Joe Burrow #9 of the LSU Tigers celebrates defeating the Alabama Crimson Tide 46-41 at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Nov. 9, 2019 in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images/TNS)
Photo: Staff Writer
Photo: Staff Writer

5 career moments: Acuna’s debut, Swanson’s throw and the LSU-Alabama shootout

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is presenting a series of columns from our staff detailing the five most memorable games they have covered in their careers.

When I was asked to recall my five most memorable games for our AJC staff series, I couldn’t help but chuckle a bit. We’ve got some seasoned pros here. If Mark Bradley is Tom Brady, I’m Sam Darnold.

My colleague Sarah Spencer – you know her for her impeccable Hawks coverage – is in a similar boat. Hers included more variety than mine, but it’s largely because I’ve been fortunate enough to have a front-row seat to the Braves’ rebirth. 

Ever since my last couple of years of college, baseball has dominated my schedule. So it’s only natural, despite covering a variety of sports over the past five years, my most cherished events were on the diamond (or rather, in the air conditioned press box overlooking it).

My most memorable sporting events thus far:

No. 5: April 20, 2019: Braves 8, Indians 7. It was a miserable Easter weekend in Cleveland. The first game was snowed out, forcing a doubleheader on Saturday. The Braves were crushed in the first game. They were seemingly crushed in the second, down seven runs early.

Trailing 7-3 in the ninth, the Braves scored five times to win. It was their greatest comeback since 2012. It was done without a home run, and Ronald Acuna’s double brought home the tying and go-ahead runs. 

But maybe the trip was more memorable for having to eat my Easter meal at a Subway in cold, rainy downtown Cleveland the next day. It was either there or the casino. The whole thing was as thrilling as it sounds.

No. 4: Nov. 9, 2019: LSU 46, Alabama 41. The only non-baseball item to crack the list. And really, the quality of the game could easily make it No. 1. If I had covered the Tigers or Crimson Tide at other points of the season, or if I had a more emotional connection to either, it would easily rank higher.

During the MLB offseason, I love covering other sports, especially football. When asked if I’d cover LSU-Alabama, I jumped. It’s always one of my favorite games of the year, being an NFL draft nerd and SEC football aficionado, and this was supposed to be the best edition in years.

It was: Future Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 pick Joe Burrow outdueled Tua Tagovailoa. Clyde Edwards-Helaire got the national attention he deserved, battering through SEC defenders. In fact, Nick Saban’s defense was ripped apart in a way it hadn’t ever been in Tuscaloosa. It was arguably LSU’s best win in one of the greatest seasons in college football history.

The game featured the best atmosphere of any event I’ve covered. The scene was stronger than even the usual SEC game. It felt like a national championship. I’m often a sucker for defense, but the fireworks sure helped its case, too.

No. 3: Sept. 8, 2018: Braves 5, Diamondbacks 4. This was the best regular-season baseball game I’ve covered. If you weren’t sure the Braves would win the National League East – they were up 2-1/3 games on the Phillies entering the day – by the end of the night, you were convinced they’d pull it off.

You can’t put too much on one game, especially against a non-divisional opponent. But this one felt more meaningful. The Braves had staged rallies all season. They were a surprising 77-68, yet we still wondered how legitimate they were.

My lede that night in Phoenix: “It was the best and worst Braves game you’ll see.” That still holds up today. The four-hour, extra-inning trek included six errors and a parade of walks. The Braves blew a one-run lead in the eighth and tied the score at 3-3 in the ninth, forcing extras.

What made it most unforgettable was the ending. The Braves took a 5-3 lead in the 10th. A.J. Pollack’s single plated one run. But Dansby Swanson, a former Diamondbacks farmhand, dove and prevented the grounder from reaching the outfield. He fired home, barely with enough time to collect the ball, to get Nick Ahmed, a former Braves farmhand, at the plate. 

“I might be 28 years old with some gray hair now, but that was an exciting ballgame,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said afterward. “That was a big win for us.”

The Braves took three of four in Arizona that weekend. Then they swept the Giants in San Francisco to complete a 6-1 trip that cemented their first-place status in the East. The Braves have played quite a few thrillers over the past several seasons, but the Swanson throw is my most memorable play.

No. 2: April 25, 2018: Braves 5, Reds 4. While the affair in Phoenix was the better game, this game in Cincinnati would qualify as more memorable for one reason: Ronald Acuna. After the Braves lost the first two games of a four-game series in Cincinnati, they decided to promote their super prospect. You know what happened from there.

At the time, the hype surrounding Acuna was immense. I don’t know that it’s fair to compare it with Jason Heyward’s, since he was from metro Atlanta, but Acuna represented hope for a starved fan base. Even if we didn’t realize it at the time – and we kind of did – Acuna’s promotion was the bridge from rebuild to contention.

“It’s a dream come true,” Acuna said after his debut. “I just thank God for this opportunity to be able to be here, to have my first hit, to have my first big-league game. It’s incredible. Everything’s just happened really fast. I’m very excited, very emotional. Like I’ve said before, it’s a dream come true.”

He collected his first hit in his first game. He fell a triple shy of the cycle in his second, including blasting a mammoth home run to left off Homer Bailey. Those two days began the Braves’ next phase, one that’s continuing today and likely across the next decade.

This was also my first time covering a road series on the Braves beat. I couldn’t have asked for a better storyline, obviously. It’s something I’ll appreciate the rest of my life.

No. 1: Oct. 4, 2018: Dodgers 6, Braves 0. My most cherished experience as a sports reporter actually is the worst game on this list. Game 1 of the 2018 NLDS. The inexperienced Braves were outmatched and outmanned. And they knew it. They played nervously against the NL’s most prepared playoff team. The Dodgers smacked them around that night and two of the next three games to finish the series.

Yet personally, it was special to me. It was my first time covering a postseason game, and it was in my favorite city. My first baseball game was Braves vs. Dodgers at Turner Field. The first two MLB teams I wrote about were the Braves and Dodgers (about whom I blogged during college). My first home series as the lead beat guy was Braves vs. Dodgers.

So of course, my first playoff series was Braves vs. Dodgers. It was personal to me, already admittedly emotional to be covering a playoff game featuring the team I grew up watching. Who knows, maybe my first time covering a playoff series win could feature the Braves against the Dodgers, too.

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About the Author

Gabriel Burns
Gabriel Burns
Gabriel Burns is the Braves beat writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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