Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Triumph of 2014

Every season has great moments that define that season.  Some of these moments will forever be etched in our memory.  Others will fade and become forgotten.  So as we get ready to head into the hot stove months I would like to take a moment and look at the great positive moments of 2014:

Buehrle, Hudson, Lincecum and Beckett comebacks
Each of the four pitchers, at one point in their career, were considered among the top pitchers in the game.  For varying reasons, whether age, injury or mystery, they fell from the top.  Buehrle was among those considered too old but had a great start to the season and was named an All Star.  Hudson was once one of the A's "big three" but had aged and when he suffered a gruesome injury at the end of last year his career was feared over. Hudson did not have a tremendous regular season (it was not bad but he was not a Cy Young candidate) but he was a big reason the Giants won despite losing Matt Cain.  The fact that he could pitch at all was amazing.  Tim Lincecum was once known as "the Freak" for his ability to pitch  but fell off in his success to the point where people feared his time in San Francisco might be over.  Lincecum had a bounce back season that included a no-hitter against the Padres.  Josh Beckett was once considered the ace of the Red Sox staff but when things went bad he was at the center of the controversy. He was dealt to the Dodgers in 2012 where he missed most of the rest of the season.  He also missed most of the season in 2013 and had only an 0-5 record.  Beckett's 2014 started great and included a no-hitter, although a trip to the DL in July derailed the come back.

Pujols 500th

Albert Pujols' first few years in Anaheim have not prodced the results that were expected when he signed the big contract.  To be fair those results are not his fault as the bull pen since his arival has been attrocious but he is given the blame by many fans.  Pujols solidified his Hall of Fame credentials and got his first iconic Angels moment on 4/22 when he hit his 500th career Home Run.  Just for good measure he added number 501 the same night.  Albert ended the year at 520, 14th on the all time list.  He sits just behind Hall of Famers Ted Williams, Frank Thomas, Willie McCovey, Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle and Mike Schmidt.  Speaking of Michael Jack Schmidt...

Jimmy Rollins passes Schmidt:

The Phillies organization has had some great players in their history.  The top players normally mentioned are Chuck Klein, Richie Ashburn, Lenny Dykstra and Mike Schmidt.  This year Jimmy Rollins made a case to become the greatest Phillie of all time.  Rollins is in the top 10 Phillies all time in games played (2nd), At Bats (1st), Plate Appearances (2nd), runs (3rd), Total Bases (2nd), Doubles (1st), Triples (3rd), Home Runs (9th), RBI (7th), walks (6th) and Stolen Bases (2nd).  This season Rollins passed Mike Schmidt as the all time hit leader in Phillies' history.

Derek Jeter, Paul Konerko:

The same season that saw the loss of some of the game's great statesmen in Tony Gwynn and Don Zimmer the game also saw the retirement of two of the classiest players in decades.  Paul Konerko is a six time All Star with the White Sox and was the leader on the first White Sox World Series team since 1959 and the first winning World Series team since 1917.  Konerko has represented the city of Chicago with class and has been well respected league wide.  When Konerko retired afer 18 years he was just below 450 Home Runs (439) and just short of 2500 hits (2340) but should get consideration for the Hall of Fame.

Another great player retired this year and his impact on the league was even greater than Konerko's.  Derek Jeter first played for the Yankees in 1995.  In his 20 years in the league Jeter won the Rookie of the Year, played in 14 All Star Games, received MVP votes in 12 seasons (three times finishing in the top 3), five Gold Gloves and four Silver Sluggers.  He will also retire as the only Yankee to achieve 3000 hits in a Yankees uniform.  Speaking of hits, Jeter ended his career as the #6 man on the all time list for hits.  Those ahead of him:  Rose, Cobb, Aaron, Musial and Speaker.   And that is just the regular season.  It does not include the post season.  His teams made the post season 16 times.  He has played in 158 post season games (nearly a full season's worth of games) and he has 200 hits, 111 runs, 61 RBI, 32 doubles, 5 triples, 20 Home Runs, 18 Stolen Bases and a .308 average in the post season.  Of his 16 post season appearances his teams have reached the World Series 7 times and have won five (1996, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2009).  Jeter was also the 2000 World Series MVP.  Jeter was more than all the numbers.  He was the leader of one of the great periods of the greatest franchise in sports.  He was the captain of the Yankees dynasty and the face of the game.  Jeter was the class of the league.  Although it is nearly impossible to imagine that some one might be able to fill his shoes some day we know that someone will.  We had the same thoughts when DiMaggio retired, when Jackie Robinson retired, when Sandy Koufax retired, when Clemente died, when Aaron retired, when Yastrzemski retired, when Nolan Ryan retired and when Gwynn and Ripken retired.  The feeling is always that the league has lost something that will never be replaced and in some senses that is true since all players are unique but there will be someone to pick up the position Jeter has left and carry it forward.  We just don't know who yet.

Kansas City, Seattle, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Toronto, Washington, Pittsburgh
For years this group of teams have struggled in the middle or bottom of the league and have been considered "small market" teams.  The theory has been that teams in small markets are unable to compete with the big earning teams in Los Angeles, Boston and New York.  This year Seattle, Milwaukee, and Toronto were in the fight right down to the end. Kansas City, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Washington all made the playoffs and a few even advanced in the post season.

In the first part of the season the Giants looked like they would be running away with the season.  By the All Star Break they had squandered their lead and fallen to second place.  What we got out of this back and forth was a classic Dodgers-Giants battle that went back and forth all summer long.  For years we have seen the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry but what we got this summer goes even farther back than that.  With the division on the line we even had a some pushing and shoving in their final showdown.

NL Central
Last season the Pirates, Reds and Cardinals all made the post season.  The Brewers were considered by many on the down trend and were expected to be an outsider in the division race.  Instead what we got was four teams fighting for first place and with the Braves and Dodgers leading the Wild Card race for most of the year it meant that the teams in the Central looked to be fighting for one playoff spot.  In the end the Brewers collapsed terribly.  The Reds suffered through injuries.  The Pirates went into the final day of the year with a chance to force a one game playoff for the division.  With the Cubs gathering young talent and adding Joe Maddon it could get even closer next year.

Bud Selig:
Bud Selig took over a stagnant league in the 1990's and built it back into a league that could compete with the NFL.  Some of the changes he made have worked and some have not.  Some have been well received and some will need to be evaluated with a longer view.  Regardless, with Selig at the head of the league things have improved from where they were under Faye Vincent.  As Selig moves on there are questions of how his replacement will fare.  Only time will tell but Selig has certainly set him up nicely.

Hall of Fame
One year after the steroids era disrupted the Hall of Fame weekend the Hall of Fame inducted 6 well deserving members.  Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas were inducted as players.  Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre were inducted as managers.  All six new members were obvious choices and there was never a question that these members will represent the Hall of Fame with class.  Hopefully, this will help us move past the disaster of 2013 but that may be too much to ask.

