There’s a tendency to focus on the winners in sport. With good reason. Winners bask in the glory and adulation of fans and media. But in sport, there are always two sides. With winners, there are losers. Every team has lost a big game at some point. Sometimes it’s a matter of the opponent being better. But there are some losses that are so painful, they crush the soul of the players, coaches and supporters. This series of articles focuses on the deep pain of sport. Bring tissues if your team is featured.
The difficult part of this entry wasn’t finding enough games that were crushing defeats for the Braves, it was narrowing it down to only five games. That seems to be the Braves history.
October 27, 1991. Minnesota 1, Atlanta 0.
The 1980s were a miserable decade for the Atlanta Braves. Take away the 1982 season in which they captured the National League West crown, the decade of Reaganomics, acid-washed jeans and bad synth-pop music (how did people like Rick Astley?) was filled with bad baseball in Dixie. The Braves record in the 1980s was 712-845 for a .457 winning percentage.
Yet during the lean years, Ted Turner, the somewhat mercurial owner of the Braves was building a solid organization. His first move was luring Bobby Cox away from the rising Toronto Blue Jays to run the downtrodden Braves. Cox served as the team’s general manager for five seasons but moved into the dugout for the 1990 season and John Schuerholz became GM of the Braves. Atlanta still finished last in the NL West but the young players were ready to blossom
Many observers didn’t have high expectations for the Braves in 1991 but Cox was quietly confident in his club. The players proved Cox right as Atlanta steadily moved up in the standings in the NL West. By the time the season was in its final week, the Braves were in a battle with the Los Angeles Dodgers for first place in the division. The Braves won 8 of their last 9 games while the Dodgers lost three out of their final four games that gave the Braves the NL West title.
The Braves headed to the postseason for the first time in 9 seasons where the Pittsburgh Pirates awaited them. In a thrilling series that was dominated by pitching, the Braves upended the Pirates in 7 games, winning three out of four in Pittsburgh and the last two games by shutout.
The Braves were going to the World Series for the first time since the franchise was in Milwaukee back in 1958. The Braves would face a team that was similar to them. The Minnesota Twins finished in last place in the AL West in 1990 but surprised the baseball world by winning the AL West crown, finishing 8 games ahead of the Chicago White Sox. The Twins then used strong pitching and timely hitting to eliminate Toronto in the ALCS to reach the Fall Classic.
The keys to the Braves success was the success of the starting rotation, in particular Tom Glavine. The lefty won the NL Cy Young award by posting a 20-11 record with a 2.55 ERA and 193 strikeouts. Backing Glavine in the rotation were hard-throwing right-hander John Smoltz and lefty Steve Avery who was brilliant against Pittsburgh in the NLCS.
The one disadvantage the Braves had been that the Twins had home field advantage. The Metrodome was a house of horrors for visiting teams in the playoffs. The Twins were 7-1 all time at their noisy home in downtown Minneapolis in postseason play and the Braves knew their task would be an arduous one.
The Metrodome was indeed noisy for Game 1 and the Braves had a difficult time dealing with the din. Home runs by Greg Gagne and Kent Hrbek plus solid pitching by Jack Morris paced the Twins to victory in the series opener.
The Braves were in trouble early in Game 2 as Glavine conceded two runs in the first inning. But the ace of the Braves staff settled down and stifled the Twins bats. The Braves eventually came back and tied the game but Glavine served up a home run to Scott Leius in the eighth inning and the Braves were down 2-0 in the series as it shifted south to Georgia.
Braves fans were ready for Game 3. Fulton County Stadium was rocking for the first World Series game ever in Atlanta. While Twins fans had the homer hankies, Braves supporters rallied behind the Tomahawk Chop which was first used by Florida State fans. Native American groups weren’t happy (and rightly so) with the chop, calling it demeaning and wanting it banned as the tomahawk was a symbol of scalping. A group of Native Americans protested prior to the first two games in Minneapolis against the Braves use of the chop. But the chop stayed and it is still used today, unfortunately.
When Game 3 got going, it became a classic as the teams engaged in a thriller that lasted 4 hours and 4 minutes. The Braves won it as Mark Lemke’s RBI single drove in David Justice with the winning run.
Game 4 was another wild affair with a photo finish. In the bottom of the ninth with the game tied, Lemke was on third base with one out as pinch hitter Jerry Willard came to the plate. Willard hit a fly ball to right that was caught by Shane Mack. Lemke tagged and went for home. Mack made a perfect throw to catcher Brian Harper. But Harper’s tag was late and Lemke was ruled safe. The Twins were furious as they thought Lemke was out. Even Jack Buck who was calling the game for CBS initially thought Lemke was out. But replays showed that Harper was late in applying the tag, proving that home plate umpire Terry Tata made the correct call, giving the Braves the win and tying the series.
The Braves now had momentum on their side as Game 5 became a rout. Home runs by Justice, Brian Hunter and Lonnie Smith were key as the Braves were one win away from winning the World Series. But they had to go back to Minneapolis.
