1993 marked the end of an era in major league baseball. It marked the end of a 25-year run where each league was split into just two divisions and only the first-place finisher qualified for the postseason. Starting next season, there would be three divisions and a wild-card playoff qualifier. That meant ’93 was the last season that offered the prospect of a true pennant race—two great teams going at it for months in a winner-take-all fight. The 1993 Atlanta Braves were the winners of baseball’s Last Great Race.
Under the tortured geography of the time, Atlanta was situated in the NL West. The Cincinnati Reds joined the Braves as geographic misfits in the West. The division included the Houston Astros (a National League team prior to 2013) along with current members in the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, San Diego Padres and Colorado Rockies.
Atlanta was the NL West kingpin. They had won the division two straight years and each time went on to win the National League pennant. Two straight defeats in the World Series had the Braves looking to make the next step and they made a bold move on the free agent market. Greg Maddux was the reigning Cy Young Award winner and he jumped from the Cubs to the Braves.
Maddux did not disappoint. He built on what proved to be a Hall of Fame resume by making 36 starts in 1993, going 20-10 and posting a 2.36 ERA. It was good enough to win the second of his four consecutive Cy Youngs.
As if the Braves’ rotation needed more help. They already had two more future Hall of Famers, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz in place. Glavine went 22-6 with a 3.20 ERA. Smoltz was 15-11 and his ERA was 3.62. And though Steve Avery didn’t have the same type of career as the Big Three, in 1993, the young lefty was just as well regarded. Avery went 18-6 with a 2.94 ERA.
All told, Atlanta’s four aces combined to make 142 starts. That’s in addition to a reliable bullpen. Greg McMichael, Jay Howell, Steve Bedrosian and Kent Mercker all had sub-3.00 ERAs. The only downside was closer Mike Stanton’s ERA coming in high at 4.67, even as he saved 27 games. But all in all, Atlanta’s pitching staff still ranked first in the National League for composite ERA.
The lineup wasn’t deep and would be the focal point of a big summer trade. But the Braves had great players at the corner outfield spots. Ron Gant hit 36 home runs, drove in 117 runs and finished fifth in the NL MVP voting. Dave Justice was even better, with 40 bombs and 120 ribbies. Justice placed third in the MVP tally.
Otis Nixon was a reliable leadoff man and centerfielder, with his .351 OBP setting the table for Gant and Justice. Jeff Blauser provided a good bat at shortstop, a .305 average and .401 OBP. Deion Sanders was better known for his football exploits, but the two-sport star came off the bench and stole 19 bags. Even with Terry Pendleton’s down year at third base ushering in a gradual career decline, the Braves still finished third in the National League in runs scored.
Atlanta was the heavy favorite to win a third straight NL West title. But losing three of four in San Francisco in April was a harbinger. It was part of a 5-9 stretch and while the Braves recovered to get to 28-23 by Memorial Day, they were five games back of the Giants.
The early part of June saw Atlanta continue to be sluggish. A softer part of the schedule helped the Braves win seven of ten and get back on track. By the All-Star break, the record was 50-39. That’s a pace to win 91 games. A nice season and probably a playoff year by the standards of today.
But 1993 not only wasn’t the standards of today, it would require a level of excellence almost unheard of in the entire history of baseball, even pre-dating the ’69 split into divisions. Atlanta’s record still had them nine games back of sizzling San Francisco and their new free agent acquisition, MVP outfielder Barry Bonds.
Atlanta needed more depth to its lineup. Fred McGriff, a first baseman who could do it all offensively, was languishing in obscurity for woeful San Diego. The Padres shipped him to the Braves on July 18. Over the remainder of the season, McGriff’s numbers were dazzling–.392 OBP, .612 slugging and a final fourth-place finish in the MVP vote, nestling right in between new teammates Justice and Gant.
The Braves started to hum. They went 14-4 over the latter half of July. San Francisco wasn’t giving many opportunities to catch up though. The margin stayed at 7 ½ games and was still sitting there when Atlanta went west for a three-game series on August 23. It was now or never if the Braves were going to make a move.
Avery took the ball on Monday night’s opener, but he made his biggest impact with his bat—an RBI double keyed a three-run second inning. Blauser had three hits, including a home run that provided late insurance in the 5-3 win.
