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Sunday, July 27, 2014
Why didn't the Braves win more titles?

By David Schoenfield

This weekend's Hall of Fame induction ceremony features the best class we've had in a long time, with three first-ballot Hall of Famers in Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas and three legendary managers in Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre. After last year's shutout from the Baseball Writers' Association, coupled with a group of Veterans Committee inductees that included names last relevant more than 75 years ago, it's nice to celebrate an era of baseball we actually remember watching.

It's also a celebration of those great Atlanta Braves teams of the 1990s and early 2000s. Maddux and Glavine were teammates from 1993 through 2002, and the Braves won a division title in each of those seasons, excepting the never-completed 1994 season. Throw in division titles in 1991 and 1992 plus three more from 2003 to 2005 and the Braves won a remarkable 14 consecutive division titles, one of the most remarkable achievements in baseball history.

This article isn't meant to be a criticism or to detract from the accomplishments of Maddux, Glavine and Cox, but it's fair to point out that part of the legacy of those Braves teams is that those 14 playoff appearances led to just one World Series title (1995). Why wasn't it more? The law of averages -- if every playoff team were considered equal -- suggests the Braves should have won 2.1 championships in this period, so they underperformed by only one title by this measure.

But the Braves were often better than the opponent that beat them, at least in the regular season, so maybe it should have been at least three titles. I thought it would be interesting to go back and see what went wrong for them. We'll list three factors for each postseason series defeat during that period.

1991: Lost World Series in seven games to the Minnesota Twins
Let's go straight to Game 7, a classic game in maybe the best World Series ever played. (By starting at the end, we conveniently skip past Otis Nixon's drug suspension late in the season, Kent Hrbek doing this to Ron Gant in Game 2 and Kirby Puckett doing this in Game 6).

Atlanta Braves
The Braves tried everything in the 1991 World Series, even rally caps.
1. Lonnie Smith's bad baserunning on Terry Pendleton's double in the eighth inning. Chuck Knoblauch often gets credited for deking Smith by acting like it was a double-play grounder, but the highlight seems to show Smith simply lost track of the ball as opposed to falling for Knoblauch's phantom double play.

2. Still, the Braves had runners on second and third with no outs and couldn't score. Gant grounded out, and after an intentional walk to David Justice, Sid Bream grounded into a 3-2-3 double play. From what I can tell from a play-by-play search on Baseball-Reference.com, this is the only 3-2-3 double play in World Series history.

3. Dan Gladden's bloop double leading off the 10th off Alejandro Pena that eventually led to the winning run. Thank you, Metrodome turf.

1992: Lost World Series in six games to the Toronto Blue Jays

1. In Game 2 -- the Braves up 4-3 in the ninth, about to go ahead two games to none -- little-used Ed Sprague (one home run on the season) hits a two-run, pinch-hit homer off veteran reliever Jeff Reardon, who had been acquired late in the season.

2. More bullpen blues in Game 3. The Blue Jays had tied it in the eighth off Steve Avery, who was removed after a leadoff single in the bottom of the ninth. Mark Wohlers enters to face Joe Carter and Dave Winfield -- but Roberto Alomar steals second, so Bobby Cox intentionally walks Carter. Winfield bunts the runners along and Mike Stanton is brought in to face John Olerud, but Cito Gaston goes again to Sprague and Cox issues another intentional walk. Candy Maldonado then delivers a deep fly-ball single off Reardon to score the winner. The big mistake was walking Carter, a free swinger, but I'm guessing Cox never imagined Gaston would have Winfield bunt.

3. Nixon's bunt. OK, Otis could run. But in the bottom of the 11th, the Braves down 4-3, pinch runner John Smoltz at third base with two outs and the World Series on the line, Nixon tried to bunt for a hit. Gutsy play or dumb play? Mike Timlin fielded the bunt, and the Jays won.

1993: Lost NLCS in six games to the Philadelphia Phillies

1. Bad run distribution. The Braves outscored the Phillies 33-23, winning two games by 14-3 and 9-4 scores but lost three games by one run.

2. More bullpen blues: Greg McMichael, the rookie closer, lost Game 1 in the 10th inning on Kim Batiste's RBI double. Wohlers was the loser in the 10th inning of Game 5 when Lenny Dykstra homered.

