The 1991 Atlanta Braves were a franchise in a major funk. They hadn’t been relevant since Joe Torre managed the club in the early 1980s, reaching the NLCS in 1982 and contending to the final weekend of 1983. The latter part of the decade was considerably different. The Braves lost 106 games in 1988 and 97 games each of the ensuing two years. Midway through the 1990 season, Bobby Cox came on as manager.
Cox’s track record of building the Toronto Blue Jays from an expansion franchise into a team that won the AL East in 1985 gave people in Atlanta good reason for hope. No one could guess that the hope would be delivered on in a bigger way than anyone thought possible, or that would happen immediately in 1991.
Atlanta would become renowned for its great starting pitching throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s. It started in ‘91. A 25-year-old lefty named Tom Glavine won 20 games with a 2.55 ERA. He also won the Cy Young Award and jumpstarted a Hall of Fame career.
Another man on his way to Cooperstown was 24-year-old John Smoltz, who made 36 starts, won 14 games and posted a 3.80 ERA. Steve Avery, another young lefty didn’t have a Hall of Fame career, but was as good as anyone in 1991–18 wins and a 3.38 ERA. Veteran Charlie Liebrandt brought some experience to the rotation, winning 15 games with a 3.43 ERA.
The bullpen doesn’t have the same kind of names that jump out at you, but Juan Berenguer, Mike Stanton and Kent Mercker all had sub-3.00 ERAs and Cox knew how to use them effectively. They rounded out a staff that finished third in the National League in ERA.
Offensively, Atlanta was even better, finishing second in the NL in runs scored. Terry Pendleton, a veteran brought over from St. Louis, won the MVP award. His final numbers of .363 OBP/.511 slugging percentage were good, although MVP was probably pushing the envelope a bit. He was given credit for providing leadership to the young players around him.
There were big-time producers in the outfield. Ron Gant hit 32 home runs, drove in 105 runs and scored 101 more. David Justice finished with a stat line of .377 OBP/.503 slugging percentage. Lonnie Smith, a veteran of championship teams in both St. Louis and Kansas City, played left field and sparked the offense with a .377 OBP. Jeff Treadway hit .320 and provided some pop at second base.
Atlanta looked better out of the gate, although nothing suggested a historic season was in the works. They were 20-19 at Memorial Day and only 2 ½ games back of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the old NL West (the division also was home to the Reds, Giants, Padres & Astros with the winner going directly to the NLCS).
They continued to putter along up the All-Star break. At 39-40, they were hanging around the .500 mark and that would be considered a monumental victory for this club if they could maintain that to the end of the season. Winning the division? Well, the Braves lost five of seven games to the Dodgers just prior to the break. Atlanta was 9 ½ back and in third place, also trailing defending World Series champion Cincinnati.
The worm turned after the break. The Braves won eight of ten in games against the Cubs and Cardinals, while the Dodgers lost nine of eleven on an East Coast trip. In the month of August, Atlanta ripped off a 19-11 record, while Los Angeles stumbled to a 13-16 mark. When Labor Day arrived, the Braves and Dodgers were in a dead heat, with the Reds having fallen by the wayside.
While Los Angeles started to play better in the early part of September, Atlanta kept rolling. On September 13 the two teams began the first of what would be two straight weekend series and the Braves were a half-game up.
Atlanta was at home for the first series and Glavine was on the mound. He pitched well and the game was tied 2-2 in the seventh, but the Braves’ ace buckled and ultimately lost 5-2. Smoltz came out on Saturday and gave up a couple early runs, but he settled in and allowed no more. The game went into extra innings, again tied 2-2. In the eleventh, Pendleton hit a bloop double and scored the winning run on a base hit from Gant.
Avery pitched the Sunday finale against Ramon Martinez (brother of Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro). Braves’ first baseman Sid Bream hit a grand slam in the first inning, Avery went the distance and Atlanta’s lead had nudged out to a game and a half.
Perhaps the young kids celebrated a bit too much, because the four days between the next head-to-head series in Los Angeles didn’t go as well .The Braves split four games with mediocre teams in San Francisco and San Diego. Los Angeles ripped off four wins over Cincinnati and Houston. The Braves were now a half-game back as the weekend at Dodger Stadium began.
Avery took the ball on Friday night and picked up right where he left off—with a complete game, this time a shutout. Gant’s 30th home run of the season provided the margin in a 3-0 win. Leibrandt pitched on Saturday and took a 1-0 lead into the eighth. With control of the race in their grasp, Atlanta stumbled. Pendleton committed an error that led to the tying run in the eighth and Los Angeles won it in the ninth.
A series defined by good pitching continued in that vein in Sunday’s big finale. Glavine again pitched pretty well, but again wasn’t good enough. He gave up two early runs and today the Brave hitters couldn’t hit Ramon Martinez. The 3-0 loss left them 1 ½ games back with two weeks to play.
The two teams basically held serve the following week, but there was an important distinction. Atlanta played one more game than Los Angeles and took advantage to take a half-game off the lead. The Braves were within one game for the last week of the season.
Smoltz opened the closing week with a shutout of Cincinnati, while Orel Hershiser answered for Los Angeles with a win over San Diego. On Tuesday, it was Justice’s turn to be the hero—he hit a two-run shot in the ninth inning off the excellent Reds’ reliever Rob Dibble and delivered a 7-6 win. It set the stage for Wednesday when Glavine would win, while the Dodgers fell apart late in a 9-4 loss. Both teams took Thursday off and prepared for the final weekend, with this race dead even.
Friday night kept momentum going Atlanta’s way. Avery went eight strong innings in a home win over Houston, while Los Angeles lost in San Francisco. Smoltz came out Saturday and pitched a shutout that clinched at least a tie and potential playoff game on Monday. That would prove to be unnecessary—the Dodgers again lost in San Francisco and the improbable worst-to-first ride of the 1991 Atlanta Braves was complete.
Or at least the regular season version was complete. Atlanta went to the NLCS against Pittsburgh as a decided underdog and when they lost three of the first five games, with the final two in Pittsburgh, things didn’t look particularly hopeful. Avery and Smoltz responded with consecutive shutouts of a lineup that included Barry Bonds and the Braves reached the World Series.
The Fall Classic was a celebration of worst-to-first turnarounds, because the AL champion Minnesota Twins had done the same thing. The 1991 World Series is in the discussion for the best ever played and it came down to a Game 7 in the old Metrodome. Smoltz battled the great Twins’ veteran Jack Morris, in a scoreless pitchers’ duel. Atlanta appeared poised to score in the eighth before a critical baserunning mistake by Lonnie Smith cost them the chance. After Smoltz left the game, the Twins finally got the winning run in the 10th.
Game 7 was a crushing loss to be sure, but there was no denying just how special the 1991 Atlanta Braves season had been. And the young pitching would form the core of one MLB’s great long-running success stories. This was the first of fourteen straight division titles for franchise (with the caveat that the Braves were in second place in 1994 behind the Montreal Expos in the re-aligned NL East when a strike wiped out the season). Atlanta would win four National League pennants and get their long-sought World Series title in 1995.