Why Didn’t the Atlanta Braves Win More World Series Titles in the 1990s?

Former Braves general manager John Schuerholz on Sunday was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  He joins former Braves manager Bobby Cox and pitchers Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux.  Chipper Jones will most likely join them in 2018.  The common thread here is that all six participated in the Braves’ amazing run during the 1990s.  So the Braves now have from that era their general manager, manager, and three starting pitchers in the Hall, with their third baseman soon to follow.  The Braves, in the 1990s, won eight consecutive division titles, five national league pennants but only one World Series.  How is this possible? Let’s look at some theories behind the Braves’ failure to bring home more titles.

Leo Mazzone blames the lack of World Series titles on the extra round of playoffs added in 1995.  In his book Tales from the Braves Mound (Sports Publishing LLC, 2003, p. 74), Mazzone makes his case:

“The only time I felt anxiety is in that first round of the best-of-five.  In a

seven-game series, we’ve always felt that the depth of our starting rotation

and the depth of our pitching staff and the depth of our ball club could beat

anybody.  You go best-of-five and you lose one, there’s a sense of urgency.

You’re scrambling already.  One pitcher gets hot, one bad hop, one crazy thing

happens and before you know it, you’re scrambling.  That’s the only reason why

the Atlanta Braves have won only one World Series.  I guarantee we would have

won more World Series if we were winning our division, then going straight to

the NLCS.”

 

I respect Mazzone’s argument but that does not explain World Series losses to the Minnesota Twins in 1991 and the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992.  Remember the best-of-five first round playoffs did not begin until 1995.  However, maybe they would not have lost to the Florida Marlins in 1997 and the San Diego Padres in 1998 and would have gone on to win the World Series in those years.

John Smoltz is his book John Smoltz Starting and Closing (William Morrow, 2012, p. 220-229) offers several theories on why the Braves did not win more titles.  First, he claims that power pitching wins in the playoffs.  While finesse pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine were great pitchers, they pitched to contact.  They wanted hitters to hit the ball to their infielders and outfielders.  Smoltz states that this philosophy works well over the course of a 162-game regular season, but facing good hitters in the playoffs translates to more hits and more runs.  On the other hand, a power pitcher such as Smoltz can generate more strike outs thereby keeping more hitters off of the base paths and less runs from scoring.  There may be some truth in this theory.  Maddux had an 11-13 postseason record with a 2.81 ERA with the Braves and allowed an alarming 18 earned runs in 27 starts. Glavine had a 12-15 postseason record with the Braves while compiling an ERA of 3.44.  Smoltz’s postseason record with the Braves was 15-4 with an ERA of about 2.70.

The Braves played a total of 29 games in their five World Series in the 1990s.  Seventeen of those games were decided by one run and the Braves lost 12 out of 17.  All the losses to Toronto in the 1992 Series were by one run.  Fewer base runners would have meant fewer runs and maybe more wins for the Braves.  Another power pitcher may have helped.

Smoltz also points to the lack of timely hitting by the Braves in these losses and the preponderance of timely hitting from their opponents.  He argues that sound pitching and timely hitting win titles.  Hard to argue with that logic.  Oh what a timely hit in Game 7 against Minnesota would have meant to the outcome of that game and the Series.  Interestingly, Marquis Grissom had a reputation for timely hits throughout his career and he was arguably the catalyst behind the 1995 title against the Cleveland Indians.  He also hit .444 against the New York Yankees in the 1996 Series, but weird things happened in that Series (See below).

Smoltz offers one more reason for the lack of titles in Atlanta.  He argues that the Braves experienced some bad luck that decided several games and eventually cost Atlanta an extra title or two.  For example, if Lonnie Smith picks up the ball while running the bases in Game 7 against Minnesota, or at least watched his third base coach, he would not have slowed down and would have scored easily.  Maybe if the Braves had the extra home game instead of Minnesota, Atlanta wins the 1991 World Series.  Remember, the home team did not lose in 1991.  Also, if umpire Time Welke does not interfere with Jermaine Dye’s attempt to catch a very catchable foul ball during the sixth inning of that fateful Game 4 of the 1996 Series, then Derek Jeter would have been out.  Instead he singles on a later pitch and begins a three-run rally to cut Atlanta’s lead to 6-3.  The next inning, usually dependable Rafael Belliard boots a sure double-play grounder and only gets one out.  So instead of one on and two outs, there were two on and one out when Jim Leyritz launches his home run to tie the game.  The Braves would lose that game in extra innings and eventually the Series.  Again, Smoltz may have an argument here.