3. Maddux's poor Game 6 outing. He walked four batters in giving up six runs in 5⅔ innings.

1995: Won World Series in six games over the Cleveland Indians

Atlanta Braves
The sole World Series celebration in 1995. One out of 14 straight postseasons … that's not so bad, is it?
What's interesting about the one title is that it probably wasn't the best Braves team of this era. This club went 90-54, a .625 winning percentage. (Remember, the 1995 season was shortened by the work stoppage that started in August 1994.) The Braves had a better winning percentage in 1993 (.642), 1998 (.654), 1999 (.636) and 2002 (.631). They also beat a dominant Indians team that had gone 100-44 while averaging 5.8 runs per game. Atlanta did it, no surprise, with pitching: The Indians hit just .179 in the series. Here's the final out.

1996: Lost World Series in six games to the New York Yankees

1. That hanging slider from Wohlers in Game 4.

2. Earlier in that game, the Braves led 6-0 in the sixth inning when a rookie named Derek Jeter lofted a pop fly down the right-field line that Jermaine Dye chased after … until he ran into umpire Tim Welke. The ball fell for a hit, starting a three-run rally. (We should have realized back then that the Yankees rookie shortstop was destined for greatness, considering he would also hit the Jeffrey Maier home run in the ALCS against the Baltimore Orioles a week earlier.)

3. Marquis Grissom's error. His dropped fly ball led to the only run in Game 5 as Andy Pettitte outdueled Smoltz 1-0.

1997: Lost NLCS in six games to the Florida Marlins

1. Eric Gregg. The worst strike zone in the history of baseball (undocumented but presumably true) helped rookie Livan Hernandez strike out 15 and beat Maddux 2-1 in Game 5. Here are all 15 strikeouts. Fast-forward to the 1:30 mark for the final out on Fred McGriff on a pitch that will make you laugh, cry and disgusted.

2. Glavine's stinker first inning in Game 6. Single, walk, single, two-run single, sacrifice bunt, intentional walk (sure seems like Cox issued a lot of intentional walks), HBP with the bases loaded, RBI groundout, strikeout. The Marlins were up 4-0 before the Braves came to bat.

3. Pinch hitting. Thought I'd throw this in here somewhere. Braves pinch hitters were generally awful in the postseason during these 14 years. I'm not sure if that had to with the strength (or lack thereof) of the Braves' benches or just something that happened. Cox always liked to carry a third catcher for the playoffs, which generally meant he wasted a roster spot when he could have had another pinch hitter available. Then again, during much of this period, he carried only nine or 10 pitchers, not the 11 or 12 you see now, so he still had plenty of pinch-hitting options. Anyway, by my count, from 1991 to 2005, Braves pinch hitters went 39-for-208 (.188) in the postseason with zero home runs, 17 walks and just 22 RBIs. Considering postseason pinch hitters are often used in critical situations, that performance had to have hurt. Outside of Francisco Cabrera in the 1992 NLCS, they were certainly lacking their Ed Sprague moments.

1998: Lost NLCS in six games to the San Diego Padres

1. Sterling Hitchcock. In two starts, San Diego’s journeyman left-hander allowed just one run in 10 innings.

2. More bullpen blues. The closer this year was another rookie named Kerry Ligtenberg, who was discovered in independent ball. He had a good year with 30 saves and a 2.71 ERA. The Braves generally had good bullpens during this period. They just didn't always pitch well in the postseason. In Game 1, Ken Caminiti torched Ligtenberg for a home run in the 10th inning.

Tom Glavine and Bobby Cox
Through five innings, Tom Glavine held the Padres scoreless in Game 6 of the 1998 NLCS. But in the sixth, this happened. Again.
3. Glavine's bad inning. Game 6 was tied 0-0 in the sixth when Glavine had another one of those innings and the Braves defense made a crucial error. (This seemed to happen quite a bit, surprising since the Braves were generally good defensively.) With one out, the Padres got two base hits and a groundout to take a 1-0 lead. But Wally Joyner singled to make it 2-0, and then a hit and a walk loaded the bases for Hitchcock. He hit a short line drive to left field that Danny Bautista dropped, and two runs scored. Maybe it didn't matter in the end as four relievers combined with Hitchcock on the two-hit shutout.

