After a strike brought 1994’s baseball season to a premature conclusion, the sport was back. Although it took a little while. The dispute between management and the players union wasn’t settled until spring, so the 1995 baseball season was only a 144-game schedule. But this time, they finished the job. That was true not only of Major League Baseball as a whole, but of the Atlanta Braves in particular.
The Braves were off and running in the early part of the 1990s, with three division titles, two pennants and a likely playoff appearance taken from them in 1994. But they were missing a ring. Atlanta’s 1995 edition was again led by great starting pitching. Greg Maddux won the Cy Young Award and Tom Glavine finished third. The lineup had some depth problems, but with Fred McGriff, Dave Justice, Chipper Jones and Ryan Klesko all hitting 20-plus home runs, they scored more than enough for this pitching staff.
Atlanta had to survive a fast start from the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East, but the Braves moved out to a 4 ½ game lead by the All-Star break, then blew the race open in late summer. They would get another chance at October glory.
The pace in the American League was being set by the Cleveland Indians. The Tribe had a breakout year in ’94, one that would set the tone for a run of success that lasted into the early part of the new century. And this offense in 1995 was positively fearsome. Albert Belle hit 50 homers. Jim Thome, then a 24-year-old third baseman, had a big year. The Indians also had pitching. The rotation was led by Dennis Martinez, Charles Nagy, and Orel Hershiser. Jose Mesa was the league’s best closer. Cleveland won the AL Central by an astonishing thirty-game margin.
On the other side of Ohio, the Cincinnati Reds were having a good year of their own. Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin won the MVP award. Pete Schourek, the ace of the staff, was the runner-up to Maddux in the Cy Young voting. The corner outfield combo of Reggie Sanders and Ron Gant was productive. The Reds had a five-game lead on the Houston Astros in the NL Central at the All-Star break. Then, like Atlanta, Cincy blew it open over the month of August and coasted into the postseason.
The rest of the National League postseason field was filled out by the NL Wet. The Los Angeles Dodgers had Mike Piazza behind the plate and Eric Karros at first base, each of whom finished in the top five of the MVP voting. Hideo Nomo, in his first season over from Japan, joined 17-game winner Ramon Martinez in giving L.A. a solid starting rotation. One of the National League’s storied franchises was again a contender.
Colorado was anything but a storied franchise. The Rockies were in their third year of existence. But they were good. Dante Bichette finished second in the MVP voting. Larry Walker was a terrific all-around hitter. Colorado got big production from their corner infielders, Andres Galaragga at first base and Vinny Castilla at third. The bullpen combo of Steve Reed and Darren Holmes was as good as any in the National League.
The NL West race was competitive throughout the year. The Rockies were plus-five on the Dodgers at the All-Star break, but Los Angeles made it a dead heat by Labor Day. These two teams came down the stretch, fighting for both the division title and what was then a single wild-card berth. Houston was also in the mix for the wild-card and it all came down to the final weekend.
Los Angeles clinched its playoff spot on Saturday and then wrapped up the NL West on Sunday. Colorado, holding a one-game lead over Houston on the final day, won the finale and reached the playoffs.
That was an exciting race. But no race in baseball was more compelling in 1995 then what went down in the AL West. The Anaheim Angels, behind the bats of Tim Salmon and Jim Edmonds, and the reliability of closer Troy Percival led through much of the season. By early September, the Angels seemed to be finally pulling away from the Texas Rangers.
And the Angels were pulling away from the Rangers. But the Seattle Mariners were coming hard on the outside. Ken Griffey Jr. missed half the season, but Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner helped keep the Mariner offense afloat. Randy Johnson won the Cy Young Award to lead the pitching staff. Seattle, after trailing by as many as 13 games in August, came barreling down the stretch.
The Mariners actually nudged out to a two-game lead with two to play before having a hiccup of their own. They lost twice, the Angels won twice and it came down to a one-game playoff in the old Seattle Kingdome. The Mariners completed the turnaround season with an easy win.
Seattle and Anaheim both had to joust with the New York Yankees for a wild-card spot. No one had expected the Yankees, fresh off the American League’s best record in 1994, to be fighting on the playoff fringe. But the Boston Red Sox were one of the surprise teams in ’95. Mo Vaughn won the MVP award. John Valentin had a great year at shortstop. A young knuckleballer named Tim Wakefield finished third in the Cy Young voting. And the Red Sox were fifteen games clear of the AL East field by Labor Day and rolled to the division title.
But the Yankees stayed in the wild-card picture. A young Bernie Williams led the offense. With the great first baseman, Don Mattingly, playing his final season, New York went to the last day of the season and finally clinched their berth in the postseason.
This was the first year that baseball’s new eight-team playoff bracket would be played out, after the inaugural season of 1994 had been canceled. One of the things the higher-ups had not yet figured out was that the best two teams should not play each other in the first round. Matchups were set by a pre-determined rotation between the divisions.
That worked to the detriment of the Red Sox. With the second-best record in the American League, they opened against Cleveland. And the Tribe kept right on rolling, winning a 13-inning affair to open the Division Series and ultimately closing out a three-game sweep.
Having #3 Seattle play wild-card New York might not have made sense, but it produced what remains one of the best Division Series battles ever played. The Yanks won the first two games at home, including a 15-inning battle in Game 2. The Mariners countered by taking the next two back at home. The Game 5 finale in the Kingdome encapsulated the entire series in one classic game. New York led 4-2 in the eighth. Seattle scored twice to tie it. The Yankees got a run in the top of the 11th. The Mariners got two in the bottom of the 11th to win it.
Even with the prearranged seeding, the National League still got the matchups it should have and the best two teams held serve. Atlanta won the first two games in Colorado, and even with an extra-inning loss at home in Game 3, quickly bounced back to close out the series in four games. Cincinnati dominated Los Angeles, outscoring the Dodgers 22-6 in a three-game sweep.
The NLCS opened in Cincinnati with two extra-inning games. But when Atlanta won both of them, this series seemed a fait accompli. And it was. The Braves went home, won the next two games in more comfortable fashion and secured their third pennant of the decade. One more step to go.
An Atlanta-Cleveland battle was attractive to baseball fans, but the Mariners were a great story themselves, and not ready to roll over. Seattle won two of the first three games in the ALCS. But Cleveland had Hershiser in their rotation and Orel was nothing if not clutch. He had already won Game 2. When the Tribe rallied with a victory in Game 4, Hershiser delivered a Game 5 gem that put Cleveland in the driver’s seat. Dennis Martinez secured the pennant with a Game 6 shutout back in Seattle.
So, we had the best two teams squaring off for a World Series title. Maddux and Glavine delivered the goods at home, winning the first two games. An extra-inning triumph for the Indians in Game 3 kept the Series competitive and Cleveland also won Game 5. But a 5-2 win in Game 4 behind Steve Avery kept Atlanta in control of the Series going back home.
With the money on the table, the Braves weren’t going to be denied this time. Glavine delivered the most memorable performance of his Hall of Fame career in Game 6. He threw eight innings of one-hit ball against the most feared lineup in the game. And he needed to be that good, because Atlanta only mustered one run themselves. But it was enough. With a 1-0 victory, the Braves were champions for the first time in their Atlanta history.