Despite being down 3-2 in the series, Twins fans didn’t quiet down at all for Game 6. In fact, they were louder than ever. The Braves were hoping to finally silence the manic Minnesotans. Narrator voice. They didn’t. In one of the greatest games in the history of baseball, (this writer has it as the best baseball game of all time) the Twins emerged victorious as Kirby Puckett hit a walk-off solo home run in the eleventh inning that blew the roof off of the Metrodome and left the CBS cameras shaking from the deafening noise.
Game 7 saw a classic pitching matchup. The Braves turned to Smoltz who was pitching on three days rest. Smoltz started Game 4 and was satisfactory after being passed over in Game 1 in favour of Charlie Liebrandt. The Twins would go with the veteran Morris who was excellent in his two starts, winning Game 1 while a no-decision was his verdict in Game 4 as his bullpen betrayed him.
Just before the first pitch, Braves leadoff hitter Lonnie Smith shook hands with Twins catcher Brian Harper as a show of respect. Both teams realized that this was one of, if not the greatest World Series ever played. It would get even better in Game 7.
The Braves first chance to score was in the top of the third. Light-hitting Rafael Belliard slapped a one out single then advanced to second on a passed ball. Smith walked which gave the Braves runners on first and second with one out and NL MVP Terry Pendleton was coming to bat. The Braves third baseman had a sensational 1991 campaign, leading the NL with a .319 batting average with 22 home runs and 86 RBIs. Surely Pendleton would get the Braves on the board. But Morris got Pendleton to fly out lazily to left field for the second out. Ron Gant then grounded into a fielder’s choice to end a promising inning for the Braves that amounted to nothing on the scoreboard.
The Braves had another chance to break the ice in the fifth. Lemke led off with a single. Belliard’s sacrifice bunt advanced Lemke to second. Smith followed with a bunt single giving the Braves runners on the corners with one out and Pendleton with a chance to redeem himself. But Pendleton failed to deliver again as he meekly popped up to the shortstop for the second out. Gant then struck out and another Braves opportunity was squandered.
The Braves came up with another threat in the eighth. Smith led off with a single. Pendleton came up next and this time, he lined a shot into the gap in left-centre field. Smith should have scored but he was caught looking at second baseman Chuck Knoblauch who decoyed a throw to shortstop Greg Gagne. When Smith finally realized where the ball was, he scampered to third but couldn’t score. It was a terrible base running mistake by Smith who should have known better.
Still, the Braves had runners on second and third with nobody out. The Twins decided to keep Morris on the hill to get out of the jam. With the infield in, Gant grounded to Hrbek at first for an easy out. Morris intentionally walked Justice to load the bases. Sid Bream stepped up with a chance to be a hero. Instead, he grounded into a 3-2-3 double play to end the rally. Smith’s mistake on the base paths proved to be huge for Atlanta.
The Twins had a chance to make Atlanta pay for that mistake in the bottom half of the eighth. Randy Bush led off with a single and was promptly replaced by the speedier Al Newman as a pinch runner. After Dan Gladden flew out, Knoblauch laced a single to right that advanced Newman to third. This time it was the Twins with runners on the corners with one out. The Braves approached this delicate situation differently. Cox decided to go to the bullpen to relieve Smoltz who was fantastic, allowing no runs on 6 hits with 4 strikeouts in 7 1/3 innings of work. It was up to lefty Mike Stanton to get the Braves out of trouble. Stanton intentionally walked Puckett to load the bases and Hrbek coming to the plate. The Metrodome was a cacophony of noise as Twins fans were expecting Hrbek to deliver the knockout punch. Hrbek hit a hard line drive that was right at Lemke who snared it then doubled off Knoblauch to end the inning. The Braves were still alive.
But the Braves went quietly in order in the ninth and the Twins came up with a chance to win the World Series. Chili Davis started the rally with a single then was replaced by the nimble Jarvis Brown who was an excellent base runner. Harper stepped up and laid down a perfect bunt that not only advanced Brown to second but also put Harper at first safely that was ruled a single. Stanton was replaced by right-hander Alejandro Pena who was terrific in the NLDS against Pittsburgh. Pena came through again as Mack grounded into a double play that did move Brown to third but with two out. Pena intentionally walked Mike Pagliarulo to force the Twins to use Paul Sorrento at the plate. Pena struck out Sorrento and the game moved to extra innings.
To the surprise of the Braves, Morris came out to pitch the tenth. To the Braves dismay, Morris was unhittable as he retired the Braves in order. It was a remarkable performance by Morris who simply would not give in to the Braves hitters.
