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!

 

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