Thursday, December 3, 2015

Best Postseason Win: Atlanta Braves

The Atlanta Braves of the 1990s and early 2000s are one of baseball's longest-lasting dynasties (non-Yankee edition). They famously won 14 consecutive division titles (in completed seasons; the Expos led them in the NL East when the strike hit in 1994). You can argue that this record was enabled by the changes in baseball's playoff format - but that argument doesn't hold up terribly well, because if you lump the NL together as one giant league (and make the same exception for '94 that's already made for the division title streak), the Braves would have won seven consecutive pennants from 1992-99. That would also have been a record, and one set in a larger league than any of the Yankee dynasties it surpassed.

Given their constant presence in the postseason for a decade and a half, it should come as no surprise that the Braves won quite a few October games - 65 since the move to Atlanta, nearly all of them within their stretch of dominance. Some of those games were quite noteworthy - the clinching sixth game of the 1999 NLCS was an utterly wild 11-inning seesaw affair, the seventh game of the 1992 NLCS featured probably the most dramatic pinch hit single in baseball history, and the 1991 World Series, while best-known for dramatic victories by the opposing Twins, had a pair of spectacular wins by the Braves as well.

I am picking none of those games. Instead, the selection is (probably) the first NLDS game played under the new playoff format, Game 1 of the 1995 NLDS: Braves 5, Rockies 4. The Rockies started their ace, Kevin Ritz, who attained that status by being their only pitcher to qualify for the ERA title. (The Rockies actually had a pretty good pitching staff once you adjust for Coors Field, but it was very bullpen heavy.) The Braves countered with their ace, Greg Maddux, who earned that billing by winning the ERA title. For the third year in a row. And his fourth straight Cy Young award. And coming in third in the MVP voting. And winning his sixth straight Gold Glove, because the other stuff didn't make him ridiculous enough.

Greg Maddux was good. You all know this, and I'm not going to do a second consecutive multi-paragraph digression about a Hall of Fame Braves starter. Let's get to the game.

Ritz allowed a single to Mark Lemke in the top of the first, but erased him on a double play; Maddux gave up a one-out hit to Joe Girardi and left him on. The Braves almost had a rally going in the second, starting with a single by David Justice. Ryan Klesko followed with an infield hit back to the mound, and a Ritz throwing error moved Justice to third, but when Klesko tried to advance as well, he was thrown out at second, and Justice would be left at third. Ellis Burks singled in the home second and was eliminated when Vinny Castilla GDP'd.

Atlanta grabbed the game's first lead on a Marquis Grissom homer in the top of the third, and Maddux worked around an Eric Young double in the bottom of the inning. A Fred McGriff single and a Justice walk put Ritz in yet another jam in the fourth, but he struck out the next two Braves to escape the trouble, and Colorado struck in the bottom of the inning. Larry Walker drew a one-out walk, and Andres Galarraga singled him to third. Burks followed with a game-tying sacrifice fly, and Castilla redeemed his earlier double play ball with a go-ahead two-run homer, giving the Rockies the first postseason lead in franchise history.

It didn't last long. Ritz preserved it through the fifth, despite an error by Castilla, but after Maddux allowed another single and wiped it out with another double play, the Braves rallied in the sixth. Chipper Jones led off with a home run. One out later, Justice walked and Klesko singled; this time, when the Rockies made an error, Justice advanced to third and Klesko judiciously held at first. His discretion allowed Luis Polonia to tie the game by hitting into a forceout. A steal-plus-error and an intentional walk later, Maddux struck out to leave the go-ahead run at third.

Colorado picked up a pair of singles in the bottom of the sixth, but they were separated by, yes, another double play. Ritz was pulled to start the seventh, and Grissom greeted Steve Reed with a double, but then tried to advance on either a bunt or a grounder to the mound and was thrown out. Mark Lemke reached first on the play, but Jones proceeded to hit into his second double play of the game.

It is at this point that the madness truly began. Castilla led off the bottom of the seventh with a double and was lifted for a pinch runner. Maddux proceeded to hit Walt Weiss with a pitch (after hitting only four batters in over 200 regular season innings). Pinch hitter Jason Bates bunted into a force at second, and Young was intentionally walked to load the bases with one out; the Rockies hit for Girardi with John Vander Wal, who grounded into a 1-2-3 double play to end the inning.