The Twins had the top of the order to start the bottom of the tenth. Dan Gladden started the inning by lifting a fly ball to shallow centre field. The outfielders were playing deep and had no chance as the ball fell in front of them. The ball bounced high off the artificial turf and Gladden never stopped running. He slid into second safely for a leadoff double and the Twins were in business. Knoblauch sacrificed Gladden to third and the winning run was 90 feet away. Pena had no choice but to walk Puckett and Hrbek to load the bases to set up a force play everywhere on the diamond. Up stepped Gene Larkin who was pinch-hitting for Brown. Larkin was a fine hitter but was battling a knee injury and couldn’t run well. A grounder would have been a sure double play and the game would continue. Could Larkin’s knee hold up and get enough leg drive to lift the ball into the outfield? Yes he did. Pena threw a high fastball that Larkin lifted to deep left field. With the outfield in, the ball fell harmlessly just shy of the warning track to score the only run of the game and Atlanta was heartbroken.
ESPN voted this as the greatest World Series of all time. For Braves fans, it’s a consolation prize they didn’t want.
October 24, 1992. Toronto 4, Atlanta 3.
The Braves used the heartbreak of the 1991 World Series as motivation for 1992. Atlanta’s sole mission was to win the World Series. Anything less would be considered a failed season. The Braves didn’t make significant changes heading into the 1992 season and that proved to be a wise move.
Atlanta coasted in the regular season, comfortably taking the NL West crown by 8 games over second place Cincinnati. But GM John Schuerholz thought he needed to bolster the bullpen so in July, he acquired closer Jeff Reardon from Boston for a minor leaguer. The Braves were banking on Reardon being the final piece of the World Series puzzle.
In a rematch of the previous year’s NLCS, the Braves would face Pittsburgh for a place in the Fall Classic. The difference being the Braves were the favourites in 1992 compared to the underdog they embraced in 1991. The Braves blew out the Pirates in the first two games and most were expecting a sweep. But Pittsburgh came back winning three of the next four to force a seventh and deciding game. In one of the most dramatic games in Braves history, Francisco Cabrera delivered a clutch two-run single in the bottom of the ninth to give the Braves their second straight NL pennant and a date with the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Jays were a team on the cusp of greatness for the last seven seasons but had the label of chokers in big moments. Unlike the Braves, the Jays made significant additions to their team prior to the 1992 season. The Jays signed designated hitter Dave Winfield from California to give them extra power in the lineup. But the biggest move was luring 1991 World Series MVP Jack Morris away from Minnesota to join the Jays thus giving them a pure ace on the staff.
The Jays fought off a late charge by Milwaukee to win their second straight AL East division title. The Jays went on to eliminate Oakland in 6 games in the ALCS to win their first ever pennant and insuring that a Canadian based team would be in the World Series for the first time.
There was history between these two clubs as well. Braves manager Bobby Cox and third base coach Jimy Williams were managers with the Blue Jays and were very familiar with the Blue Jays organization.
Game 1 would feature both aces in a classic pitching matchup. The Braves had sour memories of what Morris did to them in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series and they wanted revenge. Meanwhile, Tom Glavine was hoping to set the tone for the Braves as they wanted to overcome the demons from last year. The Braves gained the upper hand as Damon Berryhill cranked a three-run homer off Morris while Glavine spun a four-hit complete game with a Joe Carter solo homer being the lone blemish of an otherwise sterling performance.
Game 2 saw tensions rise before the first pitch. The United States Marine Corps were presenting the colours before the national anthems but made a bit of a booboo. They accidentally hung the Canadian flag upside down. To make matters worse, Tom Cochrane sang the wrong lyrics to “Oh Canada” using an old, bygone line instead of the updated version. Life can be a highway but for Cochrane, he was on the lookout for the lunatic fringe of Canadians who weren’t happy with his rendition.
The game itself was a close affair that gave the Braves a chance to bring in Reardon to shut the door in the ninth inning with Atlanta clinging to a slender one run lead. But Reardon couldn’t get the job done. After Derek Bell walked, pinch hitter Ed Sprague belted a two-run homer that left Fulton County Stadium in a stunned silence.
The Braves had a chance to tie or even win the game in the bottom of the ninth as they had runners on first and second with two out. But Terry Pendleton popped out to Jays third baseman Kelly Gruber who then mocked the Braves by mimicking the tomahawk chop immediately afterwards. The Braves and their fans were upset with Gruber but soon realized that the series was tied and it was heading north.
While SkyDome wasn’t the fortress that the Metrodome was, the Braves were going into a hostile environment with a unique twist. Not only the city of Toronto was in the Blue Jays corner but all of Canada was behind the Jays as the Fall Classic came to my home and native land for the first time. In an excellent contest that in this writer’s opinion is an under-appreciated classic, the Braves held a 2-1 lead late but a Gruber home run tied it in the eighth. With the game tied in the ninth, Cox was ejected for tossing a batting helmet at home plate umpire Joe West. Williams became acting manager and his move in the bottom of the ninth was questioned. Starting pitcher Steve Avery started the inning but gave up a leadoff single to Roberto Alomar. Avery was pulled for Mark Wohlers who threw a fastball that clocked in the high 90s on the radar gun but had difficulty holding potential base stealers. Alomar was an excellent base runner and easily stole second because Wohlers was woeful in holding the speedy Alomar. CBS analyst Tim McCarver was very critical of Williams for making this move which angered some Braves players when they learned of McCarver’s criticisms. Wohlers intentionally walked Joe Carter to set up a potential double play with Winfield coming up. Winfield surprised everyone by laying down a sacrifice bunt that advanced the runners. With the Braves on the ropes, they intentionally walked Sprague to load the bases. Williams called upon Reardon to shut the door and force extra innings. But the veteran closer failed for the second straight game as Candy Maldonado delivered a game winning RBI single. As Alomar trotted home he mocked the Braves by doing the tomahawk chop which riled up the Braves but thrilled the Jays fans.