The Trade Deadline:
For the last few years the trade deadline has been a big disappointment.  Lots of talk with most major deals fizzling out at the end.  This year things were different.  The A's kicked things off early on the final day with a trade that sent Cespedes to Boston for Lester and Gomes. Most of the rest of the teams followed suit and one of the best trade deadlines in almost a decade was in full swing.  The Tigers picked up David Price, the Cardinals picked up John Lackey and Justin Masterson and the Yankees picked up several players.  Some of the players ended up effecting the playoff run but mostly it was the excitement generated by the activity that was most important.

Jose Altuve:
Jose Altuve played his first full season in the Major Leagues with Houston in 2012 and made the All Star team over Brandon Phillips.  As the lone representative for the Astros many fans felt that this was another example of why managers should not be forced to include representatives of every team.  Altuve's place kept Brandon Phillips of the Reds off the team.  As a fan of Brandon Phillips I questioned why he didn't make the team but after looking at Altuve's numbers it would be hard to argue that he didn't belong.  Altuve's numbers improved in 2012 and his fielding is often spectacular.  In 2014 Altuve showed what he is truly capable of. He madethe All Star team (his second), set a Houston Astros record for hits in a single season (225) and won the American League batting title.  He also finished 13th in the MVP voting (not bad for a player on a team that was never in contention) and won the Silver Slugger.  It will be fun to see wha Altuve can do for 2015.

The 2014 Playoffs:
The playoffs kicked off with a great game in Kansas City.  The fact that Kansas City, Baltimore and Pittsburgh reached the playoffs at all was excitement but the Wild Card game between Kansas City and Oakland was amazing.  There was no way that could be matched.  Then it was.  In the LDS and LCS rounds nearly every game was close.  It all ended with a tight Game 7 that saw Madison Bumgarner come in to close the game.  While just moments before Bumgarner got the final we nearly saw Gregor Blanco become the new Bill Buckner.

Think I missed a great moment?  let me know in the comments section.

Mentioned today was the fact that Milwaukee, Toronto, Kansas City and Seattle were all in the playoff hunt for the first time in a very long time.  When was the last time each had made the playoffs?

Answer to Last Week's Trivia Question:
Cecil Fielder played for the Tigers from 1990 through part of the 1996 season.  Cecil started with the Blue Jays but spent several years playing in Japan before returning to star for the Tigers. Cecil hit 245 Home Runs  and drove in 758 runs with the Tigers.
Prince Fielder, Cecil's son, signed with the Tigers after the 2011 season.  He played in Detroit for the 2012 and 2013 seasons.  Prince hit 55 Home Runs and drove in 214 in Detroit.
That gives father and son 300 Home Runs and 972 RBI in their time in Detroit.  

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Almost a Dynasty: 2000's Tigers

What actually makes a sports dynasty?  Obviously a teem needs to be successful for a continuous amount of time.  Every sport has that one iconic dynasty that fits the Dynasty category.  The NBA had the Boston Celtics who won nine out of ten championships.  The Montreal Canadiens won 7 of nine Stanley Cups (including six straight).  The NFL had several dynasties including the 49'ers, the Steelers, the Cowboys and, most recently, the Patriots.  Baseball itself has had the Yankees dynasties in several incarnations including the 1930's, 1950's and 2000's.

So what actually makes a team a dynasty?  There can of course be several definitions since there are varying levels of success.  A team can dominate their division for a decade but be bounced out in the first round of the playoffs year after year.  We could of course consider that to be a divisional dynasty but you wouldn't call it an overall baseball dynasty.  So let us set the perameters for this series of articles.  A dynasty, for our purposes here, is a team that wins multiple World Series championships (above two as back to back is nice but not a dynasty) within a 5-10 year period.  That being defined, this series will explore those teams that may have been a divisional or league dynasty but for whatever reason could not get over the hump to that World Series dynasty.

This series will show an array of near dynasties.  Some are teams that made the World Series year after year but fell short.  Others will be teams that competed right down to the end of the regular season year after year just to be beaten out.  It will be a series of near misses and what could have beens.

Don't miss the other almost dynasty articles: The Detroit Tigers of the 1900's, The Chicago White Sox of the 1910'sthe Pittsburgh Pirates of the 1920's, the Boston Red Sox of the 1940s ,Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s the Milwaukee Braves of the 1950sthe Los Angeles Dodgers of the 1970's, the Oakland A's of the 1980'sthe Atlanta Braves of the 1990s Part 1. and The Atlanta Braves of the 1990's Part 2.   Now let's get started with the final team in the series, the Detroit Tigers of the 2000s

Rock Bottom:
The Tigers are a proud organization that have played a gigantic part in the history of the league.  Like the Dodgers, Red Sox, Yankees, Cardinals and Giants (among others) this organization is one of the most respected and successful the game has seen hisorically.

That is what made the 1990's and early 2000's so painful.  In the mid 1980's The Tigers had a great foundation for a team that could compete for years to come.  As that group aged and deteriorated through free agency the team struggled to recover.  A team that won their division and were favored to reach the World Series in 1987 was in dead last by 1989.  As Lance Parrish, Larry Herndon, Chet Lemon, Kirk Gibson and Jack Morris moved on their replacements of Matt Nokes, Fred Lynn, Rob Deer and Mike Hennemen failed to get the job done.  In the early 1990's the Tigers farm system started to produce some strong players like Travis Fryman, Bobby Higginson and Jeff Weaver.  Still, the identity of the team was still there.  Trammell and Whitaker still held down the middle infield and Sparky Anderson still patroled the dug out.

As the league moved to the three division format the Tigers were stuck with strong teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Orioles.  They seemingly caught a break when Tampa Bay joined the AL in 1998 and they were shifted to the AL Central.  Sure the Indians were a strong team but no one took the White Sox, Twins or Royals seriously.  Sparky Anderson retired.  He was replaced by Buddy Bell for a few bad years.  He was replaced by Larry Parrish for a few more bad years.  Phil Garner led to some excitement and anticipation but even "scrap iron" (or sometimes known as Yosemite Sam) could not turn the ship around.  He was fired after an 0-6 start in his third year and was replaced by Luis Pujols (his former Astros teammate) who went 55-100 for the year.

Often they say you can't start to climb until you have hit rock bottom.  Tigers fans never thought rock bottom would be this excruciating and humiliating.  The one symbol that was still pure from their 1984 World Series was Allen Trammell.  He had represented the Tigers organization his entire career.  He was Tony Gwynn to Padres fans.  Cal Ripken to Orioles fans.  Kirby Puckett to Twins fans.  For the last 20+ years Trammell was the Tigers.  So when Trammell was named manager there were mixed emotions.  On one hand it would be great to see Tram turn this thing around and be the legend in the dugout that he had been at short stop.  On the other hand they could see this team was not very good.

It was a very young and inexperienced team but no one was prepared for them to be as bad as they were. Mike Maroth was the opening day starter.  He lost the first game of the season to the Twins, 3-1. The team lost their next 9 before breaking into the win column.  They lost their next 8.  At the end of April they were 3-21.  They did not hit double digit wins until May 22.  It was not just bad it was an embarassment.  By the end of the year Tigers fans were not praying to avoid last place they were praying to avoid finishing with the worst record in history.  Only the 1962 Mets lost more games (120 to the Tigers 119).  Their best pitcher that year?  Mike Maroth.  He won 9 games.  No one won double digits.  The worst part of Maroth?  He lost 21.