I have a little different take on why the Braves could not produce more titles and it revolves around John Schuerholz.  I concur with Smoltz that the Braves could have used another power pitcher and more contact hitters.  During the 1990s run the Braves were built on the long ball.  Fred McGriff, Ryan Klesko, David Justice and Javy Lopez were power hitters.  All played major roles in Atlanta’s ability to get to the World Series, but other than the 1995 Series, these players did little with their bats in other Series.  However, Mark Lemke, a contact hitter, did his part to win the 1991 Series when he batted .417 and hit .273 against Cleveland in 1995.  Unfortunately, he didn’t hit well against Toronto in 1992 and the Yankees in 1996.  Marquis Grissom, another contact hitter, batted .360 against Cleveland and .444 against the Yankees, then Schuerholz traded him to Cleveland. Grissom would lead the Indians to the 1997 World Series where he would extend his hitting streak in World Series games to 15.  The Braves did receive Kenny Lofton as part of that trade, but Lofton played one year with Atlanta before returning to Cleveland as a free agent. Another contact hitter or two may have changed the outcomes of some of the games against elite opponents in the World Series, where hits are generally at a premium because of the strong pitchers associated with each club.  Grissom brought the added dimension of speed, which enables clubs to manufacture runs more easily.  Just look at what Kenny Lofton did to the Braves in 1995 and may have done with Atlanta Braves if the Braves had elected to re-sign him after the 1997 season.

So had the Braves acquired another power pitcher or two or another contact hitter or two or someone besides Grissom who could manufacture a run with his bat and legs, would that have possibly allowed the Braves to win more of those one-run games and change the total of their World Series titles?  Maybe, but we will never know because the man responsible for acquiring such pieces, John Schuerholz, did not do so.  I am not laying the lack of more titles completely at his feet because I don’t know what he was or was not told to do by upper management.  However, Ted Turner owned the Braves for most of this run and I have to believe if Schuerholz requested that the Braves add one or more aforementioned pieces Turner would have agreed to do so. I don’t believe money really was an issue back then.

You can make your own judgments.  Maybe the Braves needed another power pitcher, or contact hitter, or base stealer.  Maybe they were just unlucky.  Or maybe, some other factor(s) played a role in the lack of titles that have not come to mind.  I really don’t know, but I give much of the blame to John Schuerholz, the man just elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  One thing I am sure of—the Atlanta Braves should have more than one World Series title.

 

 

1995 Atlanta Braves: World Series Game 6

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The Braves had Friday, October 27 off before facing the Indians in Game 6 the next day.  Instead of a quiet off day preparing for Game 6, the Braves players and management faced a firestorm ignited by David Justice.  While waiting to take batting practice, Justice told reporters that Atlanta’s fans were not very passionate and would probably boo the team if it trailed Cleveland the next night.  He exacerbated the situation when he suggested that other Braves players felt the same way and that they were playing the Series for themselves, not the Braves fans.  With this information in the Saturday Atlanta Journal-Constitution, many Braves fans came to Atlanta-Fulton Stadium ready to reply in some fashion to Justice’s comments.

Tom Glavine, the Game 6 starting pitcher, rode with Greg Maddux back to their North Atlanta subdivision after Friday’s work out.  The topic of conversation focused on the game and not Justice’s comments.  Glavine recounted Leo Mazzone’s remarks from Steve Avery that the Indians could not hit his change-up and never made adjustments in Game 4.  Glavine asked Maddux what adjustment the Indians made against him in Game 5.  Maddux told Glavine that the Indians had not made any adjustments and the reason the Indians won the game was because he could not consistently locate his pitches.  Maddux told Glavine not to change anything and that he would beat the Indians.  Maddux added that “the guy who should be the winning pitcher when the Atlanta Braves win the championship will be out there.” (Glavine, 1996, p. 11) Glavine stated that those comments afforded him a large dose of confidence.

On game day, Glavine arrived at the stadium around 2:30 and began to dress at his locker.  Being a bit superstitious Glavine had several items in his locker that had not moved since he put them there in 1991—a Bart Simpson doll (Glavine enjoys his humor), a four-leaf clover pressed in waxed paper, and a trophy (he always liked the look of trophies). According to Glavine, his other superstitions included chewing a piece of Bazooka sugarless bubble gum every time he pitched (he also kept an extra piece in his back left-hand pocket) and never stepping on the foul lines when taking the field.