Game 4 saw the Jays made a surprising switch. Morris was scheduled to start but Jays manager Cito Gaston elected to go with lefty Jimmy Key on the hill. The move paid off as Key outduelled Glavine while Pat Borders supplied the offence with two RBIs including a solo homer to put the Braves on the brink of elimination.
Not only were the Braves in danger of losing a second consecutive Fall Classic but awaiting them was their nemesis, Morris in Game 5. The Braves remembered what Morris did to them in Game 7 of the previous year and desperately wanted pay back. The Braves were angry with the Jays for mocking the chop in games 2 & 3 but they were really incensed prior to the fifth game. A Toronto radio station leaked plans of the anticipated victory parade through downtown Toronto to celebrate the Jays expected World Series title. This stoked the Braves fire to new levels as they wanted to cancel any and all parties in Canada. Lonnie Smith played the role of party pooper as his grand slam chased Morris and gave the Braves a much-needed win and force everyone to go back to Georgia.
Atlanta was ready to greet the Jays at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport by setting up a 20 foot Tomahawk on the tarmac where the Jays charter landed. The gamesmanship between the two clubs was at a fever pitch.
The pitching matchup heading into Game 6 pitted the young Avery for the Braves against David Cone for the Jays who came over in a midseason trade from the New York Mets.
The Jays got to Avery in the first inning. Devon White led off with a single then promptly stole second. After Alomar grounded out to advance White to third, Carter lifted a fly ball to right that was mishandled by David Justice. White scored easily as Carter reached first on the error. When Avery walked Winfield, a sense of doom pervaded Fulton-County Stadium. The Jays were poised for a big inning. But Avery worked his way out of the jam by getting consecutive force outs from Maldonado and Gruber which limited the damage.
The Braves equalized in the bottom of the third. A one out double by Deion Sanders started the rally. Sanders then used his speed to steal third then came home on a Terry Pendleton sacrifice fly.
But the Jays quickly retook the lead as Maldonado led off the fourth with a home run. The Jays had a chance to extend the lead later in the inning but Sanders threw out Borders at the plate to keep the Braves to within one.
The Braves had a chance to score in the fifth. Mark Lemke led off with a walk. Reliever Pete Smith who replaced Avery in the previous inning, attempted to sacrifice Lemke over but failed and struck out. Nixon popped out but Sanders came through with a two out single that moved Lemke to third. Sanders then stole second to put two runners in scoring position. But Pendleton struck out to end the threat and the Braves came up empty.
The Jays had a chance to deliver the kill shot in the eighth. Maldonado started the threat with a single and was advanced to second on Gruber’s sacrifice bunt. Braves reliever Mike Stanton intentionally walked Borders to bring up the bottom of the order for the Jays. Manny Lee popped out then pinch hitter Derek Bell grounded out to end the rally and keep the Braves hopes alive.
The Braves needed to do something as the game reached the bottom of the ninth. Facing Jays closer Tom Henke, Atlanta knew they had to scratch out a run or see their World Series dreams die. Jeff Blauser led off with a single. Berryhill sacrificed Blauser to second to put the tying run in scoring position. Game 5 hero Lonnie Smith walked to put the winning run on base. NLCS hero Francisco Cabrera attempted to relive his heroics but flew out leaving the Braves down to their final out. Otis Nixon came through with an RBI single that scored Blauser and moved Smith to third. Fulton-County Stadium was a madhouse as they sensed a miracle win. Ron Gant nearly ended it as he sent a fly ball to deep left-centre field. But the ball only reached the warning track as White hauled it in and extra innings were required.
After a scoreless tenth, the game moved to the eleventh where the Jays struck. The Braves brought in Charlie Liebrandt who was trying to erase the memory of last year’s World Series, especially the walk-off home run that Liebrandt served up to Kirby Puckett. The lefty pitched well in the tenth but the eleventh was a different story.
With one out, Liebrandt plunked White which was followed by an Alomar base hit. Carter flew out and Liebrandt looked like he would escape the inning unscathed. But Dave Winfield had other ideas. The man who was derisively called Mr. May by Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for previous postseason failures, came up huge in the clutch by lining a double down the third base line. White and Alomar easily scored and the Braves were in deep trouble. They needed another rally in the bottom of the eleventh.