The team improved (how could they not?) and Trammell kept his job for two more poor seasons.  When he was let go there were again mixed emotions.  He had done what he could and improved as much as he could.  This was just not a good team.  Trammell, after the 2005 season, was not asked back.

Pudge and Leyland:
You can see things one way when they are happening and view them dramatically differently a few months later.  The Tigers had a young Catcher named Brandon Inge behind the plate with a young pitching staff during the worst of the dark years.  In 2004 the Tigers signed the best Catcher in baseball, Ivan Rodriguez.  The jokes started immediately.  Poor Rodriguez.  He had no idea what he was getting into. In reality it was one of the best moves the Tigers would make.  After the 2005 season, when Trammell was cut loose the Tigers signed Jim Leyland to manage the team.

It didn't appear to be much but by this time the Tigers had most of the core group of what would be the almost dynasty in place:
Ivan Rodriguez:  One of the first major signings for the Tigers that paid dividends.  Rodriguez was coming off a year in Florida where he led the Marlins to a World Series win.  His veteran presence helped settle a young shaky pitching staff.

Placido Polanco: Acquired from the Phillies at the 2005 trade deadline for Ugeth Urbina, Polanco was not considered to be even a starter for the Phillies.  As the Tigers would continue to fight for a crown Polanco's defense would play a big part.  His bat would be key as well.

Curtis Granderson:  A young exciting Center Fielder, Granderson would rise to stardom along with the Tigers.  He would be the man at the top of the lineup that got the Tigers offense going.

Magglio Ordonez:  Once a key player for the White Sox he lost favor with manager Ozzie Guillen when his numbers dropped due to injuries.  The White Sox gave up on the star and would immediately regret it.

Justin Verlander:  In the first rise of the Tigers Verlander was seen as a nice young pitcher.  By the end of the decade Verlander would be the best pitcher in baseball.

Jeremy Bonderman:  Along with Verlander, Bonderman was considered a potential ace.  Arm injuries would change that.

Miguel Cabrera:  Cabrera came to the Tigers in a blockbuster winter trade and immediately made an impact.

Doug Fister: A mid season acquisition from the Mariners Fister would be the under rated #2 pitcher behind Verlander.

Prince Fielder:  When the Tigers lost a key bat in Victor Martinez to injury following the 2011 season they signed Prince Fielder at the last minute.  With Cabrera and Fielder in the lineup it looked like no one could beat the Tigers.

"We Stunk":
Given the track record of Tigers baseball over the past 10 plus years you could forgive the Tigers for being excited.  5-0 was a hell of a lot better than the 0-9 a few years ago.  Even more impressive they were all wins on the road.  The elation faded as they lost the next 4.  They were still doing alright at 7-5 and feeling good about their performance.  The 13th game of the season was definitely not lucky. The Indians had made a strong run in 2005's closing weeks and were expected to push for the playoffs in 2006.  They exploded in the 3rd inning for six runs on seven hits against the Tigers.  It was as should be expected. At least for most.  Not for Leyland.  He was furious after the game.  Asked by a reporter about the game Leyland said "We stunk.  Next question."  Someone asked if this was the worst loss of the season. "Yeah.  We stunk and that's not good enough.  This stuff has been going on here before and it's not going to happen here. ..They were ready to get on a plane and go to Oakland.  If they won it was okay and if they lost it was okay. That's not good enough."

Accountability.  It was a new concept for the team.  Being the league doormat just because the "experts" had told you that was where you were expected to finish was not going to fly here.  That was the start of the change.  The attitude changed.  The atmosphere changed.  The intensity changed. No one would claim it was easy but winning never is.  The winning is made even more difficult when the recent culture is one of losing.  By July 4th the Tigers were in first place, a game and a half ahead.  On August 7th they were 10 games ahead of the defending World Champion White Sox.  Then the expected happened.  The losses started mounting and the young team showed signs of panic.  As they lost their lead shrank.  When they looked behind them it wasn't the White Sox coming up fast.  It wasn't even the Indians. It was the Twins.  From the time the Tigers' lead reached 10 games on August 7th the team went 19-31.  The Twins went 31-20 and won the division.  The Tigers were able to hold on for a wild card berth.

Their first opponent this year was the Yankees.  They were not the same dynasty that had dominated the Major Leagues for the past 10 years but they were still the mighty Yankees of Jeter, Posada, Rivera and Mussina.  They no longer had O'Neill and Bernie.  They had Johnny Damon, Matsui and Robinson Cano.  They no longer had Pettite and Clemens.  They had Randy Johnson and Chien-Ming Wang.  The Tigers' poor performance since August had basically closed the door to any expectations of winning.  The Tigers started Nate Robertson in the opener against Wang.  He held his own until the bottom of the third.  They Yankees scored 5 runs and went on to take the opener, as expected, 8-3.

The Tigers got on the board first in Game 2 with a run in the second.  The Yankees struck in the 4th with a two out Three run Home Run by Johnny Damon.  Detroit surprised everyone by fighting back.  They scored a run in the 5th and a run in the 6th to tie it up.  The Tigers came up in the 7th with the score tied.  Marcus Thames, a young outfielder who had played a big part in the Tigers' success, led off with a single.  He took second on a passed ball.  When Brandon Inge sacrificed Thames moved up to 3rd.  With one out and the go ahead run on third Curtis Granderson only needed a fly ball.  He more than delivered with a triple.  It was only a one run lead but the Tigers made it stand up and the Series was tied. Suddenly it wasn't quite so easy for the Yankees.  Suddenly the Tigers weren't "happy just to play in October."

Game 3 was crucial if the Tigers wanted to make a statement.  The Tigers exploded for three runs in the second.  The place was rocking in Detroit.  They hadn't been this excited since 1987.  Granderson capped off the scoring with a Home Run giving the Tigers a 6-0 win.  The Yankees were in a panic now.  There was talk of a major overhaul in the big apple if this ended the next day.  The Tigers on the other hand were on cloud nine.  They demolished the Yankees 8-3 in Game 4 advancing to the ALCS.

Their opponent in the ALCS was the A's in the middle of the "money ball" success.  The Tigers were again expected to be the underdogs but as they had all year long they found ways to pull it out.  It was key hits by Polanco, Granderson and Maglio Ordonez that gave the Tigers the victory.  They swept the A's and did it in spectacular dramatic fashion.

It was freezing in Detroit in Game 4 and as the sun went down so did the temperature.  In a tie game in the bottom of the 9th the A's got two quick outs. Monroe got a single and Polanco followed with a single of his own.  Then in a moment that Tigers fans will never forget Ordonez hit a walk off Home Run.  Polanco, circling the bases with a ski mask to protect against the cold, looked more like he was floating than running.