As the clock moved closer to game time, the Braves confidently warmed up on the field. Glavine claimed that his throwing session in the bull pen before the game was nothing special and had no idea how effective his pitches would be during the game.  Mazzone told him that his pitches looked good, but that did not satisfy Glavine. Glavine remembered prior bull pen sessions when he thought they went terribly but he pitched shutouts and other sessions when he thought he was primed for a great game only to be hit unmercifully.  He was certain of one thing:  this bull pen session was better than Game 2’s session.

Glavine took the mound and began his pregame ritual of re-adjusting the dirt to find his comfort spot for his plant foot.  While working the mound, he looked up in the stands and sensed the crowd’s excitement.  Glavine quickly mused that Justice’s comments may have indeed had an effect on the fans’ collective level of passion.  As he toed the rubber for the first pitch, he told himself to establish a good rhythm and get out of the first inning, something that had been a problem for him in his career.  Glavine began almost immediately to locate his change-up and induced Kenny Lofton to fly out to right field.  With the pesky Lofton off the bases, Glavine relaxed and began to settle in.  He proceeded to strike out Omar Vizquel and got Carlos Baerga to hit an easy ground ball to him that would end the inning.  Glavine had not only achieved his goal of getting through the first inning unscathed but looked masterful in doing so.  The Indians were in trouble.

After the first two innings, the Cleveland hitters began to move up in the batter’s box and on top of home plate.  Glavine mentioned this to Mazzone and suggested that he should start pitching inside to the hitters.  Mazzone countered.  The veteran pitching coach told Glavine that when the hitter moves up in the box or on top of the plate that does not change his vision.  He said to Glavine that he could pitch inside or that he could pitch further and further off of the plate to see if the hitters would continue to adjust to that.  Mazzone reasoned that if Glavine threw the ball six to eight inches off the plate and the hitters made solid contact then Glavine would have to pitch inside to keep the down and away pitch as a viable option.

Glavine decided to make pitches further and further outside.  The Cleveland hitters adjusted accordingly but still couldn’t hit Glavine.  The majority of the hitters could only get the end of the bat on the ball, which resulted in easy outs.  Mazzone counted a dozen times total that Glavine went inside during the course of the game.  Glavine’s ability to change speeds with his pitches and locate them where he wanted made him almost unhittable.  After walking into the dugout after an inning in the middle of the game Glavine had this outburst, “Will somebody please score a damned run?  Because they’re not.” (Freeman 2003, p. 79).  Through five innings, the Indians did not have a hit.

The Braves had good opportunities to push across a run or more in the fourth and fifth innings against Cleveland starter Dennis Martinez.  Atlanta had the bases loaded in the fourth with two outs but Rafael Belliard flied out to center field to end the inning.  In the fifth, the Braves had runners at first and second with two outs when Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove replaced Martinez with Jim Poole in order to face Fred McGriff.  Poole struck out McGriff to close out the inning.

In the sixth inning, Glavine gave up his only hit, a leadoff single to Tony Pena, but kept Cleveland from scoring.  David Justice led off the bottom of the sixth to a chorus of boos.  In two previous at bats Justice had walked and doubled, certainly doing his part to put the Braves on the scoreboard and mitigate the fan animosity he caused because of his comments the previous day.

On a 1-1 count, Justice launched Poole’s third pitch into the right field seats to give Atlanta a 1-0 lead. Pandemonium erupted in the stands as Justice circled the bases, and at least for the moment, Justice and the fans had a love affair that rivaled that of Antony and Cleopatra, Napoleon and Josephine, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall… well, you get the picture.

The Braves had secured that “damned” run for Glavine, and he rewarded them with two more shutout innings.  After pitching through the eighth inning, Glavine walked back to the dugout, pulled Mazzone and Bobby Cox aside, and told them he was done.  Cox decided to send out closer Mark Wohlers to pitch the ninth inning.  Lofton led off the inning and Cox and Mazzone were nervous.  They knew that if Lofton reached first base, the Braves were in trouble because Wohlers could not hold runners on base.  Lofton could easily steal second and/or third. The Braves had tried to change his delivery in the past, but that only hindered Wohlers’ ability to throw strikes.  Cox and Mazzone just hoped Wohlers could get Lofton out some way.  On a 0-1 pitch, Lofton fouled out to Belliard in foul territory down the third base line.  Mazzone stated that at that point, he knew the Braves were going to win the game and the World Series.  Sure enough, as if on cue, Wohlers induced Paul Sorrento and Carlos Baerga to fly out to center fielder Marquis Grissom.  Venerable Braves broadcaster Skip Caray put it best, “Mark gets the sign.  The wind and the pitch, here it is…Swung, fly ball, deep left-center.  Grissom on the run… Yes! Yes! Yes! The Atlanta Braves have given you a championship!”