1999: Lost World Series in four games to the Yankees

1. Another crucial error. In Game 1, the Braves lead 1-0 in the eighth, with Maddux pitching a gem. Scott Brosius singles. Darryl Strawberry, pinch hitting, walks. Knoblauch bunts, but first baseman Brian Hunter -- who had just replaced Ryan Klesko for defense -- boots the play to load the bases. Jeter singles to tie the game, and Paul O'Neill greets John Rocker with a two-run single, with Hunter making another error that allowed the runners to move up a base. After an intentional walk and two strikeouts, Rocker walked Jim Leyritz with the bases loaded. Yankees win 4-1.

2. The Chad Curtis Game. Knoblauch had tied the game in the eighth with a two-run homer off Glavine that Brian Jordan just missed -- a classic Yankee Stadium home run. That led to Curtis, now rotting in jail after being convicted for sexual misconduct, hitting the game-winning home run, his second of the game, in the 10th inning off Mike Remlinger.

By the way, if you're counting, extra-winning wins, 1991-2005 postseason:

Braves: 8
Opponents: 13

3. Mariano Rivera. One win, two saves. The Yankees had him; the Braves didn't.

2000: Lost NLDS in three games to the St. Louis Cardinals

1. Maddux got pounded in Game 1.

2. Glavine got pounded in Game 2.

3. Kevin Millwood got pounded in Game 3.

2001: Lost NLCS in five games to the Arizona Diamondbacks

1. Randy Johnson. The Big Unit allowed two runs in 16 innings in winning both of his starts.

2. Bad Maddux, bad defense. In Game 4 -- a must-win against Albie Lopez, the weak link behind Johnson and Curt Schilling -- Maddux gave up eight hits and six runs in three innings. The Braves committed four errors in the game, including three in a four-run third, leading to three unearned runs.

3. Three-man rotation? Maddux and Glavine started Games 4 and 5 on three days' rest while Johnson started Game 5 on four days' rest. Neither pitched well. Was this an issue throughout this era? From 1991 to 2005, Braves starters pitched 24 times on three days' rest. There were some notable successes -- Smoltz pitched 7⅓ scoreless innings in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, Glavine pitched a four-hit complete game in Game 1 of the 1992 World Series, and Denny Neagle tossed a four-hit shutout in Game 4 of the 1997 NLCS -- but the Braves went 10-14 in these games and the starters allowed 4.37 runs per nine innings; when pitching on four or more days of rest in the other 98 games, the starters allowed 3.64 runs per nine innings and the team went 53-45.

So to recap, and considering Cox used his best starters on short rest:

Three days of rest: 10-14, 4.37 runs per nine innings. (The Braves were 0-3 in games started on two days' rest, after a starter had appeared earlier in relief.)
Four or more days of rest: 53-45, 3.64 runs per nine innings.

Cox understandably put a lot of faith in Glavine, Maddux, Smoltz and, early on, Avery. In retrospect, maybe he should have trusted the depth of his rotation a little more.

2002: Lost NLDS in five games to the San Francisco Giants

1. Glavine. In two starts, he lasted a combined 7⅔ innings, allowed 17 hits and 13 runs and had more walks (seven) than strikeouts (four). In his final playoff start for the Braves in Game 4, he got knocked out in the third inning after Rich Aurilia hit a three-run homer. Glavine signed with the Mets that offseason, and you wonder if his poor playoff performances in recent years was a reason the Braves let him go.

Greg Maddux
It was as if Greg Maddux couldn't bear to watch Barry Bonds round the bases after another NLDS home run in 2002.
2. Barry Bonds. This was the postseason Bonds was unstoppable. He hit three home runs and drew four walks in the five games, including a homer off Millwood in a 3-1 Giants win in the clincher.

3. One last gasp that fell short. Game 5, bottom of the ninth, the Braves had two on with nobody out. Gary Sheffield struck out and Chipper Jones grounded into a double play.

2003: Lost NLDS in five games to the Chicago Cubs

1. No offense. By 2003, the Braves had morphed into an offensive powerhouse. This team led the NL with 907 runs scored as Javy Lopez clubbed 43 home runs, Sheffield hit 39, Andruw Jones hit 36, and Chipper Jones hit .305 with 27 home runs. They hit .215 with three home runs against the Cubs.

2. Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. Prior pitched a two-hitter in Game 3 (throwing 133 pitches). In Game 5 in Atlanta, Wood allowed one run in eight innings. Again, note that Wood was pitching on four days of rest while Mike Hampton went on three days.

3. Smoltz as reliever. From 2001 through 2004, following Tommy John surgery that forced him to miss all of 2000, Smoltz became the team's closer. However, he rarely had save opportunities in the postseason in these years; considering he later returned with success to the rotation, you wonder how Braves history would have been different had Smoltz been starting those years.

2004: Lost NLDS in five games to the Houston Astros

1. Jaret Wright. The Braves' Game 1 starter (posting a 3.28 ERA that year), Wright gave up 10 runs in 9⅔ innings in his two starts and lost both games.

2. Carlos Beltran. He hit four home runs and drove in nine runs for the Astros in the five games, including going 4-for-5 with two homers and five RBIs in a 12-3 rout in Game 5 -- yet another Game 5 loss at home.

3. Marcus Giles. He hit .125 in the series without an RBI. In 25 postseason games for the Braves, he hit .217/.277/.315 with two home runs and six RBIs in 101 plate appearances. Not to pick on one guy or anything.

2005: Lost NLDS in four games to the Astros

1. Game 4. You could write a book on the longest postseason game ever played. The Astros prevailed in 18 innings when Chris Burke hit this walk-off home run off Joey Devine. You remember Joey Devine, right?

2. Kyle Farnsworth. The Braves blew a 6-1 lead in the eighth inning of that game. Farnsworth gave up a grand slam to Lance Berkman in the eighth and a game-tying home run with two outs in the ninth to Brad Ausmus.

3. Failed opportunities. The biggest came in the 14th inning when the Braves loaded the bases with one out. But Brian McCann struck out and pinch hitter Pete Orr grounded out. Roger Clemens, pitching on two days' rest after starting Game 2 and making his first relief appearance since 1984, then tossed three scoreless innings to get the win.

And that was it. The end of an era. That wasn't a great Braves club, going 90-72, at least compared to some of the earlier editions. In 2006, they fell to 79-83, but they rebuilt and gave Cox one final playoff appearance in 2010 -- in which the Braves lost the division series once again. (With another loss in 2013, the Braves have lost six consecutive division series, with a wild-card defeat thrown in as well.)

Still, it was a splendid stretch of baseball. From 1991 to 2005, the Braves played 125 postseason games. They won 63 games and lost 62. Maybe they should have won another World Series. In going through the play-by-play of a lot of these games, besides the obvious bullpen issues, I was struck by how many games were affected by errors. The Braves allowed 55 unearned runs in these 125 postseason games; as it turns out, that total isn't that much different from how the Braves performed in the regular season. From 1991 to 2005, not including 1994, they averaged 61 unearned runs per season; in the postseason, they were a little worse, as their total prorates to 71 over 162 games.

Of course, in the postseason, when the margin for error is smaller and the opponents better, those mistakes become more important. Still, maybe that wasn't a decisive factor; the Braves reached on an error 58 times in these 14 playoff years, their opponents 64.

Maybe a key to the Braves' success -- starting pitching depth -- just wasn't as big of a factor in the playoffs, when their opponents could shorten their rotations. Maybe power pitching does win in October; think of some of the pitchers the Braves lost to (Schilling with the Phillies and Diamondbacks; Johnson; Wood and Prior; Clemens and Roy Oswalt). The Braves' best playoff starter was Smoltz, more of a power pitcher than Maddux and Glavine. Maddux went 11-13 with a 2.81 ERA in his Braves postseason career but also allowed 18 unearned runs in 27 starts; he was good but not quite the Maddux of the regular season. Glavine was 12-15 with a 3.44 ERA in his Braves postseason career. (He had a 3.15 ERA in the regular season during this period.)

But Braves fans will always have 1995, Maddux pitching a two-hitter to win the opener and Glavine clinching it with that masterful Game 6 performance, allowing just one hit in eight innings. It's hard to believe that was 19 years ago.