The World Series was a rematch of 1934 and 1968.  The Tigers and Cardinals were even in the historical matchup to this point, both series having gone 7.  The result was disappointing.  The Tigers were without relief pitcher Joel Zumaya who was suffering from tendonitis brought on by playing Guitar Hero in the clubhouse.  The Tigers managed to win Game 2 when Kenny Rogers beat former Tigers' phenom Jeff Weaver.  The rest of the series was marked by poor play, missed opportunities and fielding errors.  The magical season came to a hard ending.  Still the hope was there for the future.

A Fluke or A New Start?:
The Tigers season had been amazing but clearly there was room for improvement. In November of 2006 the Tigers surprised everyone when they traded three minor league prospects to the Yankees for Gary Sheffield.  Sheffield had gained a reputation for being divisive in the locker room.  Whether or not that reputation was deserved I can't say because I was obviously not in those locker rooms but the reputation seemed to follow him in Detroit.  The season was a disaster.  Verlander emerged as the ace of the staff with 18 wins.  Kenny Rogers was injured for most of the season.  Bonderman fell off to 11-9.  The team as a whole fell off and finished second, 8 games out of first and 6 games out of the Wild Card.

The offseason led to great excitement.  There were concerns whether Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones would be resigned.  There was a huge deal made that immediately put the Tigers in the talk for the World Series and some even felt it made them a lock to win everything.  The Tigers sent five players including top prospects Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin to the Florida Marlins.  In return they received ace pitcher Dontrelle Willis and First Baseman Miguel Cabrera.  What happened was well beyond anyone's worst nightmare.  Verlander fell to 11-17.  Bonderman pitched in only 12 games going 3-4.  Dontrelle Willis, expected to be the ace of the staff, pitched in only 8 games, suffered from anxiety attacks and arm troubles.  It got so bad that in July the team traded Ivan Rodriguez, the face of the team's resurgence, to the Yankees for Relief Pitcher Kyle Farnsworth.  They not only did not make the playoffs they finished last.

After the disappointments of the last few years no one quite knew what to expect for the 2009.  The excitement of that 2006 season was still there but the failure made it look less likely that it would be repeated.  Still, with the money poured into this team and the talent on the roster there was a lot expected from the owners.  The team was nearly as good as advertised.  They led the AL Central by 7 games on September 6.  By September 29th it was down to 2 games with a four game series against second place Minnesota.  Win the series and the division was theirs.  Lose the series and the Twins got the momentum.  They split.  The Tigers had three games left against the White Sox.  The Twins had the lowly Royals.  What was worse, and angered Tigers fans, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen told the world that he was going to make Detroit earn it.  That part was fine,  They expected to earn it.  What was frustrating was that Guillen said he was going to alter his rotation so that his best starters were rested to face the Tigers.  The White Sox won the Friday series opener 8-0. The lead was down to 1.  The White Sox won the saturday game 5-1 and the top of the division was tied.  What happened next was crazy.  As the players arrived at the stadium for the season finale the rumors started to spread.  Cabrera had gone 0-4 on Saturday but it was Saturday morning that had been ugly.  According to the reports, after the Friday night loss Cabrera went out with players from the White Sox (makes you wonder if Guillen told his players to take the opposition out to help drown their sorrows), came home at 6:30 and was arrested for a domestic dispute.  A divided Tigers team won the last day of the season behind Verlander and forced a one game playoff with the Twins.

It was honestly one of the best games ever.  It had everything.  Lead changes.  Disputed calls.  Errors.  Clutch hitting.  And escalated tension. Everything was on the line.  Win and go back to the playoffs.  Lose and go home.  The Tigers struck first in the third inning.  They scored three on a Maglio Ordonez RBI single and a two run Home Run by Cabrera.  The Twins scored one in the third and one in the 6th.  The Twins took the lead in the 7th on a two run Home Run by Orlando Cabrera.  The Tigers immediately tied it up with a solo shot from Ordonez in the 8th.  The Twins left two men on in the 9th.  The Tigers scored in the Top of the 10th and the Twins scored one to tie it up in the 10th. It looked bleak for the Tigers in the 10th.  The Twins had runners on first and third with only one out.  Nick Punto hit a line drive to left field.  Ryan Rayburn caught the ball in left and immediately fired the ball home.  Alexi Casilla tagged at third and took off for home.  Rayburn's throw and Casilla arrived at about the same time but Casilla was out.  On to the 11th.  Neither team scored.  On to the 12th.  The Tigers loaded the bases with only one out.  A ground ball led to a force out at home on a great defensive play and Gerald Laird struck out swinging (or did he).  In the bottom of the 12th the Twins finally put it away.  The Tigers went home for the winter to reflect on again being so close and coming up short.

2010 was again a disappointment.  A third place finish.  A missed playoffs opportunity and frustration in Detroit.  Of course it wouldn't have been a Tiger's offseason without a blockbuster deal.  The Tigers sent Curtis Granderson to the Yankees. In return the Tigers received Outfielder Austin Jackon, pitching prospect Daniel Schlereth and Pitcher Max Scherzer.  Still, the Tigers fans felt they had lost out.  Getting prospects was fine but losing Granderson was a blow.  They said I told you so when the Tigers finished third.

The True Tigers:
2011 was the year of Verlander.  He was almost unhittable.  24-5. No-hitter (almost another one or two).  He would win the MVP and Cy Young.  He was without question the best pitcher on the planet.  He needed help.  Brad Penney was not the veteran presence that was expected so the Tigers made a trade at the deadline.  They sent minor leaguers to the Mariners and received Doug Fister.  All Fister did was go 8-1.  They also sent two minor leaguers to the Twins for Delmon Young.  All Young would do was to catch fire the last few weeks of the season and carry the offense.

The ALDS opponent was remeniscient of the 2006 season. It was the Yankees.  They split the first four games forcing a final showdown in Game 5.  On the mound was Fister.  With the power of Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Ordonez in the lineup it was Don Kelley that struck first.  Just six pitches into the game Kelley took starter Ivan Nova out of the park for a one run lead.  On the next pitch Delmon Young repeated the feat.  Victor Martinez added and RBI single in the 5th and the Tigers were cruising behind Fister.  He left in the 6th leading 3-1.  Joaquin Benoit allowed another run in the 7th but saved the day when he struck out Nick Swisher with the bases loaded.  The Tigers pen held out getting the big bats of the Yankees with little more trouble.

They advanced to face the Rangers in the ALCS.  They were expected to sweep through with little trouble.  With the Tigers staff of Scherzer, Schlereth, Fister and Verlander facing off against Colby Lewis, C.J. Wilson and Derek Holland it was expected to be a pitcher's duel in the Tigers' favor.  Instead Nelson Cruz demolished Tigers pitching. In the six game series he had 8 hits (2 doubles and 6 Home Runs), 13 RBI and 7 runs scored.  It wouldn't be the last time Detroit would see him in the "almost dynasty".

