
In the ninth, Bristol brought in rookie left-hander Don Collins, seeking his first major-league save. With one out, shortstop Garry Templeton and McBride singled. First baseman Keith Hernandez, a left-handed batter, was lifted for pinch-hitter Ted Simmons, batting right-handed.
Simmons drilled a drive to center field. Bonnell turned, raced to the 402-foot sign and caught the ball. “I thought it was gone,” Bonnell said to the Associated Press. “I just ran back to the fence as fast as I could, set up and waited for it to come down.”
Said Bristol: “If Simmons’ ball had gone out, I’d of felt like bombing the place with 37,000 people in it.”
Collins got the next batter, Mumphrey, to hit into a forceout, ending the game and allowing everyone to escape the ballpark safely.
Perhaps Bristol could be excused for his insensitive remarks. Managing the ’77 Braves would make anyone goofy. (Even owner Ted Turner had tried it for one game.) The improbable comeback against the Cardinals enabled the Braves to win for only the second time in their last 21 games. Bristol had a home win for the first time since April 22. Boxscore
A wire service story in The Milwaukee Sentinel reported: Later, more than a dozen players sat around the clubhouse and watched the six-run eighth again on owner Ted Turner’s television replay equipment.
Said Hrabosky: “When you score 12 runs and lose, it’s just something that isn’t in the cards.”