And so they did.  Amid fans hugging other fans, Ted Turner kissing Jane Fonda, and general ecstasy throughout, the players piled on one another near the mound.  After three World Series attempts, the Braves had achieved something that no other major sports franchise had ever done in Atlanta (and hasn’t done since)—they won a championship.

After the last out, Mazzone remained in the dugout, taking it all in.  He didn’t scream. He didn’t holler. He didn’t burst out in song. He didn’t rock.  He just sat there in quiet satisfaction. Later in the clubhouse, with a champagne bottle in hand, a reporter asked Mazzone about his pitching staff:  “I’m just so proud I could start crying right here and now.” (Rosenberg 1995, p. 159)  Many of the Braves fans in Atlanta and across the country did just that—cried.  So many years of bad baseball.  Close calls against Minnesota and Toronto.  Pent up frustration.  All washed away in the glory of a World Series title.

Two days later, thousands of fans lined Peachtree Street to honor their heroes.  Players and coaches rode on firetrucks in a parade that had been 30 years in the making.

The Atlanta Braves…World Series Champions!  Oh, but to hear those words again!

 

Freeman, Scott and Mazzone, Leo. Tales from the Braves Mound. Sports Publishing L.L.C., 2003.

Glavine, Tom and Cafardo, Nick. None but the Braves. New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, www.sportspublishingllc.com, 1996.

Rosenberg, I.J. Bravo! The Inside Story of the Atlanta Braves’ 1995 World Series Championship. Marietta, GA: Longstreet Press, 1995.

1995 Atlanta Braves: World Series Games 1 and 2

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For Braves management, players, and fans, the third trip to the World Series in five years had to be the charm.  The Braves lost a hard fought Series to the Minnesota Twins in 1991 as the Twins won Game 7 in Minneapolis, 1-0 in ten innings.  Again in 1992, Atlanta battled the Blue Jays but lost four games to two.  Atlanta suffered four one-run losses.  This time, the potent pitching of the Braves faced off against the explosive offense of the Cleveland Indians.  Cleveland finished the regular season 100-44, winning their division by 30 games over the second place Kansas City Royals.  The Indians led the American League in batting, runs, base hits, and stolen bases.  They had eight .300 hitters in their starting lineup.  They swept the Boston Red Sox in their Divisional Series and beat the Seattle Mariners 4 games to 2 in their Championship Series.  However, the Cleveland Indians had never faced such a dominant pitching staff as that of the Atlanta Braves.  The old baseball adage of great pitching beats great hitting proved true once more.  The Braves won the first two games in Atlanta but both were close.

The key to beating the Indians, according to Leo Mazzone, was to keep speedster Kenny Lofton off the bases.  Lofton hit .310 for the season, led the American League with 54 stolen bases and scored 93 runs.  Clearly, Lofton was the catalyst for the Cleveland offense.

Greg Maddux took the mound for Game 1 against Cleveland ace Orel Hershiser.  In the top of the first Lofton led off the game with a ground ball to Braves shortstop Rafael Belliard who could not field it cleanly.  Lofton reached base safely and gave immediate credence to Mazzone’s comment.  Lofton stole second and third and scored the Indians’ first run on a Carlos Baerga ground out to short.  Cleveland led 1-0 without the benefit of a hit.  Mazzone could be seen in the dugout with his head in a trash can.  Fred McGriff evened the score in the bottom of the second with a long home run over the right center-field wall.  Some color quickly came back to Mazzone’s face.

The score remained knotted at one until the bottom of the seventh inning.  Hershiser walked McGriff and David Justice to start the inning.  Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove brought Paul Assenmacher in from the bullpen to replace Hershiser and he promptly walked Mike Devereaux.  Hargrove replaced Assenmacher with Julian Tavarez and Braves manager Bobby Cox countered by pinch hitting Luis Polonia for Charlie O’Brien.  Polonia hit into a fielder’s choice to short and McGriff scored from third to give the Braves a 2-1 lead.  Belliard followed with a perfect suicide squeeze bunt that drove in Justice for a 3-1 lead.  Cameras caught what looked like a quick smile from Mazzone.  A radar gun registered Mazzone’s rocking at close to 30 mph.  Trainer Dave Pursley desperately looked for some kind of restraint.

