Search

TEAM OF THE DECADE THE BRAVES RAN AWAY WITH THEIR FOURTH DIVISION TITLE OF THE 1990S

Oct. 31, 1995
Oct. 31, 1995

Table of Contents
Oct. 31, 1995

TEAM OF THE DECADE THE BRAVES RAN AWAY WITH THEIR FOURTH DIVISION TITLE OF THE 1990S

A hint of how the Braves' 1995 season would go was encrypted
across rightfielder David Justice's undershirt, the one he wore
beneath his jersey on Opening Day: VANUATU. That's the
archipelago in the South Pacific where the godfather of
Justice's wife, the actress Halle Berry, once served as an
ambassador. Justice had a tenuous grasp of where the country
was located--"Somewhere on this planet," he said--but he kept
its lyrical name close to his heart in the season's early going,
and he was rewarded. In the second game of the year Justice
snapped a 3-3 tie with a three-run homer in the eighth inning,
powering the Braves to a 6-4 win over the San Francisco Giants.

This is an article from the Oct. 31, 1995 issue

It turns out that while Vanuatu is known mostly for its
volcanoes and tusker pigs, it's also known for a death-defying
practice called land diving. Vanuatuans tie vines to their
ankles and to platforms 80 feet in the air and then hurl
themselves headfirst toward the earth. The vines snap taut just
before the divers' noggins strike the ground. Land diving is, in
other words, bungee jumping without those little comforts of
breathing space and extra-strength elastic.

The Braves did a kind of land diving in the summer of 1995.
Justice's game-winning shot typified their bold brinkmanship,
their gift for squeezing out just enough offense to avoid a
fatal crash. Of Atlanta's National League-leading 90 wins, a
league-high 25 would come in the club's last at bat.

Of course, in the end Atlanta would take the National League
East title by a cozy 21 games over the Philadelphia Phillies and
the New York Mets. This was the Braves' largest first-place
margin in their history as a franchise. But during the season's
first two months, Atlanta seemed about as resilient as a land
diver toting a piano. By the end of June the team had had five
losing streaks of three games or more, had not been in first
place for 55 days and was trailing the Phillies by four games.

Then the Braves had a remarkable July, during which they
rediscovered their hair-raising formula for success. Stopper
Mark Wohlers and the rest of the bullpen suddenly emerged, and
the Braves went on a 20-7 tear, roaring past the Phillies to
snatch an eight-game lead. Half of Atlanta's victories during
that stretch came in its last at bat, with eight different
players delivering the 10 decisive blows. Outfielder Dwight
Smith, picked up in the off-season as a free agent, marveled at
his new teammates' flair for the dramatic. "I watched them do
that in 1991 and '92, and I thought it was a fluke," Smith said.
"Now I can see why. The pitching keeps you close enough to be a
hero."

Ah, yes, the pitching. For the third time in four years the
Braves' staff led the National League in earned run average,
this time checking in at 3.44. And for the fourth straight
season righthander Greg Maddux was the ace of all clubs,
finishing with a 19-2 record and a major-league-low 1.63 ERA. He
began Atlanta's season auspiciously: Despite having been limited
to only 42 pitches in spring training because of chicken pox,
Maddux stymied the Giants over five innings on Opening Day,
giving up one run on a solo homer by J.R. Phillips, and the
Braves won 12-5.(In his first at bat for Atlanta, centerfielder
Marquis Grissom, acquired only three weeks before from the
Montreal Expos, doubled to touch off a four-run uprising in the
first inning.)

Only 24,091 people showed up that day at Atlanta-Fulton County
Stadium, a measure of the anger and apathy felt by local
baseball fans over last year's late-season players' strike. In
'94 the Braves had averaged crowds of 46,168; in '95 attendance
would tumble to 35,582 per game. "It's a little disappointing,
but I can understand where they're coming from," Maddux said.
"I'm a fan too."

The fan's lot, naturally, is to suffer, and May would serve as
the cruelest month for the Brave faithful. Philadelphia started
the misery with its first sweep of a four-game series in Atlanta
in 22 years. On May 5, Phillie righthander Tyler Green earned
his first major league victory, 9-4, in the process snapping a
four-game Atlanta winning streak. The next day lefty Mike Mimbs,
making his official big league debut, blanked the Braves over
six innings of an eventual 3-1 Philadelphia win. Even Maddux
could not stanch the bleeding. He started against the Phillies
on May 7 but had to leave the game after the fifth inning
because of pain in the knee he had injured in a first-base
collision in the third. The Braves lost 5-4. Atlanta also
dropped the series finale, 3-2, but that game was overshadowed
by the arrest of manager Bobby Cox the night before on simple
battery charges (later dismissed) stemming from a domestic
disturbance. "The Phillies gave us a wake-up call," Atlanta
second baseman Mark Lemke said after the series was over.

