The 1983 Atlanta Braves followed up a surprise NL West title with another strong season where they contended to the final weekend. But a disappointing ending augured a premature end to the era where Joe Torre managed the team and pointed to darker days ahead.
Atlanta won by crushing the baseball, leading the National League in runs scored. They were best in on-base percentage, best in batting average, fourth in home runs and fourth in walks. Dale Murphy led the way. The centerfielder finished with a .393 OBP/.540 slugging percentage. He also hit 36 home runs, drove in 121 runs and scored 131 more. Murphy won the NL MVP for the second straight season.
Bob Horner was Murphy’s support, hitting right behind him in the lineup. The slugging 25-year-old third baseman posted a stat line of .383 OBP/.528 slugging and hit 20 home runs. First baseman Chris Chambliss had a stat line of .366/.481 and also hit 20 homers.
The young left fielder Brett Butler stole 39 bases and catcher Bruce Benedict finished with an OBP of .385. Middle infielders Glenn Hubbard and Rafael Ramirez had respectable OBPs in the .330s and 37-year-old Bob Watson was a quality reserve—his stat line was .376/.490 in 170 at-bats.
While the hitting was great, the pitching was…well, not so much. The problem wasn’t that anyone was awful, but that no one was really outstanding. Craig McMurtry made 35 starts at age 23 and won 15 games with a 3.08 ERA. Pascual Perez, another young arm, won 15 with an ERA of 3.43. The old man, knuckleballer Phil Niekro was 11-10 with a 3.98 ERA, making 33 starts at the age of 44. These three pitchers combined for 101 starts.
Ken Dayley, Pete Falcone and Rick Camp pulled double duty in the bullpen and in the rotation, and finished with ERAs ranging from 3.63 to 4.30. Steve Bedrosian was the closer, saving 19 games with a 3.60 ERA. Terry Forster, a veteran let go from NL West rival Los Angeles, finished with 13 saves and a sparkling 2.16 ERA. The bullpen was filled out by a young Donnie Moore and a veteran Gene Garber. One was on the rise, the other in decline, and they met in the middle in 1983.
Atlanta took advantage of a soft early schedule and won 12 of their first 15. They took three straight from St. Louis, a rematch of the 1982 NLCS, in early May. The Braves were rolling, but so were the Dodgers. The two teams had the best records in baseball on Memorial Day and Atlanta was a game and a half out.
The Braves dropped four of six to the Dodgers in June and were 5 ½ out by June 19. Atlanta went to Cincinnati for a five-game series and won all five. The Braves returned home to go 5-2 in a homestand against the Astros & Reds, again taking advantage of the soft part of their schedule. When the All-Star break arrived on the Fourth of July, Atlanta and Los Angeles were still the top two teams in all of MLB. Only now it was Atlanta, at 49-31, which held the one-game lead.
When the Dodgers slumped, the Braves looked on the verge of taking over the race. They won the first two games of a head-to-head series in Atlanta, taking the second game on a two-run walkoff blast by Watson for an 8-7 win. This was August 13 and the lead was 6 ½ games. But it was downhill from there after Los Angeles averted a sweep in the finale.
Atlanta promptly lost 10 of 13, the Dodgers got hot and by Labor Day, the Braves were 77-60 and 2 ½ games out. Nor were they the second-best team in MLB anymore. Atlanta’s record was sixth-best and in the days when postseason play included only four division winners, that wasn’t going to be enough.
There were still six more games to play against the Dodgers and Atlanta went to LA for a three-game weekend series starting on September 9. For seven innings, they could do nothing in the opener and trailed 3-0. Murphy hit a two-run blast in the ninth to make things interesting and the Braves put runners on first and second. But the rally died when Butler bounced back to the pitcher and Atlanta was four games out.
It briefly got worse on Saturday when the Braves fell behind 3-0. They chipped away to tie the game and in the top of the 10th, broke it open. The lead run came through on an error, Chambliss and Ramirez drove in insurance runs and Atlanta won 6-3. When Murphy hit an early three-run shot in the Sunday finale, the Braves were poised to cut the margin to two games, taking a 6-3 lead into the ninth. Then Moore and Garber completely came apart in the ninth, combining to give up three hits, three walks and four runs.
Atlanta continued to struggle, losing series to the Reds and Padres, although Los Angeles was also mostly stumbling down the stretch and the margin was still at four games. The Braves had one more head-to-head crack in a home series on the regular season’s penultimate weekend.
Len Barker had been acquired in a late August trade. Renowned for pitching a perfect game in Cleveland two years earlier, this was the kind of game he was needed for. And he had nothing, losing 11-2. Perez came back strong the next day with a six-hitter and the game was tied 2-2 in the ninth.
Murphy continued to come through, drawing a ninth-inning walk, stealing second and scoring the winning run. The Braves kept themselves alive on Sunday. Hubbard got three hits and drove in two runs, McMurtry worked into the eighth and the 7-1 win kept Atlanta within three games going into the final week.
The Dodgers opened the door by splitting four games from Monday thru Thursday, but the Braves could only tread water. The margin was still at three games going into the final weekend. Atlanta was in San Diego, while Los Angeles was in San Francisco. It would take the equivalent of an inside straight—a Braves sweep, three Dodger losses and then winning a one-game playoff.
But at least Atlanta fans got put out of their misery early. In spite of an early home run from Murphy, they lost 3-2 on Friday. And it proved not to matter, because a half-hour after the game was over, Los Angeles won.
The season was still a success by any reasonable measure. What makes it seem disappointing in the bigger picture is that this proved to be the end of the good times. Atlanta went 80-82 in 1984 and Torre was fired. Of course he would revive himself in New York after a brief stint in St. Louis. The Braves disappeared from relevance until Bobby Cox arrived in 1991.