Leading 3-1 going to the bottom of the ninth inning, Cox chose to let Maddux finish the game.  He had thrown less than 90 pitches and had relinquished just two singles and the unearned run to Lofton.  Maddux induced Paul Sorrento to ground out to second before Lofton hit a hard single to left field.  At this point, Mazzone was overheard singing “Don’t Rock the Boat” by the Hues Corporation while teetering on the edge of the dugout bench.  The next Cleveland hitter, Omar Vizquel, grounded to second for the second out but Lofton raced to third and scored on a throwing error by McGriff.  With two outs and Mazzone muttering something unintelligible while rolling on the dugout floor, Maddux completed his 95-pitch gem by coaxing a foul out from Baerga.  The Braves took Game 1, 3-2.

Game 2 matched Tom Glavine against Dennis Martinez.  Glavine had not pitched in ten days and by his own admission was a little rusty.  In the top of the second inning Glavine gave up a lead off single to Albert Belle and then watched Eddie Murray crush his next pitch over the left field wall for a 2-0 Cleveland lead.   Mazzone’s rocking hit another gear.  He began to slow down after the Braves tied the game in the bottom of the third inning.

In the third, Martinez hit Marquis Grissom and Mark Lemke followed with a line drive single to begin the inning.  Grissom reached third when Martinez threw the ball away trying to pick off Grissom at second.  Chipper Jones followed with a deep fly ball to left field that allowed Grissom to tag at third and score.  Two batters later, David Justice hit a soft fly ball to right center field that fell for a hit, enabling Lemke to score the tying run.  Glavine and Martinez kept the game tied until the bottom of the sixth.  Glavine escaped jams in the fourth and fifth innings that caused Mazzone to use a paper bag to stop hyperventilating.  Dave Pursley put Grady Hospital on notice.

Justice led off the bottom of the sixth inning with a single to left field but reached second base when Belle misplayed it.  Ryan Klesko then moved Justice to third base with a ground out to the right side of the infield.  With one out, Javy Lopez stepped to the plate.  In his book Behind the Plate: A Catcher’s View of the Braves Dynasty, (Triumph Books: Chicago, IL, 2012), Lopez stated that he desperately wanted to drive in Justice with the go ahead run but believed Martinez would walk him to set up the double play with light-hitting Belliard on deck.  According to Lopez, he was surprised when Martinez attacked him with good pitches to begin the at-bat.  Determined to get a hit, Lopez fouled off pitches that were outside of the strike zone.  With the count 1-2, Martinez threw a pitch outside, inches off the plate, and Lopez hit it hard to center field.  Lopez hoped for a double and was running hard.  However, he got more than a double.  The ball cleared the fence giving the Braves a 4-2 lead. Mazzone began rocking and singing a modified version of “Brick House’ by the Commodores.

Greg McMichael came in for Glavine in the top of the seventh inning and dispatched the first two Indians batters with relative ease.  Then Lofton came to bat.  He promptly singled to right field then stole second base.  On a fly ball from Omar Vizquel that Mike Devereaux misplayed in left field, Lofton scored to cut the Braves lead to one. Sirens could be heard approaching Atlanta-Fulton County stadium.   McMichael then walked Baerga and wild pitched both he and Vizquel up one base.  Paramedics were racing to the Braves dugout as Mazzone’s face seemed to change to something close to navy blue.  Alejandro Pena replaced McMichael.  Up stepped power-hitter Albert Belle.  On a 0-2 pitch, Pena induced Belle to hit a pop fly behind the plate that Lopez smothered to end the inning.  The color in Mazzone’s face returned to normal as he asked about the families of the two paramedics sitting on each side of him.

The Braves could not score in their half of the seventh and Pena trotted out to the mound to begin the eighth inning.  Pena got Murray to fly out to left but Manny Ramirez then singled on a fly ball that just eluded the Braves infielders.  Jim Thome strided to the plate for Cleveland and Mazzone seemed to be trying to catch imaginary butterflies as the paramedics looked on.  On a 3-2 count, Lopez picked off Ramirez at first for the second out. Pena then walked Thome before giving way to Mark Wohlers.  Wohlers coaxed Sorrento to fly out to Grissom for the final out of the inning, and Mazzone began to giggle uncontrollably.