Still, with Verlander at the top of his game, the emergence of Scherzer and Fister quietly dominating the opposition there were high expectations for the new season in 2012.  There were major concerns when Victor Martinez injured himself in off season work outs and was out for the season.  The Tigers replaced Martinez with the top free agent of the year, Prince Fielder.  This moved Cabrera to third and immediate concerns came up about the chemistry.  For whatever reason the Tigers could not seem to separate themselves from the White Sox.  In fact with two weeks left in the season it looked like they might not even reach the post season.  They won 8 of their last 10 games, won their division by 3 and Cabrera became the first Triple Crown winner since 1967.  The Tigers were on a roll and it looked like they would keep rolling.

The Tigers won the first two games of the ALDS but struggled in the next two.  There were fears in Detroit.  This felt like other years, especially because Jose Valverde began to blow saves at the worst possible time.  They advanced.  They faced the Yankees in the ALCS and they not only took out the Yankees they humiliated them.  Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano were booed by the Yankee fans, as was former Tiger Granderson, and Derek Jeter injured his ankle so badly that it was feared he would never play again.

Without Valverde closing games the Tigers had some major questions but they still felt they could beat the Giants.  No one questioned the Tigers' starting pitching.  That, everyone thought, was solid.  Pablo Sandoval did to them what Nelson Cruz had done the year before.  8 hits, three home runs (all in the first game) and the Kung Fu Panda combined with Buster Posey and a surprisingly effective Barry Zito to sweep the Tigers.  It was another disappointing year.

2013 would certainly be the year. Not only was their pitching staff the strongest, they had Victor Martinez back and signed Torii Hunter.  With Austin Jackson and Hunter at the top of the lineup followed by Cabrera, Fielder and Martinez and not to mention Jhonny Peralta it didn't seem possible for them to stumble.  Still they couldn't quite separate themselves from Cleveland who seemed to hang around.  They dealt with distractions all year including Peralta's PED suspension and fans demanding Leyland be fired.

They again faced the A's in the ALDS but found themselves on the brink of elimination  after losing two of the first three games.  Down 3-0 and near desparation it was the bat of the disgraced Peralta that saved the season with a three run game tying Home Run.  The A's took a 4-3 lead in the 7th but the Tigers again fought for their life and fought back for two with a Victor Martinez solo Home Run and an RBI single by Austin Jackson.  They added three more in the 8th and they needed them.  The A's scored two in the 9th and had a runner on second when Joaquin Benoit struck out Seth Smith to end the game and force the deciding 5th game.  Of course if you have a deciding game to be played Verlander is the choice and he did not disappoint. He pitched 8 innings of scoreless ball, walked only 1 and allowed only two hits.  The Tigers scored three runs thanks to a Miguel Cabrera three run Home Run and an RBI ground out by Omar Infante.  But there was trouble brewing as they prepared to face the Red Sox.  Cabrera had pulled a muscle in his side and was not healthy.  There was concern over the Tigers' bullpen and Fister had not been sharp in the post season.  Fielder had also not performed well and started to hear the frustration of the fans.

They faced a new opponent in the ALCS, the Red Sox, a team that had torn itself apart just a year before.  Game 1 was in Fenway and the Tigers were still considered the favorite.  A win in Game 1, especially with Anibal Sanchez starting and Scherzer and Verlander to follow could be a major boost.  Cabrera scored the only Tiger run but he was clearly hurting.  Sanchez pitched 6 innings without allowing a hit or a run but walked 6 and was inconsistent.  Fortunately for the Tigers four relievers continued Sanchez's shutout giving the Tigers a 1-0 lead.  With Scherzer dealing in Game 2 the Tigers erupted.  They took a 5-0 lead knocking ClayBucholz from the game.  A solo Home Run from Cabrera was a good sign as was an RBI Martinez double and an Alex Avila Two Run Home Run.  It was a quiet Fenway.  The Red Sox cut the lead to 5-1 in the 6th but Scherzer was cruisingg.

Jose Veras started the 8th inning for the Tigers.  Stephen Drew started the inning with a ground out but Will Middlebrooks followed that with a double.  Veras was releived by Drew Smyly.  He faced one batter and walked him.  Al Albuquerque replaced Smyly and got Shane Victorino swinging.  With two down the Tigers still felt confident.  A Dustin Pedroia single loaded the bases and the fourth Tiger pitcher, Al Albuquerque, walked to the mound.  It took only one pitch to change the entire series.  David Ortiz drove a ball to right center.  Torii Hunter went back.  It was deep but he thought he had a chance. He went back farther.  He turned.  Turned again and then. Boom.  He hit the wall and flipped over it.  The ball was out of his reach and the Red Sox, amazingly, had tied the game.  Fenway erupted and the Red Sox won Game 2 on an infield single, throwing error, wild pitch and RBI walk off single.

Verlander was Verlander like in the third game but gave up only one run.  Cabrera was clearly hurting and Fielder had an unexplainable lack of power.  The rest of the Tigers were unable to manufacture runs and the Tigers lost 1-0.

The Tigers used a  5 run second inning in Game 3 to tie the series and with Scherzer and Verlander still due to pitch another time each the Tigers were still confident.  Anibal Sanchez was the opposite of his Game 1 dominance and gave up 9 hits and 4 runs.  After a 4-3 loss the Tigers were one loss from another missed opportunity.

The season came to a familiar end on Saturday, October 19.  The Tigers looked to force a seventh game but instead a Shane Victorino grand slam in the bottom of the 7th.  It was the final nail in the Tiger's season.

Their almost dynasty had started way back in 2006.  8 years later they had no World Series titles to show for it.

A new lease on life or a desperate last gasp?:
The Tigers had been just short of the World Series again.  It was a strong team without a doubt. The lineup had been solid at nearly every position.  The infield was great with Fielder, Omar Infante, Cabrera and a defensive sensation Jose Iglesias being picked up at the trade deadline.  The outfield was solid with Torii Hunter and Austin Jackson covering every inch of ground.  The starting rotation was amazing with Verlander, Fister, Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer (now challenging Verlander for the spot as ace).  O.K., the bullpen was an issue.

But really, this team had been in three straight ALCS and one World Series.  There should be no reason to make major changes.  Right?


Jim Leyland was not brought back and was replaced at the top by Brad Ausmus.  Changing managers  in the middle of a playoff run is always a tough decision to make.

Prince Fielder had a miserable 2013 post season and his frustration showed.  It led to boos by the fans and bitter feelings from Prince.

They certainly had decisions to make here.  Benoit, Infante, Peralta and Catcher Bryan Pena were free agents.  Scherzer was not a free agent but it was seen as imperative to sign him long term before that became a reality after the 2014 season.  But where would that money come from?

On November 20th the future of Omar Infante became clear. Prince Fielder was traded to the Rangers for All Star Second Baseman Ian Kinsler.  Infante would not be signed and Fielder's movement would free up money.

On December 2 the surprises started.  Doug Fister was traded.  What?  Fister traded.  Well they must have gotten an offer they couldn't refuse.  Not exactly.  They got Ian Krol, Steve Lombardozzi and Robbie Ray.  By the time the season started Lombardozzi, seemingly the best piece received in return, had been traded to the Orioles.

The movement wasn't the only concern.  The injuries were mounting as well.  Cabrera had finished 2013 with injuries that slowed his production.  Then news came that Verlander had injured a core muscle in post season workouts and needed surgery.  Jose Iglesias would miss much of the season  with shin splints in both shins.  It seemed ominous to say the least.