Justice and Gant stepped up on Tuesday, each going deep. Pendleton showed that veterans, even those on down years, are not to be trifled with in clutch situations, ripping three hits and a homer of his own. Glavine picked up his 15th win of the year, 6-4.
A series win was in the bag, but Atlanta needed something more decisive to really change the landscape at this stage. They did just that in Wednesday afternoon’s finale. McGriff homered twice in a 9-1 rout. The Braves were within 4 ½ games and the race was on.
San Francisco came to Atlanta for a return visit the following Tuesday. The Brave bats picked up where they left off. Justice homered, drove in four runs and Maddux cruised to an 8-2 win. Smoltz was brilliant on Wednesday night, but the offense finally cooled and could only muster four hits. Atlanta lost this one 3-2. When they fell behind 3-0 in the fourth inning of Thursday night’s finale, it looked like this comeback bid might finally start to crest.
Not so fast. The big bats came through. Gant and McGriff each had big hits in a seventh inning rally that turned the tide. McMichael came on and got the final six outs in a 5-3 win. By Labor Day, Atlanta was only 2 ½ games out.
The Braves went west and stormed through Los Angeles and San Diego, winning six of seven. The Giants, having taken a blow in the head-to-head, couldn’t get off the canvass. The Braves took first place. They came home and won series over the Reds and Mets. Now it was Atlanta holding a three-game lead.
But the Giants found their footing again. Even as the Braves won series against the contending Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals) and the eventual NL East champion Philadelphia Phillies, San Francisco surged and cut the margin down to 1 ½ with one week to play.
An off day on Monday gave the Giants the chance to knock a half-game off the lead and San Francisco took advantage. The lead was a single game. When Maddux lost to Houston on Tuesday night, the Giants pulled even.
There were five games to play. Atlanta and San Francisco each had 100 wins. Only once since the advent of a divisional play had a team with 100 wins failed to win its division—the 1980 Baltimore Orioles. History was being written this final week in the NL West.
On Wednesday night, Braves’ catcher Damon Berryhill delivered a three-run blast that keyed a 6-3 win over the Astros. The Giants lost. Atlanta was back on top. Just as quickly, they gave the lead back—in spite of a big night from McGriff on Thursday against Houston, Smoltz pitched poorly and the Braves lost 10-8. We were back to even going into the final weekend.
The schedule favored Atlanta—they were hosting Colorado, an expansion team in 1993. San Francisco had to go to Los Angeles. The Dodgers had a respectable, winning team and the long history of bad blood between the Giants and Dodgers meant LA would not mail it in.
On Friday night, Pendleton jacked a three-run homer, drove in five runs overall and led the way to a 7-4 win. San Francisco held serve.
Pendleton drove in three more runs on Saturday while Maddux cruised to his 20th win, an easy 10-1 win victory. San Francisco held serve.
The fact the Braves and Giants were on opposite coasts added to the drama for the final day of the season. Atlanta would play in the early time slot, San Francisco would play late. If this race wasn’t settled, the schedule dynamic would shift against the Braves. They had lost the coin flip to determine where a one-game playoff on Monday would be held. That meant a potential cross-country flight was looming.
All Atlanta could do was take care of their own business. Glavine did that with a 5-3 win, closed out by McMichael. The Braves went to the clubhouse and watched the events out west.
There was a lot to like if you were a Braves fan. The Giants’ pitching imploded, the Dodger bats unloaded and Los Angeles cruised to a 12-1 win. It had taken 104 wins and going to the very last day of the season. But the 1993 Atlanta Braves had won baseball’s last true do-or-die pennant race between great teams.
To the surprise of most everyone in baseball, there was no more winning left. Maybe Atlanta was drained by the level of excellence it had taken to survive San Francisco. Maybe Philadelphia, with Curt Schilling at the top of their rotation, was ideally suited to win a short series. Maybe it was just baseball. Whatever it was, the Braves dropped the National League Championship Series to the Phillies in six games.
In one sense, losing in the postseason was getting old in Atlanta and the Braves fans were hungry for the World Series title that would finally come in 1995. But in another, deeper sense, this team had done something truly historic. San Francisco was, by any measure, a great team in 1993. Atlanta had survived an epic struggle to beat them over six long months. For better or for worse, it’s the kind of race we’ll never see again.