The Braves went quietly in the bottom of the eight before Wohlers closed out the game in the ninth.  The Braves held on for a 4-3 win and a 2-0 lead in the Series.  After the game, people thought they heard Mazzone tell the paramedics that he loved them.  Now the Series would shift to frigid Cleveland for the next three game and tighten considerably!

 

The 1995 Atlanta Braves: National League Championship Series

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After vanquishing the Colorado Rockies in the National League Division Series, the Braves turned their attention to the Cincinnati Reds, who had just completed a sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers in their Division Series.  Atlanta took eight out of thirteen from the Reds during the regular season, but the Reds had speed on the base paths, which made Braves coaches very nervous because Cincinnati could turn a simple walk or single into a run by getting into scoring position with steals.  Reggie Sanders, Barry Larkin and former Brave Ron Gant could both hit and run.  Keeping the Reds off of the base paths would be the key to the series.  When asked by reporters how the Braves would handle the Reds’ speed, Leo Mazzone responded, “Well, you can’t steal first base.”  Making good pitches and executing the game plan, explained Mazzone, would keep the Reds off of the base paths.

In this best-of-seven series, the Braves played the first two games in Cincinnati.  Game 1 pitted Tom Glavine against Reds ace Pete Schourek, an 18-game winner.  After the Reds took the lead on a single by Ron Gant, Schourek held the Braves at bay until the ninth inning.  With the coaches downing their cache of antacid tablets, Chipper Jones led off the inning with a single and Fred McGriff followed with another single that moved Jones to third base.  David Justice then beat out a potential double play ball to shortstop that erased McGriff and scored Jones.  The Braves tied the game but could not take the lead in the inning.  The game remained 1-1 until the 11th.  Two August additions to the team, Luis Polonia and Mike Devereaux (named the NLCS Most Valuable Player), then proved their value.  McGriff led off with a walk before Polonia sacrificed him to second base.  After Javy Lopez grounded out to third, Devereaux hit a hard line drive single to center field to score McGriff with the eventual winning run.  Nursing a 2-1 lead, Brad Clontz entered the bottom half of the inning to pitch .  The Braves had already used closer Mark Wohlers in the 10th.  Clontz immediately gave up a lead off double to pinch hitter Thomas Howard and a new box of antacid tablets were brought from the locker room. Larkin then moved Howard to third with a ground out to second.  Bobby Cox countered by bringing in Steve Avery, normally a starting pitcher.  Avery proceeded to walk Mariano Duncan and Leo Mazzone almost rocked himself off of the dugout bench.  After Cox relieved Avery with Greg McMichael, the former Braves closer induced a double play grounder from Reggie Sanders to preserve the 2-1 victory.  Mazzone exhaled and popped a couple more antacid pills just to be safe.

John Smoltz took the mound for Game 2.  In the top of the first, Marquis Grissom singled to lead off the game and took second base on Mark Lemke’s ground out to first.  Chipper then singled to right field to score Grissom for a 1-0 lead.  The score remained steady until the fourth inning when Fred McGriff led off with a double and Mike Devereaux drove him in with a double of his own.  However, just as Mazzone started to relax, the Reds tied the game with two runs off of Smoltz in the bottom of the fifth inning. Similar to the first game, the second one produced free baseball.  With the score 2-2 in the top of the 10th, the Braves struck hard.  Lemke led off with a single. Chipper moved him to second with a ground out to the right side of the infield.  McGriff received an intentional walk before David Justice singled to load the bases.  With Ryan Klesko pinch hitting for Devereaux, Reds reliever Mark Portugal uncorked a wild pitch scoring Lemke with the go ahead run.  After Klesko popped out, Lopez unleashed a three-run bomb to deep left field to give the Braves a 6-2 lead.  With Braves coaches down to their last bottle of antacids, Mark Wohlers entered the bottom of the 10th.  After Wohlers gave up a leadoff single to Larkin, Mazzone rocked himself off of the bench then rolled under it.  However, Wohlers induced a ground out and two strike outs to secure the victory as Braves trainer Dave Pursley revived Mazzone.  Up two games to none, the series shifted to Atlanta.