As Philadelphia left town, the Braves' problems were myriad:
Injuries had sidelined Justice and young slugger Ryan Klesko;
Grissom's average had dipped perilously close to .200; and the
bullpen had blown three of six save opportunities. But Atlanta
began to pull out of its tailspin in New York on May 9, when
rookie third baseman Chipper Jones, subbing in left for Klesko,
drilled a leadoff homer in the ninth that was doubly sweet: Not
only did it give the Braves another last-chance win, 3-2, but it
also marked Jones's first home run in 48 big league at bats.
"It was a long time coming, and I got quite emotional," Jones
said. "I went into the tunnel to gather myself."

Jones spent that night channel-surfing on his hotel TV to catch
replays of his shot. All that viewing must have seeped into his
muscle memory; in the next three weeks he would club six more
dingers, which would help propel him to a 23-homer, 86-RBI
season and make him a leading candidate for National League
Rookie of the Year. Still, the Braves remained erratic, bowing
twice to the Mets, on May 10 and 11. After losing to the
Cincinnati Reds on May 12, Atlanta had a losing record (7-8) for
the first time in two years. More ominous, former Brave Ron
Gant, now with the Reds, delivered a pair of game-winning blows
against Atlanta on May 12 and 14, and on May 17 the Colorado
Rockies dealt Maddux his first loss, 6-5. "We've been way too
inconsistent," Cox said. "We've got to get it straightened out."

Six straight wins, beginning May 18--the second coming on a
pinch-hit ninth-inning grand slam by Smith to give the Braves a
4-0 triumph over the Florida Marlins--put Atlanta above .500 to
stay. But suddenly the club found itself struggling to score,
and the Houston Astros won three straight against the planet's
most feared succession of starters: John Smoltz (who would go
12-7 on the season, with a 3.18 ERA), Maddux and Tom Glavine
(16-7, 3.08).

Though only a rookie, Jones suggested a team meeting--"We need a
kick in the butt," he said--and on June 5, Glavine convened a
players-only session. It lasted 30 minutes. There was no
screaming, no finger-pointing. Afterward, Glavine denied that
the Braves had become complacent. "The one thing that has always
made this team strong in the end, and the reason that we have
been able to come back from large deficits, is that we never
panic," he said. Through the rest of June, Atlanta's Big Three
made 13 starts, and the Braves won 10 times. On the 30th,
however, Smoltz bowed 3-1 to open a four-game set at
front-running Philly.

Then, with a mere turn of a calendar page, Atlanta's fortunes
changed. Maddux whipped the Phils 3-1 on a five-hitter, Glavine
followed with a 5-3 victory, and the oft-dormant offense
awakened for a 10-4 win behind Steve Avery before 59,203 fans at
Veterans Stadium. That cut the Phils' lead to one game.

Over the season the Braves' attack was seldom overpowering:
Atlanta would finish second to last in the league with a .250
batting average and third to last with 73 steals, and only one
Brave hitter would appear in the top 10 in any category: Fred
McGriff, who was 10th in RBIs. But Atlanta would finish fourth
in slugging percentage (.409), and only altitude-aided Colorado
would belt more homers than the Braves' 168, with McGriff (27),
Justice (24), Klesko (23) and Jones each exceeding a score.
"It's not just hitting, it's knowing when to hit," Justice would
say. "We used to hear this a lot when we were in the minors: You
can be 0 for 3 or 0 for 4, but one at bat can change the game."

Atlanta would spend the rest of July illustrating just that
point, starting with a three-game home sweep of the Los Angeles
Dodgers. On July 4, before the Braves' first sellout crowd to
date (49,104), a banged-up Jeff Blauser blooped a run-scoring,
broken-bat single in the eighth for a 3-2 win. The next night
Jones hit a two-out, three-run homer in the ninth for a 4-1
defeat of the team he grew up supporting. ("So Chipper's a big
fan, huh?" Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda said. "That's just
great.") And in the finale, McGriff's ninth-inning single with
one out knocked in Grissom for a 1-0 Brave victory.