By mid May they appeared to be cruising.  They had a 7 game lead and were getting compared to the legendary 1984 team.  The media was adding to the old question in Tigers history:  Was the 1968 team better than 1984?  Suddenly 2014 was in the conversation as well.  It didn't last.  The Tigers fell apart thanks to yet more inuries and the old achillies heel of the bull pen.  By late June the Royals had caught and passed the Tigers.  Brad Ausmus came under fire for a "joke" he made about domestic violence and suddenly there was panic in Motown.

Things started to turn around but as it became more and more clear that the team would not be able to resign Scherzer in the offseason, and the realization that Verlander was not the Verlander of 2011 led to a win now mentality.  The team was still struggling to separate from a tough Kansas City team.  The offense was being led by Victor Martinez, Cabrera and J.D. Martinez.  Kinsler was good but not spectacular.  Hunter was starting to show his age.  There was just something missing.  At the trade deadline the win now mentality screamed out.  The team pulled off the deal of the day in what was one of the best trade deadlines in years.  Austin Jackson went to Seattle and Pitcher Drew Smyly went to Tampa Bay (the most questionable part of the move) as part of a three team trade.  The Tigers got David Price in return.  This now gave Detroit the 2011, 2012 and 2013 Cy Young winners.  With Rick Porcello having a strong year the rotation was stronger than ever.  Now if Anibal Sanchez could come back from the DL they would be set.

If the Price trade was expected to launch the Tigers on a 1987 like run, it didn't work.  The Royals were not to be dismissed and although the Tigers won the division it went down to the last day of the season.

Still, they had made the post season and would not need to play in that new Wild Card game.  Their opponents?  The Orioles.  It was a joke.  Baltimore?  Against the Tigers?  The pitching match ups alone made people laugh at the O's chances.  Scherzer vs Chris Tillman.  Please.  Verlander vs Wei-Yin Chen.  Not a chance.  Price vs Bud Norris.  This should be over quickly.

It was.

The Orioles struck first in the 2nd Inning.  Nelson Cruz (yes the same one from that 2011 ALCS) hit a 2 run Home Run.  Detroit came right back with back to back Home Runs from Victor and J.D. Martinez.  An RBI single by Nick Markakis gave Baltimore the lead right back.  The Tigers loaded the bases in the 5th but Torii Hunter popped out.  The Orioles added a run on a surprising J.J. Hardy Home Run in the 7th.  Cabrera got the run back in the 8th.  The Tigers were not giving up.  Then it got bizarre.  Scherzer came out to start the 8th and after a lineout to 3rd by Markakis and a double by Alex DeAza, Scherzer was replaced by Joba Chamberlain.  Things went south very quickly.  In the time it takes a person (no one in particular) to check the score on his phone, call his wife on the phone, walk to his bus stop and turn on an XM radio, a person can get the immediate feeling of "What the hell did I just miss?"  With one out the Orioles' MVP Adam Jones stepped in.  This was his chance to make a name for himself in a clutch situation.  The first pitch was in the dirt and a nice block from Alex Avila saved De Aza from moving up a base.  Jones took a rip at the second pitch and fouled it back.  Jones took a walk around the plate thinking he had just missed his pitch.  The next pitch would frustrate him even more.  It was tapped in front of the plate. De Aza was moving to third on the ground ball.  It was to the right of Kevin Romine at short but it was routine.  Romine ranged over, got in front of the ball and set to field it.  Routine.  Except...he didn't field it.  The ball came up on him,  It hit the inside heel of the glove and as he moved right the ball bounced left between his legs.  Romine tried to stop but the grass gave way.  De Aza tore around third.  Romine recovered quickly, got to the ball and rifled a throw home but DeAa was easily safe. As Nelson Cruz stood in the batters box the anguish was clear on Romine's face.  On the 1-0 pitch Jones took off for second.  The ball was in the dirt and Avila hurried the throw.  Jones was safe. It would get worse.  Cruz singled Jones home.  Chamberlain was done.  2 singles, a double an intentional walk and an RBI ground out later so was Joakim Soria.  Phil Coke came in and after a wild pitch, intentional walk and a 2 run double it was finally over.  After 6 hits, 2 errors and 8 runs the Orioles had destroyed the Tigers confidence.

If that inning hurt the Tigers they would have no time to lick their wounds before the Orioles poured salt on them.  Verlander left after 5 1/3 with a 5-3 lead.  Anibal Sanchez pitched two strong innings and the Tigers entered the bottom of the 8th with a 6-3 lead.  Joba Chamberlain came in again, looking to make up for his Game 1 performance.  De Aza made the first out of the inning.  Chambelain then hit Jones with a pitch.  In that situation Chamberlain is not trying to put a man on but he must have been hoping it at least stung Jones a little bit.  Nelson Cruz (that guy again) moved Jones to second with a single and Jones scored on a single by Steve Pearce.  That was it for Chamberlain.  Joakim Soria came in and walked J.J. Hardy to load the bases.  Stepping to the plate was Delmon Young.  The same Delmon Young who helped the almost dynasty to the 2011 ALCS.  Avila set the target down in the zone for the first pitch.  Soria released it and the offspeed pitch looped to the plate.  Young connected and pulled the ball to left field.  J.D. Martinez sprinted for the ball but it was clear he couldn't get it.  Cruz trotted home from third and calmly signaled for Steve Pearce to follow him home.  Not so calmly, J.J. Hardy was tearing around the bases.  From first to second.  As Martinez made his way to the wall to retrieve the ball. From second to third as Martinez fielded the ball off the wall in perfect position to make the throw .  Hardy hit third as Martinez turned to hit the cutoff.  The ball came in to Romine at short.  Avila stood at the plate. Watching it unfold.  Hardy coming towards him. Romine catching.  Now turning.  If Avila could hear anything over the crowd he heard Pearce and Cruz behind the plate coaching Hardy.  Screaming and waving.  "Down, Down.  Down"  Hardy is just outside the home plate circle as he prepares to slide.  The ball is in the air, just about even with the mound.  Everyone sees this will be close and it could decide the game.  Hardy hit the dirt, feet first to the outside of the plate, hands off the ground, knowing he had to touch the plate.  At the moment he hit the ground, the ball hit Avila's glove.  Avila spun, lunging to the place.  Hardy's hand reaching, trying desperately to hit the plate before Avila hit his hand.  The three objects, the plate, the glove and the hand collide almost simultaneously but not exactly simultaneously.  Hardy is safe.  The Orioles lead.  The Tigers go down 1-2-3 in the 9th.

David Price pitched Game 3 with the almost dynasty on the line.  He was spectacular.  Just what you expect from a Cy Young winner. 8 innings, only 5 hits and 2 walks, 6 k's and only 2 runs.  Those 2 runs came in the 6th off the bat of Nelson Cruz (again).  The Tigers offense scored once in the 9th when the Martinez boys made their final 2014 statement but that was it.

The year was over once more.

No ring.

Only questions for the offseason.