With Greg Maddux on the mound for Game 3 and the Braves up 2-0 in the series, Mazzone and the other coaches seemed calm and confident.  However, as in the NLDS with the Rockies, ambulances from Grady Hospital were on alert.  Also, a new supply of antacid tablets arrived in the clubhouse the day before the game.  Maddux and Reds twirler David Wells kept the score 0-0 into the sixth inning.  Mazzone’s rocking pace on the bench had picked up considerably by that point. McGriff led off the bottom of the sixth with a double to right field.  Then Justice flied out and Devereaux walked.  Up strolled light-hitting catcher Charlie O’Brien.  With the count two balls and two strikes, O’Brien blasted Wells’ next pitch into the left field seats for a 3-0 Braves lead.  Mazzone wiped his brow and offered a barely detectable smile.  He became almost giddy after Chipper launched a two-run blast to left field in the bottom of the seventh to increase Atlanta’s lead to 5-0.  The Reds managed single runs off of Maddux in the eighth and Wohlers in the ninth, but the Braves prevailed 5-2.   Mazzone looked the picture of health as he exited the locker room knowing the Braves only needed one more win to finish off the Reds and go back to the World Series.

Cox picked Steve Avery to pitch Game 4 and all Avery did was shut out the Reds for six innings.  Atlanta took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the third on a Lemke single that plated Rafael Belliard.  With Mazzone starting to grab his antacid tablets in the seventh, the Braves still nursed a 1-0 lead.  Cincinnati’s Schourek had allowed the only run of the game but was pitching on short rest, so Reds manager Davey Johnson sent out Michael Jackson (not the pop star, but I could be wrong based on the results) to pitch the seventh.  Grissom led off the inning with a triple to left center field.  After Lemke popped out and Jones walked, Grissom scored on a passed ball with McGriff at the plate.  Jackson then intentionally walked McGriff with first base open.  Up stepped Devereaux who deposited Jackson’s first pitch into the left field seats to give the Braves a 5-0 cushion.  Lopez followed with a double before Jackson intentionally walked Klesko.  After that Jackson Beat It back to the dugout while moon walking.  Dave Burba, Jackson’s replacement, induced a ground out from Belliard before Polonia singled to make the score 6-0.  Seconds later, Mazzone pulled a mirror from his back pocket, looked at The Man in the Mirror, liked what he saw, then began to rock ever so slowly.  Alejandro Pena and Wohlers shut out the Reds the rest of the way, and with the 6-0 shutout, the Braves could begin preparations for their third World Series in five years.  As Mazzone enjoyed an adult beverage after the game, rumor has it that a young woman gave him a quick kiss on the cheek to offer her congratulations.  Later, when asked her name, Mazzone wasn’t sure.  He thought he heard someone call her Billie Jean but another referred to her as Dirty Diana.  No matter, the NLCS was a Thriller (Sorry. I just couldn’t resist)!

The Braves became the first team to sweep an NLCS and they did so by executing Mazzone’s plan of keeping the Reds off of the base paths—the Reds managed only four steals, all in Game 2.  Braves pitchers shut down Cincinnati’s offense.  Reggie Sanders, for example, hit 28 home runs and drove in 99 runs during the regular season.  Sander finished the series 2-16 with no RBIs and 10 strike outs.

The stakes would now be higher against the only team with a better record than the Braves.  The Cleveland Indians stood between Atlanta and the city’s first world title in any of the four major sports (baseball, football, basketball and ice hockey).  The 1995 World Series would become one of the most unforgettable events in the history of the city!

 

The 1995 Atlanta Braves: National League Division Series

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The 1995 season marked the beginning of three divisions in both the National and American Leagues.  The division winners and a Wild Card team, the team with the best record outside of the division victors, comprised the playoff pool.  For the first time in the history of baseball, a team had to win two playoff series to reach the World Series, and the first series was only a best-of-five format. The Colorado Rockies presented the first test for Atlanta.  The Braves entered the playoffs with the best record in the National League but fearful of the Rockies in a short series.  Also, the Braves had to play the first two games in Coors Field in Denver where no lead was safe.  None of the Braves management or coaches believed a short series a true test.  Braves Pitching Coach Leo Mazzone believed a short series detracted from everything a team accomplished over the course of a regular season and negated a team’s depth, which proved a large factor in the Braves’ securing the division title.  He further argued that anything could happen in a short series and the lesser team could win.  Mazzone also knew that the Rockies had hit 134 of their league-leading 200 home runs at Coors Field.  However, the Braves traveled to Denver for the first two games knowing they had Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and an unlimited supply of antacid tablets.