Facing Key who came on as a reliever the previous inning, Blauser led off with a single just like he did in the ninth. Lee then fumbled a Berryhill grounder and the Braves were in business. Rafael Belliard sacrificed the runners into scoring position. Brian Hunter grounded out to Carter at first base. Since Carter was playing deep, he allowed Blauser to score but the Braves were down to their last out and again Nixon came up. Gaston made a pitching change calling on Mike Timlin in relief to face Nixon. It was a surprising move by the Jays to trust on an inexperienced reliever like Timlin. What was more shocking was Nixon attempting to bunt and use his speed to reach first. Nixon bunted Timlin who tossed it to Carter for the final out and the Braves were forced to watch the Jays celebrate on their home field.
Despite posting a Major League best 98 wins in the regular season, the World Series heartbreak meant 1992 was a failed season for the Atlanta Braves.
October 11, 1993. Philadelphia 4, Atlanta 3.
The Braves entered the 1993 season under intense pressure. The Braves had all the pieces in play to finally clear the last hurdle, the World Series. When the Braves signed free-agent pitcher Greg Maddux away from the Chicago Cubs, the Braves became prohibitive World Series favourites.
Yet, entering the All-Star break, the Braves were nine games behind the first place San Francisco Giants in the NL West. By September 1, the Braves had closed the gap to 4½ games setting up a terrific race for the division title. The Braves had a terrific closing month, going 22-8 in September and early October. The Giants couldn’t keep pace, going 18-13 in the same stretch. The teams entered the final day of the regular season deadlocked at the top. Atlanta did its part by defeating expansion Colorado while the Giants were blown out by arch-rival Los Angeles to give the Braves the division and a date with the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Phillies were the surprise team in baseball by going wire-to-wire in winning the NL East, holding off a late charge from the Montreal Expos.
This was going to be a battle of opposites. The Braves were clean-cut, all business team that some considered boring. Their players were superstars that were highly touted across the Major Leagues. The Phillies were a motley crew of outcasts, misfits and crazy characters that looked like extras from The Big Lebowski. The Phillies were embraced by The City of Brotherly Love and in turn, a high percentage of neutrals. The Braves were used to venturing into hostile territory but Philadelphia was a different animal.
Veterans Stadium was raucous, belligerent and scary for Game 1. The Braves tied the game in the ninth which was aided by a Kim Batiste error. But Batiste redeemed himself in the bottom of the tenth by lining an RBI double to score John Kruk, sending Phillies fans into a frenzy.
The Braves rebounded in Game 2 by smacking four home runs in a blowout win, getting a much-needed split as the scene shifted to Atlanta.
Fulton-County Stadium was prepared to bring noise for Game 3 and the Braves took advantage of the home cooking. Five runs in the sixth followed by four runs in the seventh was more enough for a Braves win. Most were starting to write off the Phillies as they looked overmatched in the last two games. The Braves were confident and poised. A third straight NL pennant was within reach.
But the fourth game saw the series took a new turn that Braves didn’t like. The Braves went 1 for 15 with runners in scoring position, stranding 11 in the process. The Phillies escaped Game 4 with a win to even the series to set up a critical Game 5.
The pitching matchup for the fifth game matched Steve Avery for the Braves against the Phillies ace, Curt Schilling. The Braves weren’t worried about Avery but were wondering if their slumbering bats would wake up against the best pitcher on the Phillies staff.
The Phillies wanted to give Schilling an early lead and did just that in the first inning. A one out single by Mariano Duncan was followed by an RBI double by Kruk that drew first blood for the Phillies.
The Braves had a chance to equalize in the bottom half of inning one. With two outs and Jeff Blauser on first, Fred McGriff laced a double to right field. Phillies right fielder Wes Chamberlain made a perfect relay throw to shortstop Kevin Stocker who then fired a perfect throw to catcher Darren Daulton who missed the tag. However, Blauser missed the plate as Daulton cut off home brilliantly. With Blauser astray, Daulton ran over and tagged Blauser for the third out to end the inning. The Braves got the hit but great defence and slightly questionable base running kept the Braves off the board.
The Phillies increased their lead in the fourth. With one out, Pete Incaviglia lifted a fly ball to deep left field. It looked like Ron Gant had a beat on it but he misjudged the flight of the ball as it caromed off the wall. Incaviglia hustled his way to third safely. The official scorer ruled it a three base error charged to Gant even though the ball never touched Gant’s glove. Chamberlain followed with a sacrifice fly and the Braves were down two.
The Braves tried to respond in the bottom half. A one out single by Gant started the rally. After McGriff flew out, David Justice walked and the crowd rose to its feet, sensing a breakthrough. But Schilling would have none of it as he struck out Terry Pendleton to quash the threat.
The Braves were silent yet again as Schilling began to cruise. It was a masterpiece by the Phillies ace as he allowed no runs on four hits, with nine strikeouts over eight innings.