The Tigers were fortunate enough to have a father and son combination in their history.  Although not playing together, Cecil and Prince Fielder both made their mark in Detroit Tiger record books.  Both were known as power hitters.  How many Home Runs did they hit combined? Part 2, how many RBI did they combine for?

Answer to Last Week's Trivia Question:
Bobby Cox first managed the Braves from 1978 to 1981.  During that time he never finished higher than 4th.  Cox left to manage the Toronto Blue Jays starting in 1982.  The Blue Jays were an improving team and Cox took them from 6th place in 1982 to first place and the organizations first playoff birth in 1985.

When the Braves decided to make a change they turned to a man leaving the Mets as manager. From the end of the 1977 season through 1981 the man had guided the Mets but finished no higher than 4th.  Joe Torre took over the Braves in 1982 and led them to an NLCS appearance against the eventual World Series Champions the St. Louis Cardinals.  Torre led the Braves for three years before being replaced.  He would then go on to manage St. Louis from 1990-1995.  He was hired to manage the Yankees in 1996.  Although there was an interim manager in between, Torre's full time replacement in St. Louis was Tony LaRussa.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Almost a Dynasty: 1990's Atlanta Braves Part 2

What actually makes a sports dynasty?  Obviously a teem needs to be successful for a continuous amount of time.  Every sport has that one iconic dynasty that fits the Dynasty category.  The NBA had the Boston Celtics who won nine out of ten championships.  The Montreal Canadiens won 7 of nine Stanley Cups (including six straight).  The NFL had several dynasties including the 49'ers, the Steelers, the Cowboys and, most recently, the Patriots.  Baseball itself has had the Yankees dynasties in several incarnations including the 1930's, 1950's and 2000's.

So what actually makes a team a dynasty?  There can of course be several definitions since there are varying levels of success.  A team can dominate their division for a decade but be bounced out in the first round of the playoffs year after year.  We could of course consider that to be a divisional dynasty but you wouldn't call it an overall baseball dynasty.  So let us set the parameters for this series of articles.  A dynasty, for our purposes here, is a team that wins multiple World Series championships (above two as back to back is nice but not a dynasty) within a 5-10 year period.  That being defined, this series will explore those teams that may have been a divisional or league dynasty but for whatever reason could not get over the hump to that World Series dynasty.

This series will show an array of near dynasties.  Some are teams that made the World Series year after year but fell short.  Others will be teams that competed right down to the end of the regular season year after year just to be beaten out.  It will be a series of near misses and what could have beens.

Don't miss the other almost dynasty articles: The Detroit Tigers of the 1900's, The Chicago White Sox of the 1910'sthe Pittsburgh Pirates of the 1920's, the Boston Red Sox of the 1940s ,Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s the Milwaukee Braves of the 1950s, the Los Angeles Dodgers of the 1970's, the Oakland A's of the 1980's, the Atlanta Braves of the 1990s Part 1.  Now let's get started with this weeks "almost dynasty": The Atlanta Braves of the 1990's Part 2.

Defending Champs:
Little tinkering was done with the World Champion Braves.  Terry Pendleton was still there but Chipper Jones was now playing most of the season at third base.  Mike Deveraux was gone but he was not a key player in the regular season.  They were replaced by youngsters Jermaine Dye and Andruw Jones.  When David Justice battled injuries Ryan Klesko got plenty of playing time in right field.  It almost seemed that the Braves were too powerful.  Steve Avery struggled with arm problems again but with young pitchers Denny Neagle and Jason Schmidt coming up it was clear that the team was building for the future while winning now.

The Braves, led by Smoltz (24-5), Maddux (15-11) and Glavine (15-10) again breezed through the regular season and swept the Dodgers in the ALDS with Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine each winning one game.  Smoltz took on the Cardinals in Game 1 of the NLCS and kept the pattern going.  It ended abruptly with an 8-3 loss for Maddux in Game 2.  Glavine lost Game 3 by a 3-2 count and young Denny Neagle lost Game 4 by a 4-3 count.  Suddenly the Braves' championship pleasure cruise had hit some rough waters.

Smoltz started Game 5 with the season now hanging in the balance.  Whatever it was that snapped the Braves back to life it had an immediate impact.  They scored three runs before St. Louis could record a single out.  They scored 5 runs in the first, another 2 in the second and they never let up. With 22 hits, 5 walks and 14 runs the Braves made a loud statement.  It was loud and clear.  We're still the champs.

Maddux pitched Game 6 and although he did not have the run support that Smoltz had gotten in Game 5, the three runs that he was given were enough.  The Braves won 3-1.  Now they had St.Louis on the ropes.  It was a showdown for the NL pennant in Game 7.  The Cardinals started young Donovan Osborne in Game 7.  He was in his 5th, and best, Major League season but he had never faced pressure like this.  The Braves had Glavine on the mound.  Glavine got the Cardinals 1-2-3 (including a ground out by Ron Gant) in the first. Osborne did not fare quite so well.  He gave up a single and a double.  After a ground ball and an RBI sac fly it looked like he might settle down.  A 1-0 game wouldn't be so bad.  He walked Lopez to load the bases and then the rookies took over.  Jermaine Dye and Andruw Jones hit back to back singles to make it 3-0.  Jeff Blauser was hit by a pitch to reload the bases.  Still, 3-0  was OK.  They could get past that and with Glavine stepping up to the plate there was still a chance for Osborne to do something.   He did.  He gave up a bases clearing triple to Glavine making it 6-0 Braves.  Osborne left the game after 2/3 of an inning having allowed 6 runs on 5 hits.  The Braves won 15-0 and advanced to the World Series for the fourth time in six years and with their bats on fire.

Their World Series opponent would be the New York Yankees. It was a rematch of the 1957 and 1958 World Series.  The Braves had won the 1957 and the Yankees the 1958.  That was back when the Yankees were unbeatable and the Braves were the "almost dynasty".  Now the Braves were the dominant team and the Yankees were the ones with the questions.  While the Braves had the strongest pitching, possibly ever, the Yankees had two strong veterans (David Cone and Jimmy Key), one unproven rookie (Andy Pettite) and one pitcher that some considered the weak link (Kenny Rogers).  The rookie, Pettite, started Game 1 against Smoltz.  Pettite got Marquis Grissom, Mark Lemke and Chipper Jones in order to start the first.  Smoltz put himself in a tough position with two walks but he got Cecil Fielder to fly out to end the inning.  A swinging strikeout by McGriff started the Braves second and people were slightly impressed with the poise of the young pitcher.  Javy Lopez singled and when that was followed by a long fly ball for out number two it seemed to settle any nerves.  Stepping to the plate was Andruw Jones.  He had played in only 31 games in the regular season but with David Justice out of action Jones got  the start in the World Series.  And what did the player who was technically not even a rookie yet do in his first World Series at bat?  In a 6 pitch at bat Andruw Jones gave the Braves a 2-0 lead.  He launched a ball to left field and as Darryl Strawberry went back to catch it he knew before reaching the warning track that it was out.  The Braves 3rd inning was even more fun.  Four singles, a sacrifice, a walk and a stolen base gave the Braves a 5-0 lead and showed Pettite the way out.  They weren't done yet.  Jermaine Dye flew out for the second out and Jones stepped in for his second World Series at bat. It landed in the netting that protected Monument Park in left-center field.  The Braves took Game 1 12-1.