Such dramatic hitting almost obscured an equally critical factor
in the Braves' turnaround: the bullpen. Relievers earned all
three wins against L.A., yielding no hits in five innings of
work. Most important, the 25-year-old Wohlers laid irrefutable
claim to the closer's role, whiffing Dodger Tim Wallach with a
101-mph fastball to save the first game and fanning the side to
win the second. During July, Wohlers won three games and saved
six. In one memorable outing, on July 24 against the Pittsburgh
Pirates, seven of Wohlers's 12 pitches were clocked in triple
digits, one at 103 mph.

Wohlers would finish the year with a 7-3 record, 90 K's in
64 2/3 innings, a 2.09 ERA and 25 saves. From June 5 to Sept. 3
he would make good on 21 straight save opportunities, a Brave
record. By mastering the slider in the off-season, he had
finally found a pitch to complement his heater, the fastest in
the game. And by moving his locker away from that of pitching
coach Leo Mazzone, he had spared himself the analysis of his
past problems that Mazzone constantly shared with reporters.
Wohlers's new neighbor, Maddux, urged him to be more aggressive.
"I made up my mind I was going to let it all go and not worry
about what people were saying or writing about me," Wohlers
said. "If you worry and you're not confident, you can't get to
your best level."

The Braves took a one-game lead over the Phillies during that
sweep of the Dodgers and thereafter never trailed in the
standings as their bats continued to deliver late-game lightning.

July 9, bottom of the ninth: McGriff blasts a three-run homer
to center to dump the Giants 3-2, extending Atlanta's winning
streak to nine.

July 20, bottom of the ninth: Catcher Charlie O'Brien caps a
two-run rally with a single that trips the Pirates 4-3.

July 22, bottom of the eighth: Catcher Javier Lopez drives in
the game-winning run, snapping a 2-2 tie with the San Diego
Padres.

July 23, bottom of the eighth: With a sacrifice fly by Blauser,
the Braves beat the Padres again, this time by a score of 2-1.

July 24, top of the ninth: Klesko drills a leadoff homer to
center at Pittsburgh for a 3-2 win.

July 25, top of the 10th: Smith smacks a two-out, two-run
single to beat the Pirates 3-1.

July 28, top of the ninth: Justice singles in the go-ahead run
at San Francisco, and Lopez follows with a three-run homer for a
6-2 win.

By season's end 13 Braves would come through with late-inning,
game-winning hits, including reserve outfielder Luis Polonia,
whom the Braves acquired on Aug. 11 in a trade with the New York
Yankees. "People knock us," Cox said. "They say we have no
bullpen, we can't hit. But when the ninth inning comes, we find
a way to win."

While the suspense of the pennant race had ended by early
August, there would be a few more moments of note. In the middle
of the month the Braves tuned up against their future playoff
foes by taking two of three from both the Reds and the Rockies.
And toward the end of August, Atlanta won seven straight, all on
the road, and Maddux produced his masterpiece of the season, an
88-pitch, two-hit, 1-0 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals.
Maddux ended the season with a big-league-record 18-game road
winning streak.

It was after winding up a three-game series at Colorado on Sept.
13 and before arriving in Cincinnati for a series with the Reds
that Atlanta became the first National League team to clinch
four straight division championships. The Braves learned about
their title 37,000 feet above St. Joseph, Mo., where news of
Philadelphia's 5-4 loss to the Expos reached their charter
flight. Said Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz, "It was
the highest I've ever been when I learned that we clinched."

The Braves greeted the news with some applause, but most of the
champagne remained chilled until a party the next day in
Cincinnati. There was reason for caution: Atlanta's land-diving
experiences in the postseason had been fraught with peril. "Our
only goal is to get back to the World Series," Wohlers said,
"and win this time."

COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT CUNNINGHAMJones had a rookie season to smile about, and Justice, despite tepid hitting, was still one of the bases of the Braves' attack. [Chipper Jones and Fred McGriff]COLOR PHOTO: ALLEN KEE/BOB ROSATO SPORTS PHOTOGRAPHY [See caption above--David Justice]COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN DANIEL The sure hands of Lopez behind the plate and Blauser at short kept the Brave defense sharp even when the bats were dull. [Javier Lopez]COLOR PHOTO: ALLEN KEE/BOB ROSATO SPORTS PHOTOGRAPHY [See caption above--Jeff Blauser]COLOR PHOTO: ALLEN KEE/BOB ROSATO SPORTS PHOTOGRAPHY The power-hitting Klesko broke a few bats, while the acrobatic Blauser tried to keep foes from breaking up double plays. [Ryan Klesko]COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO [See caption above--Delino DeShields sliding under Jeff Blauser]COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT CUNNINGHAMBy early August, Cox had it made in the shade. [Bobby Cox]