The Braves had beaten the Rockies 30 out of 36 times in Colorado’s short history.  However, the mood in the clubhouse was one of high anxiety.  John Smoltz stated that everyone on the team feared the Rockies in a short series and that Colorado reminded him of the 1991 Braves.  Mazzone‘s goal for the pitching staff was to hold the Rockies to under four runs because the thin Denver air ballooned a pitcher’s ERA.  With all of this in mind, Maddux toed the rubber for Game 1.  Marquis Grissom’s solo home run gave the Braves a short lived 1-0 lead.  Maddux surrendered three runs in the fourth inning and the team’s concerns began to appear very valid.  With Braves coaches popping antacid pills before, during and after innings, the Braves players began a comeback.  In the top of the sixth, Chipper Jones led off with a long home run over the right field wall to cut the deficit to one.  After a walk to David Justice and a single from Ryan Klesko, recently-acquired Luis Polonia beat out a potential double play that allowed Justice to score from third to tie the game at 3-3.

The game remained tied until the eighth inning.  With two outs, Klesko and Javy Lopez hit back-to-back singles. Cox then pinch hit left-handed hitter Dwight Smith for right-handed hitter Jeff Blauser in order to counteract Colorado pitcher Darren Holmes, a righty.  The move worked as Smith singled up the middle driving in Klesko with the go ahead run.  However, in the bottom of the inning Braves reliever Alejandro Pena gave up an RBI double to Ellis Burks that tied the game at 4-4.

With two outs in the ninth, Jones drilled another home run to give the Braves a 5-4 lead.  The drama was just beginning, however.  Mark Wohlers entered the game to close out the victory.  With one out, Wohlers allowed two singles and a walk to load the bases.  He secured the second out with a strike out of Andres Galarraga and up to the plate came Lance Painter, a pitcher.  Colorado manager Don Baylor gambled and used all of his position players during the game.  Painter was his next best option, but Wohlers struck him out to enable the Braves to escape with a 5-4 win.

Game 2 provided more unsettled stomachs for the Braves.  Marquis Grissom led off the contest with a drive over the fence in right center field to stake the Braves to a 1-0 lead. Lopez drove in Mark Lemke with a sacrifice fly in the third inning, Grissom hit another solo home run in the fourth and the Braves led 3-0.  Just as the Braves began to feel good about their situation, Larry Walker prompted the opening of a new box of antacids with a three-run blast off of Braves’ starter Tom Glavine to knot the score at 3-3 in the sixth inning.  The scored remained tied until the bottom of the eighth.  With Pena on the mound again the Rockies took a 4-3 lead on a Galarraga double.  Heavy breathing ensued from the Braves’ dugout.  With the Braves trailing by one in their last at bat, they showed why they had the best record in the National League.  Jones led off with a double.  Fred McGriff singled him home to tie the game.  Justice then flied out and Lopez struck out.   Mike Devereaux then singled and Cox called on Mike Mordecai to pinch hit for Pena.  Mordecai promptly singled to give the Braves the lead.  Two more runs came home when Colorado second basemen Eric Young committed a two-base throwing error on a ground ball from Rafael Belliard.  Wohlers kept the Rockies off of the scoreboard in the ninth for the victory and a 2-0 series lead for the Braves.  No one from the Atlanta dugout needed medical treatment, but a new order for antacid pills was made as the series shifted to Atlanta.

The pills arrived before the start of Game 3.  John Smoltz then proceeded to allow five runs, but the Braves battled back to the tie the game in the bottom of the ninth when Klesko scored on a Polonia single.  However, Wohlers proceeded to give up two runs in the top of the 10th inning and the Braves could not counter in the bottom half.  The series now stood at two games to one, while nearby Grady Hospital began to prepare rooms for Braves coaches, just in case.

When Game 4 starter Greg Maddux gave up three runs in the third inning, ambulance sirens could be heard in the distance, but before they arrived the Braves countered in their half of the third.  Jones doubled home Grissom and Lemke to cut the deficit to one then the Crime Dog, McGriff, homered to give the Braves the lead and close the door on any Colorado upset plans.  Atlanta added two runs in the fourth, one in the fifth and three more in the sixth to clinch the Division series with a 10-4 victory.  The ambulances returned to Grady with no occupants.

The Braves had survived.  Smoltz believed the Braves were lucky to win the series and noted the Rockies could have swept the Braves in three games.  With blood pressures slowly inching down to normal, the Braves turned their focus to the National League Championship Series against the Central Division champion Cincinnati Reds.  At least this series would be a best-of-seven format, and the Braves’ depth should provide the difference, or so Cox, Mazzone and the other coaches believed.  To be safe, more antacid pills were ordered.