For two straight years, the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates battled in the National League Championship Series. Over the 1991-92 stretch, both teams enjoyed the role of favorite and both teams enjoyed homefield advantage under the rotation system that at the time. These playoff battles had two other things in common—both times they went all seven games and both times it was Atlanta pouring champagne at the end.
Atlanta came into the 1991 NLCS in what most people would consider a “just happy to be here” mode. They had completed a stunning worst-to-first transformation to reach the postseason. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, was the team that had gotten playoff-tested in a 1990 NLCS loss to the Cincinnati Reds. The ‘91 Pirates came into the playoffs as the best team in baseball and nothing less than winning their first World Series since 1979 would suffice.
You can read more about the regular season paths the Braves and Pirates took to win their respective divisions and who their most important contributors were at the links below. These article will focus specifically on the games of the 1991 NLCS.
The series opened in old Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh with a pitching matchup of the last two Cy Young Award winners. The Pirates’ Doug Drabek had won the award in 1990. Tom Glavine for the Braves won it in 1991 (though this wouldn’t be officially known until November).
Pittsburgh quickly jumped on Glavine. Andy Van Slyke hit a solo home run in the first inning and delivered an RBI double in the third as the Pirates took a 3-0 lead. Drabek contributed to his own cause in the sixth with an RBI double, while also shutting down the Atlanta lineup. The Braves didn’t score until the ninth when a meaningless home run from David Justice helped the avoid a shutout. Pittsburgh took the opener 5-1.
A pair of lefties matched up in Game 2, Steve Avery for Atlanta and Zane Smith for Pittsburgh. The Braves blew a second-inning opportunity when three consecutive singles loaded the bases with none out. Rafael Belliard, batting in the 8-hole grounded into a force-out at home. Avery struck out and Smith escaped the jam. Over the home half of the second and the top of the third, each team had a man get on first and then steal both second and third base—Barry Bonds for the Pirates, Ron Gant for the Braves. Again, no one scored.
It wasn’t until the sixth that Atlanta broke through. Justice led off with a single and then scored ona two-out double from Mark Lemke. Avery kept the 1-0 lead to the bottom of the ninth, when Pittsburgh got a leadoff double from Barry Bonilla. Avery was able to get Bonds and prevent him from advancing the runner. Atlanta manager Bobby Cox summoned Alejandro Pena to get the final two outs. Pena made it interesting by uncorking a wild pitch that put Bonilla on third with one out. But Steve Buechele harmlessly tapped back to Pena for the second out and Curt Wilkerson struck out to end the game.
After a day off to travel south, the series resumed for Game 3 with a late afternoon start on Saturday. Atlanta’s young John Smoltz took the mound against Pittsburgh’s 20-game winner, John Smiley. The Pirates struck with first-inning home run from Orlando Merced. Smiley got the first two batters out in the bottom of the first, but then everything started to go the Braves’ way. Gant, Justice and Brian Hunter hit consecutive doubles, Greg Olson homered and in the blink of an eye it was 4-1. It was 6-1 after three innings, Smoltz worked into the seventh and the final was 10-3.
The Braves now seemed to hold the edge, with a favorable pitching matchup for Sunday night’s Game 4, as they had veteran lefty Charlie Liebrandt set to face the Pirates’ Randy Tomlin. And Atlanta jumped on Tomlin quickly when Lonnie Smith led off the first inning with a double and scored on consecutive productive outs. Three more singles by Justice, Hunter and Olson produced another run and a 2-zip lead.
But just as Smoltz settled in during Game 3, Tomlin got under control in Game 4 and Atlanta would not score—or even seriously threaten to score—again. Pittsburgh chipped away with single runs in the second and fifth innings to tie the game. In the 10th inning, Van Slyke drew a walk to start the inning against reliever Kent Mercker. After a steal of second and a walk, Cox went to the pen for Mark Wohlers. It didn’t work. Mike Lavalliere, a pinch-hitter delivered an RBI single that stood up for a 3-2 win.
The crucial Game 5 went down on late Monday afternoon, with Glavine going for Atlanta, while Pittsburgh used Zane Smith on short rest. Smith again was brilliant. He again got very little run support, but unlike Game 2 against he at least got a little bit. A fifth-inning walk, followed by singles from Don Slaught and Jose Lind gave the Pirates their only run.
In the meantime, Smith worked out of a couple jams early. The Braves loaded the bases with one out in the second, but Smith struck out Belliard and Glavine. In the fourth inning, Bonds threw out Justice at the plate. The 1-0 lead stood to the ninth inning when Atlanta again threatened, this time against reliever Roger Mason. There were runners on first and second with one out. Mason got Lemke to ground out. Hopes for Braves run rose when Jeff Blauser hit a line drive to right field. But it found Bonilla’s glove and this 1-0 game went Pittsburgh’s way.
The Pirates were the favored team to begin with, they had the series lead at 3-2 and they had two home games in their back pocket. They had Drabek and Smiley lined up to pitch .It seemed like a World Series trip was all but a formality. But Atlanta’s young pitching was about to make its strongest statement yet.
Avery faced Drabek in Game 6 and both pitchers were locked in. The Braves threatened in the first when Lonnie Smith reached third with one out, but Drabek got MVP third baseman Terry Pendleton to pop out. The game stayed scoreless to the seventh, with neither team threatening. In the top of the seventh, Gant reached third with one out and tried to score on a ground ball to short. Jay Bell came home with the ball and cut Gant down to keep the scoreless tie intact.
Gant was again in the midst of the action in the ninth, working a one-out walk and stealing second with two outs. Greg Olson doubled and there was finally a run on the board. With a 1-0 lead, Cox curiously opted to pinch-hit for Avery, who had allowed just three singles. Pena came on to close.
The decision might have backfired—pinch-hitter Gary Varsho immediately singled and was bunted to second for Pittsburgh’s first real scoring threat of the night. With two outs, he took third on a wild pitch. But Pena struck out Van Slyke and we were going to a Game 7.
It was Smoltz-Smiley for the decisive game, but this one proved to be somewhat anticlimatic. After so much great pitching on both sides, Smiley just didn’t have it. He allowed a two-run blast to Hunter in the first, was unable to finish the inning and Atlanta had a quick 3-0 lead. It looked like Pittsburgh would respond when their own half of the frame started with consecutive base hits. But Smoltz promptly ripped through Van Slyke, Bonillia and Bonds to kill the threat. Pittsburgh never got close again. Hunter drove in another run in the fifth. Smoltz went the distance with a six-hitter, and when he got Jose Lind to ground out to second to end the game, the party in Atlanta could begin.
In almost any other NLCS, Smoltz’s efforts might have gotten him the series MVP. But there was no denying Avery, who pitched what Pirate manager Jim Leyland called “the two games of his life”, in Games 2 & 6. Avery won 1991 NLCS MVP honors. Drabek and Zane Smith had each pitched extremely well in defeat for Pittsburgh. None of the big-name players on either side hit well, so the failure that stands out the most is the fact that in Smiley’s two starts, he pitched just 2.2 innings and gave up eight runs.
Atlanta went on to play another tense battle in the World Series against the Minnesota Twins, again going seven games. This time they ended up on the wrong end of a 1-0 pitcher’s duel, losing one of the great Game 7s ever played.
Neither franchise was going anywhere. Both would be back in this same place in 1992.