The Braves were in a deeper hole in the ninth when Daulton crunched a solo home run to leadoff the ninth. The Braves would need a miracle to force extra innings.
Schilling stayed in for the bottom of the ninth even though Phillies closer Mitch Williams was warming up. Schilling walked Blauser to start the ninth. Gant followed with a grounder to third that Batiste played hot potato with. It was Batiste’s second error of the series and the Braves had an opportunity. Fregosi called on Williams to slam the door as Schilling exited after a marvellous mound performance. Williams first pitch was greeted by McGriff with a base hit up the middle that scored Blauser and moved Gant to third. Fulton-County Stadium was in full throat as the tying runs were aboard and the winning run was at the plate with nobody out. Justice was up next and he was more than capable of ending it with one swing as his team leading 40 home runs proved. Justice managed to hit a fly ball to left field. It wasn’t deep enough to leave the yard but it was deep enough to score Gant and the Braves were within one. Pendleton singled up the middle which put the winning run on base. Braves fans were in an uproar as the comeback was nearly complete. The hero of last year’s NLCS, Francisco Cabrera was going to pinch hit for Damon Berryhill, hoping for a repeat outcome of last year. Cabrera came through with a chopper up the middle that eluded Stocker and Duncan. McGriff got a great jump at second and scored the tying run and Fulton-County Stadium was shaking.
The Braves tied it and were now looking for the win. Mark Lemke had a chance to win it. Lemke had developed a reputation as a clutch player since his superb performance in the 1991 World Series. But Williams hung tough and fanned Lemke after a nine pitch battle. The Braves still had an opportunity to win it as Bill Pecota came up to pinch hit in the pitcher’s spot. Pecota could have been a hero but he flew out to end the inning. The Braves tied it but would their failure to win it cost them? Narrator’s voice: It did.
With one out in the tenth, Mark Wohlers was in to face Lenny Dykstra. With the count full and the sun setting in the Georgia sky, Dykstra connected on a Wohlers fastball and drilled it to deep centre field. It cleared the wall with room to spare for a home run and the Phillies were ahead. Fulton-County, which was incredibly loud minutes earlier, fell into a stunned silence as Dykstra rounded the bases with a huge wad of tobacco bulging from his cheek.
The Braves needed another rally in the bottom of the tenth as noted prankster Larry Anderson came on in relief for the Phillies. But it was no laughing matter for the Braves as Anderson retired the Braves to end the game.
The Braves were disconsolate after losing such a dramatic game. It drained them to the point that the tank was empty for Game 6 back in Philadelphia. With Philly fans smelling blood, the Braves stood little chance as the Phillies cruised to the pennant and the Braves went home with another heartbreaking ending.
October 9, 2005. Houston 7, Atlanta 6.
The Braves regular season dominance was becoming routine once 2005 hit. Minus the strike shortened 1994 season, the Braves had won 13 straight division titles and owned pretty much every team in the regular season. But the postseason was a different story. Even though the Braves won the World Series in 1995, the Braves were known for playoff heartbreak and disappointments.
The Braves were looking to reverse the trend in 2005. They did win their 14th straight division crown, finishing 2 games ahead of Philadelphia. Awaiting the Braves were the Houston Astros in the NLDS.
The Astros were left for dead in June by the Houston Chronicle but staged a remarkable turnaround and managed to obtain a wildcard spot by seasons’ end. This would be a rematch of last year’s division series, a series won by Houston, their first playoff series victory in franchise history. The Braves wanted revenge.
But it was the Astros that got the early jump in the series as they battered Tim Hudson in the opener. Hudson was acquired in the offseason in a trade with Oakland to bolster the rotation but he struggled as the Astros stole home field.
The Braves evened the series as Brian McCann drilled a three-run homer off Roger Clemens to spark the offence. John Smoltz was excellent as he quelled the Houston attack.
The scene shifted to Houston for Game 3 and the quirky Minute Maid Park gave the Braves fits. A big seventh inning that saw the Astros score 4 runs provided the difference and Atlanta were pushed to the brink of elimination.
The pitching matchup for Game 4 saw Hudson trying to rebound from his disappointing Game 1 outing against Brandon Backe who defeated the Braves in Game 3 of the 2004 NLDS. Little did anyone know what would happen or how long the game would last but it became a classic.
The Braves struck first in a big way in the third inning. A one out walk issued to Rafael Furcal got the ball rolling. After Marcus Giles hit into a force play, Chipper Jones walked then Andruw Jones was plunked by Backe to load the bases. Up stepped Adam LaRoche who hammered a Backe fastball over the right field fence for a grand slam that quieted the boisterous Houston crowd.
The Braves extended their lead in the fifth. Giles singled then Chipper Jones doubled giving the Braves two runners in scoring position with nobody out. Andruw Jones hit a sacrifice fly that scored Giles and chased Backe from the game. Atlanta had Houston on the ropes and it was almost a certainty that the series would be heading back to Georgia. But the Astros bullpen held its ground and Atlanta could only manage a single run.