Mike Munoz retired the first two Braves in the top of the eighth, but was lifted after allowing a single to Klesko. Darren Holmes took over and was greeted by a Javy Lopez single, and pinch hitter Dwight Smith singled as well, scoring Klesko and putting Atlanta in front 4-3. Mike Devereaux hit for Maddux and flied out to leave runners at the corners - which became immediately important when the Rockies rallied in the bottom of the inning. Greg McMichael issued a leadoff walk to Dante Bichette; Larry Walker then singled, and Bichette took third on an error. Galarraga hit into a force at second, with Bichette holding at third. Alejandro Pena relieved McMichael, and Burks tagged his first pitch for a game-tying RBI double, one which put the go-ahead run at third with one out. The remarkably-named Jayhawk Owens (it's his middle name, but still!) struck out, Weiss was intentionally walked to load the bases, and Bates flied to center, leaving the tie in place.

With two outs in the top of the ninth, Jones hit his second homer of the game off of Curtis Leskanic, putting Atlanta in front once again. Mark Wohlers relieved and recorded one quick out, but then allowed singles to Mike Kingery and Bichette. Larry Walker drew a base on balls to load the bases with one away. Galarraga worked a 2-2 count, but then struck out - which was a problem, because while the Rockies still had one out left, they had double-switched the pitcher's spot into the sixth position in the order, which was up next. That still would have been fine, but they had also used so many other double-switches and pinch hitters that they were out of position players. That left reliever Lance Painter as their best available bat, and four pitches later, he went down swinging and took Colorado's hopes with him.

As mentioned, the Braves had a number of exemplary postseason victories, so their honorable mention section is plentifully populated. The games listed in the intro are 1999 NLCS Game 6 (Braves score five in the first, Mets claw back and tie it at 7 in the seventh, then take the lead in the eighth; Braves rally to tie, Mets pull ahead in the tenth and the Braves tie it again, then win on a bases-loaded walk in the eleventh); 1992 NLCS Game 7 (Francisco Cabrera delivers the biggest out-of-nowhere hit in postseason history, finishing off probably the most dramatic half-inning in postseason history); and 1991 World Series Game 3 (Mark Lemke drives in the winning run in the twelfth) and Game 4 (Lemke triples and scores the winning run in the bottom of the ninth).

None of those games have the highest WPL in Braves postseason history - but neither did the game I chose. That distinction goes to another pretty obscure contest, 1999 NLDS Game 3 against the Astros, in which Houston struck for two early runs against Tom Glavine, Brian Jordan responded with a 3-run homer in the sixth, and the Astros tied it in the seventh, then left the bases loaded. The game went to extras, and the Braves put a runner at third with one out in the tenth, then failed to score. The Astros scoffed at that failure, and responded with a much more impressive one - loading the bases with nobody out in the bottom of the tenth, then hitting into two forces at home before a strikeout ended the inning. (The Atlanta reliever who escaped the jam was John Rocker, who had about two and a half months to revel in whatever hero status this game afforded him). Two innings later, Jordan doubled in a pair of runs, and Kevin Millwood, who two days earlier had thrown a one-hitter, was called on to secure the save in the bottom of the twelfth.

So why the chosen game over that one (and all the others)? First, there's history on its side. The circus that was 1981 kept it from being the first NLDS game ever played, but it was the first NLDS game played after the format was made permanent. On a smaller level, it was also the first postseason game for both Chipper Jones, and the Rockies as a franchise. Chipper's debut was quite an interesting one, too, as he had about as good a game as you can while hitting into two double plays; the two homers, one of which was a tiebreaker in the ninth, counteracted the twin killings nicely.

There's also the fact that this game was as consistently tense as any you'll find; there were 18 half-innings played, and not a single one went 1-2-3. The teams combined to hit 2 for 18 with runners in scoring position, and hit into six double plays. The action also escalated as the game progressed; the Rockies loaded the bases in a tie game in the seventh, re-tied the game and loaded the bases again in the eighth, and then loaded them once more while down a run in the ninth, but never landed the finishing blow.

Taking all of that into account, WPL grades this game in the 98th percentile, #32 in postseason history. That doesn't sound overwhelmingly impressive until you consider that all 31 of the games ahead of it went to extra innings - as did the 18 immediately behind it. It's the only nine-inning game to rank among the top 50 postseason games ever played (with the caveat that a couple of the top 50 are end-of-regular-season playoff games, and there's a 9-inning game in 51st). And since I think WPL may underrate nine-inning contests somewhat, I figured it was worth taking the opportunity to highlight a great one.

Plus, the Braves won the World Series in 1995, and as you may have heard, that wasn't something they made a habit of doing during their run of division titles.

You'd think we'd be finished with the Braves after writing them up twice in a row - unless you knew that they've made postseason appearances in three cities, which leaves one more to go. We'll head over a century into the past for the next entry, which will cover the Boston Braves.

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