In 1991, the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates staged a great seven-game NLCS that saw the Braves come out on top. It was a difficult act to top, but when Atlanta and Pittsburgh got together again for 1992 NLCS, it was even better. They again went seven games and again it was the Braves moving on to the World Series—this time with a ninth-inning rally for the ages.
You can read more about the regular season paths the Braves and Pirates took to win their respective division titles, and about their key players, at the links below. This article will focus exclusively on the games of the 1992 NLCS.
Atlanta had homefield advantage by virtue of the rotation system that existed at the time. They sent John Smoltz to the mound to face Pittsburgh ace Doug Drabek. The Braves struck first with a two-out RBI single from second baseman Mark Lemke in the second inning. Sid Bream, a former Pittsburgh first baseman now in Atlanta, added to the lead with an RBI double in the fourth. Jeff Blauser homered off Drabek in the fifth.
Meanwhile, Smoltz was cruising. He went eight innings and the Braves closed out a comfortable 5-1 win. If Game 1 was comfortable for Atlanta fans, Game 2 was a positive breeze. A Blauser triple off Pirate lefty Danny Jackson was the big blow in a four-run second inning. In the fifth, Atlanta’s Ron Gant hit a grand slam.
Even when Pittsburgh tried to get back in the game with four runs of their own in the seventh, the Braves promptly answered with five in the bottom half of the inning. The final was 13-5, as Atlanta held serve at home.
Pittsburgh was up against it and facing 20-game winner Tom Glavine in Game 3. The Pirates were sending out a mostly unknown 25-year-old knuckleballer named Tim Wakefield. Wakefield went toe-to-toe with Glavine and the game was tied 2-2 in the bottom of the seventh.
Gary Redus got the Pittsburgh half of the seventh going with his third hit of the night. He moved to third on a double by Jay Bell and scored on a sac fly by Andy Van Slyke. Wakefield made the 3-2 lead stand up with a complete-game five-hitter.
A Smoltz-Drabek rematch was on tap for Saturday night’s Game 4. Once again, the Braves got to Drabek by the second inning. This time it was Smoltz helping his own cause with an RBI single. Leadoff hitter Otis Nixon followed with one of his own and it was quickly 2-0.
But the Pirates answered with two of their own, as Drabek worked a walk and came around to score. When Pittsburgh grabbed a run in the third, as Barry Bonds walked and scored on a double by Orlando Merced, it looked the Pirates were ready to make this a series again.
But Nixon was peppering away at Drabek and the leadoff man would finish with four hits on the night. Another one came in the top of the fifth and started a two-run rally that sent the Pirate starter to the showers. In the top of the sixth, Smoltz again produced with his bat. He singled, stole second and scored on another Nixon base hit. Blauser drove in another run. Atlanta won the game 6-4. They had a 3-1 series lead.
The season on the line, Pittsburgh turned to 35-year-old Bob Walk to try and beat young Atlanta lefty Steve Avery. The previous October, Avery had been NLCS MVP with two brilliant games, and he’d also won Game 2 this year. On this Sunday night, the Pirates finally got him. They ripped four doubles in the first inning alone. Jeff King and Lloyd McClendon, a future Pittsburgh manager, had three hits apiece. Walk went the distance and allowed three hits. The final was 7-1.
With two games still in Atlanta, the Game 5 result seemed more like a nice sendoff to the Pittsburgh fans than anything that was really going to alter the course of the series. But the Pirates kept the momentum going in the Glavine-Wakefield rematch of Game 6.
Bonds started the top of the second with a home run. Two singles, two doubles and a Braves error followed. Then Jay Bell hit a three-run blast. A stunned Atlanta crowd was staring at an 8-0 deficit. Wakefield again went the distance in a 13-4 rout. Another Game 7 between these two teams was at hand.
It was Smoltz-Drabek III and Game 7 was a tension-filled classic. Van Slyke doubled in the first inning and later scored on a Merced sac fly. The 1-0 lead kept Pittsburgh’s momentum going. Drabek pitched around a leadoff double in the third. In the sixth, Bell doubled down the left field line and scored on a base hit from Van Slyke. Drabek was locked in with a 2-0 lead and a feeling of inevitability was starting to envelope this improbable Pittsburgh comeback.
Drabek continued to pitch out of trouble in the seventh. With runners on first and second and one out, he retired Lonnie Smith and Damon Berryhill on a consecutive flyballs to preserve the lead. In the top of the eighth, with Merced on first base, King doubled down the rightfield line. Merced tried to score with a big insurance run, but David Justice threw him out at the plate. Smoltz was able to keep it a 2-0 game going into the ninth.
Atlanta’s veteran third baseman Terry Pendleton opened the bottom of the ninth with a double that raised hopes. Justice hit a harmless groundball to second, but it was booted by Jose Lind. Suddenly, the Braves had the tying runs aboard with no one out. Bream worked a walk. The bases were loaded. Drabek’s courageous night was over and closer Stan Belinda came on.
Gant hit the ball hard to left, but Bonds tracked it down. The run scored from third to make it 2-1 and Berryhill drew a walk. Again, the bases were loaded. The bottom of the Atlanta order was up and it would be two pinch-hitters that would have to deliver.
The more dangerous of the two, Brian Hunter got the first chance. Belinda got him to pop up to second. Then he got ahead in the count 1-2 to Francisco Cabrera, a lightly regarded reserve catcher. Then Cabrera singled to left. The game was certainly tied and the slow-footed Bream came booking around third, looking to score the winning run.
Bonds had many extraordinary talents as a baseball player, but his arm wasn’t one of them. His throw was just off-target enough to allow Bream to slide in safely. Pittsburgh’s improbable comeback from 3-1 down in the series had been displaced by Atlanta’s improbable ninth-inning comeback of Game 7.
Smoltz was named NLCS MVP for his two wins and strong Game 7 outing that kept it close. Wakefield would likely have been the choice had Pittsburgh hung on, for his two complete game wins. What did the Pirates in overall was that none of their hitters had a signature series. Atlanta’s hitting hadn’t been great, but Nixon batted .375 for the series. Justice finished with a .419 on-base percentage/.560 slugging percentage, with Bream clocking in at .360/.545.
Atlanta wasn’t able to finish the job in the World Series against the Toronto Blue Jays. The Braves won the first game and a had two-run lead late in Game 2. But the phenomena of the unknown pinch-hitter worked against them this time, as Toronto’s Ed Sprague tied the game with a shocking home run. The Blue Jays won that game and the next two at home. The Braves ultimately lost an 11-inning classic in Game 6 that ended the Series.
After the great battles of 1991-92, the Braves and Pirates went in separate directions. Pittsburgh, as expected, lost the core of its team to free agency. The franchise fell off a cliff and never even broke .500 for more than twenty years. Atlanta kept on winning. They went to the postseason every year until 2006. They had three more World Series trips ahead of them and in 1995, they won it all.