The Astros got on the board in the bottom half of the fifth. Mike Lamb led off with a single. Jason Lane hit into a force play which was followed by back-to-back singles from Adam Everett and Brad Ausmus to load the bases. Minute Maid Park came to life as the Astros had a wonderful chance to get back into the game. Orlando Palmeiro did score Lane with a sacrifice fly but Hudson got Craig Biggio to fly out to limit the damage and end the threat.
The Braves looked to put the game away when McCann hit his second homer in the series in the eighth inning. It should have been game over. But this game was just about to get started when the Astros were batting in the bottom of the eighth.
Ausmus drew a leadoff walk to start proceedings. Eric Bruntlett followed with a base hit to put Houston in business and chase Hudson from the hill as the Braves brought in Kyle Farnsworth in relief. For years, the bullpen had been the Braves achilles heel as it has let them down numerous times in the postseason. Yet, here were the Braves relying on a shaky bullpen to see this game through. After Biggio hit into a force play, the Astros executed a perfect double steal as Bruntlett went to third while Biggio took second. Luke Scott drew a walk to load the bases. Lance Berkman came to bat and with one swing, brought the Astros back into the game as he hit an opposite field grand slam to pull the Astros to within one. Once again, the Braves bullpen squandered a big lead and now the Braves were fighting for their lives.
The Braves still had a one run lead heading into the bottom of the ninth. Bobby Cox elected to keep Farnsworth in the game instead of using Chris Reitsma who led the Braves with 15 saves but had struggled earlier in the series. Farnsworth retired the first two hitters and the Braves were one out away from forcing a fifth and deciding game back in Atlanta. Ausmus was the last hope for Houston. With the count 2-0, Farnsworth elevated a fastball into the wheelhouse of Ausmus who smashed it to deep left-centre field. Andruw Jones leapt but couldn’t come down with the ball as it barely went over the yellow line for a home run. Game tied. Braves bullpen fails again. Extra innings required.
The Braves had a chance to break the deadlock in the eleventh. Furcal led off with a walk. Giles tried to sacrifice Furcal over but popped out instead. So Furcal stole second putting himself in scoring position. Chipper Jones walked and the Braves were sensing this could be there time. Andruw Jones and his league leading 51 home runs was up. It was a classic matchup as Jones was facing Astros closer Brad Lidge and his fastball that reached the high 90s on the radar gun. Lidge got the best of Jones as he struck him out. Lidge then got veteran Julio Franco to ground out to end the threat. The Braves came up empty on a glorious opportunity.
The game moved to the fourteenth inning as the Braves getting another opportunity. Andruw Jones drew a leadoff walk then Franco executed a perfect bunt that turned into a single. Jeff Francoeur moved the runners up with a sacrifice. Surely the Braves would get a run across here. Ryan Langerhans was intentionally walked to load the bases with one out. McCann was up and he was looking for the big hit. The Braves catcher had 2 homers in the series including one in the eighth inning which seemed like eight days ago. But McCann failed to deliver as he struck out and the Braves needed another option. But Pete Orr grounded into a force play to end the inning. Once again the Braves let another scoring opportunity slip away into nothingness.
The Astros had a surprise for the Braves in the 16th inning. Roger Clemens came onto to the mound in a rare relief appearance. The Braves couldn’t do much against the Rocket as the game moved to the EIGHTEENTH inning!
At this point, many wondered if this game would ever end. If this was SNK Baseball Stars on Nintendo (greatest video game ever), this would be the last inning and if it ended tied, the game would be wiped out and the stats wouldn’t count.
Clemens led off the bottom of the eighteenth with one purpose in mind. Swing for the fences and hope it connects. But Clemens couldn’t put bat on ball as he struck out and the game continued. Next up was Chris Burke who came on for Berkman as a pinch runner in the tenth. His numbers were pretty blah to be honest, hitting .248 with 5 home runs and 26 RBIs. He did have speed as his 11 stolen bases showed so the hope was that Burke would reach base and create havoc on the base paths. He did more than that. Burke took a Joey Devine fastball and lined it to deep left field that cleared the 19 foot wall in left for a walk-off home run, setting Minute Maid Park into ecstasy while the Braves left with hearts shattered yet again.
This ended an era for the Braves as they would miss the postseason for the next four seasons. Division rivals such as the New York Mets, and Philadelphia became the new kings of the NL East as the Braves entered a rebuilding phase. Changes were coming.
October 5, 2012. St. Louis 6, Atlanta 3.
In 2010, Bobby Cox stepped aside as manager of the Atlanta Braves. It ended an era of unparalleled success for the franchise as Cox led the Braves to 14 division titles, 5 NL pennants and 1 World Series title. The unenviable task of replacing Cox fell to Fredi Gonzalez who was the Braves third base coach from 2003 to 2006. Gonzalez was the manager of the Florida Marlins from 2007 to 2010, compiling a 276-279 record. While the record was mediocre, Gonzalez didn’t have the organizational support in Florida like he would in Atlanta.
In Gonzalez’s first season in Atlanta, the Braves went 89-73 but had a disastrous September, going 9-18 which cost the Braves a postseason berth, finishing one game behind St. Louis for the wildcard spot.
The Braves were down but rebounded strongly in 2012 by recording a 94-68 record. Even though they finished 4 games behind Washington in the NL East, the Braves nabbed the first wildcard spot and would face St. Louis, the team that overtook the Braves for the wildcard spot the previous season, in the first ever NL Wildcard playoff game.
The Cardinals couldn’t keep up with Cincinnati in the NL Central, finishing 9 games behind the Reds but managed to hold off Los Angeles by one game to capture the second wildcard spot and earn a trip to Atlanta.
In the recent past, Braves fans have been accused of being apathetic and quiet during playoff games at Turner Field. Games weren’t sold out, the energy was low and the atmosphere was negligible. But that changed for this game. Turner Field was sold out. The fans were noisy, the tomahawk chop (still stupid) was chanted with fever, and the Braves were ready.
The Braves sent Kris Medlen to the mound for this one game showdown. The 27-year-old right-hander began the season as a reliever then was sent down to the Braves AAA affiliate in Gwinnett to get him ready for the starter’s role. Medlen was called up on June 18 but was still used as a reliever for six weeks. Medlen finally got his first start on July 31 and immediately made an impact. Medlen went on to post a 10-1 record with a 1.57 ERA and 120 strikeouts. It was an easy decision for Gonzalez to give the ball to Medlen for this game.
The Cardinals went with Kyle Lohse who also had an excellent season, going 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA. Many were expecting a low scoring pitcher’s duel.
The Braves got the jump on Lohse in the second. After a two out walk was issued to Dan Uggla, David Ross swatted a two-run homer that sent the partisan Turner Field crowd into an uproar.
But Medlen ran into trouble in the fourth. Carlos Beltran led off with a base hit. Matt Holliday followed with a ground ball to third baseman Chipper Jones who made an errant throw trying to get the force at second. Beltran advanced to third on Chipper’s error and the Cardinals had runners on the corners with nobody out. Allen Craig lined a double to left field that scored Beltran and moved Holliday to third. Yadier Molina grounded out but it was enough to cash in Holliday and move Craig to third and the game was tied. David Freese did his part with a sacrifice fly to score Craig, and the Cardinals had the lead.
The Cardinals added to their lead in the sixth when Holliday belted a solo homer as Medlen started to feel the pressure of October baseball.
The Cardinals struck again in the seventh. David Freese grounded to second that Uggla made a bad throw, resulting in an error and Freese was on second. Daniel Descalso advanced pinch runner Adam Chambers to third with a sacrifice, which prompted Gonzalez to pull Medlen and turn to Chad Durbin. The Braves right-handed reliever faced Pete Kozma who hit a sharp grounder to Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons who tried to get Chambers at home but his throw was way off the mark as hit went all the way to the backstop. It was the Braves second error of the inning and third of the game. Kozma advanced to second and Durbin was immediately replaced by Johnny Venters who gave up an RBI single to pinch hitter Matt Carpenter. The Braves were in big trouble.
They had an opportunity to get back into the game in the bottom of the seventh. Jose Constanza nailed a one out triple and scored on Michael Bourn’s groundout. The Braves weren’t done as Martin Prado and Jason Heyward doubled to bring the tying run to the plate. For Braves fans, there was no better option than Chipper Jones. His 468 career home runs and 1,623 RBIs were Hall of Fame material. But on the first pitch, Jones grounded out to second to end the inning. But the drama and the controversy were about to begin.
The Braves entered the bottom of the eighth down by three but had the heart of the order coming up. Freddie Freeman led off with a walk. Uggla hit into a force play but avoided the double play. Ross singled which brought up Simmons representing the tying run. With the count full, Simmons lifted a fly ball to shallow left field. Kozma drifted back from his shortstop position but gave way to Holliday who was coming in from left field. But Holliday stopped, thinking that Kozma had the play. The ball fell in between them and the Braves had the bases loaded. Or so they thought. Left field umpire Sam Holbrook called the infield fly rule and called Simmons out while Uggla and Ross moved to second and third. Gonzalez came out and argued the call but to no avail. The fans went ballistic as they littered the field with bottles, litter and other assorted debris. The game was delayed for over 20 minutes and the Braves played the game under protest.
When the game resumed, Brian McCann walked to load the bases but Bourn struck out to end the threat.
The Braves generated one last chance in the ninth. With two away, Jones singled and Freeman hit a ground ruled double to bring up Uggla as the tying run at the plate. But Uggla couldn’t come through as he grounded out to second thus ending the season for the Braves.
Much of the talk after the game centred around the infield fly rule called by Holbrook. Some agreed with the decision but most did not. The shame of it all was it overshadowed the story of Chipper Jones final game in baseball. But as is usually the case, a bad call makes for better headlines.