Maddux took the mound in Game 2 against Jimmy Key.  Maddux allowed 6 hits and walked none in 8 innings.  The Yankees offense had now scored only 1 run in 18 innings at home.  The Braves scored 4 runs against Key and looked like the unbeatable champions.  They were on their way home for three games.  The way they had played in the first two games and with Avery and Glavine still to come they were on top of the world.

The Yankees were not about to go quietly.  With David Cone, the veteran ace on the mound, the Yankees were far from defeated.  Glavine pitched well in seven innings allowing only 4 hits, and walking three.  He allowed only two runs, one of them unearned.  The key inning was the 6th with the Braves behind 2-0.  Glavine led off and Grissom followed that with a single, one of his three hits on the day, and Lemke failed to advance the runners when he popped up a bunt.  Chipper Jones walked and loaded the bases for the heart of the lineup.  Fred McGriff, the teeth of the Braves attack, stepped in and Atlanta fans were sure this would be the moment that things worked themselves out.  McGriff popped up the second pitch for the second out.  Next up was Ryan Klesko, the power hitting star of the 1995 World Series, Klesko drew a walk forcing in Glavine with the opening run.  Most managers would have pulled Cone at this point.  Joe Torre decided to win or lose with Cone.  Cone faced Javy Lopez.  A base hit would give Atlanta the lead, the momentum and probably the series.  On an 0-1 pitch Lopez swung and connected. The ball popped up in the air for a final out. The Yankees went on to score three more runs  and save their season, for a day.

The Braves were angry.  They knew they should be ahead three games to none.  They took their anger out on Kenny Rogers.  McGriff led off the second with a solo Home Run.  That inning ended with the Braves leading 4-0 and when they added another run to give them a 5-0 lead Kenny Rogers was told it was time to fold 'em.  In the 5th the Braves added a run to go ahead 6-0 and the Braves were getting fitted for rings.  There was no chance at losing now. The Yankees cut the lead to 6-3 in the 6th but the Braves were still confident.  The Yankees had just six outs left to keep their chances alive.  Charlie Hayes led off with a single and was followed by a Darryl Strawberry single.  Hayes advanced on a Mariano Duncan fielder's choice but there was now 1 out.  In a now legendary, dramatic 6 pitch at bat Jim Leyritz launched a game tying, season saving, three run Home Run.  The game remained tied into the 10th when Wade Boggs, fighting for his first World Series title, gave the Yankees the lead with a bases loaded walk.  The Yankees added a run on an error by Ryan Klesko and suddenly the series that should have been a laugher was tied at 2.

Andy Pettite started for the Yankees in Game 5.  John Smoltz, who had not lost a game in the postseason this year, looked to give the Braves control of the series.  With Maddux and Glavine to follow the Braves still believed they had the advantage. Smoltz was spectacular.  He struck out 10 and walked only three and allowed only 4 hits.  The only glitch came in the 4th.  Charlie Hayes hit a ball to Center Field that Marquis Grissom could not handle and the error left Hayes standing on second.  A Bernie Williams ground ball moved him to third and a Cecil Fielder double scored Hayes giving the Yankees one unearned run.  With an offense as good as Atlanta's and as bad as the rookie Pettite looked in Game 1 it was time for the Braves to go to work.  What happened instead was the first great moment of Andy Pettite's career.  Pettite pitched 8 1/3, allowed 5 hits, walked three but kept the Braves away from home plate.  The Yankees took a 3-2 lead in the series on a 1-0 victory earned on an unearned run.

Suddenly, the Braves, who just a few days before were 5 outs from taking a commanding 3-1 lead in the series were now on the brink of elimination. The Yankees did not make this one quite as dramatic.  They got to Maddux early with a three run 4th.  Paul O'Neill opened the inning with a double and moved to third on a Mariano Duncan ground ball.  Joe Girardi then tripled to score O'Neill (that's right a triple from a slow running catcher).  He then scored on a Derek Jeter single.  Jeter stole second and after a Wade Boggs pop out Jeter scored on a Bernie Williams single.  It was 3-0 Yankees.  The Braves had a chance immediately to cut into that lead.  Chipper Jones opened the 5th with a ground out but McGriff walked Javy Lopez singled and Andruw Jones repeated the feat, loading the bases.  The Braves outfielders had been the surprise stars in the first three games with dramatic Home Runs and tremendous fielding plays.  Dye connected on the first pitch and sent bodies moving in all directions.  It was down the right field line.  Paul O'Neill tore towards the wall.  The runners were tearing around the bases and Dye was sprinting, dreaming of a bases clearing, game tying base hit to turn the tables.  As O'Neill sprinted towards the line he slowed up.  It was nothing more than a foul ball.  Dye managed to draw a walk from starter Jimmy Key and the Braves had their first run.  Manager Joe Torre made a decision to stay with Key, just as he had with Cone in the tight situations.

Walking to the plate was Terry Pendleton.  Braves fans thought back to the 1991 season.  It was Pendleton who had instilled hope. He was the MVP that year.  He was the one who brought the winning attitude from St. Louis.  Pendleton had been their saviour when the Braves organization was at rock bottom.  Now he had a chance to save them again.  Pendleton was a smart veteran.  He was not going to let a pitcher who was clearly struggling off the hook.  Key was looking wild and had just walked in a run.  Now it was time to make him sweat it out.  The count went to 2-1 and Key looked to the Yankee bench almost asking Mel Stottlemeyer what he was doing wrong.  The next pitch was in the exact same spot as the previous two.  Well off the plate outside.  Key was now one pitch away from walking in a second run and with only one out the Braves bench started smiling, clapping.  Stottlemeyer got on the phone and started chewing his gum a little more intensely.  Key delivered a pitch on the lower outside corner.  Pendleton was looking to drive it right back up the middle.  He thought it would score McGriff and with Andruw Jones's speed he might have a chance too.  The runners were off at the crack of the bat.  Jermaine Dye ran well and was off like a shot from first base.  The problem was Pendleton caught the ball on the end of the bat.  It didn't connect well enough to get through.  Dye ran as fast as he could as McGriff crossed the plate.  Derek Jeter fielded the ball just a few steps from the bag.  Dye ran harder, if it's possible, thinking to break up the double play but Jeter was quick.  He stepped on the bag before Dye even had a chance.  Jeter threw on to first base for the inning ending double play.

The Braves had one last chance.  In the top of the 9th Andruw Jones struck out swinging but Klesko and Pendleton hit back to back singles.  Luis Polonia, once the symbol of the Yankees underachieving 1980's to early 1990's teams, pinch hit for Jeff Blauser.  With a chance to prove to Yankees fans that they had let him go too soon, he instead struck out.  The Braves were now one out away from disaster.  Marquis Grissom was determined not to let that happen.  Grissom shot the first pitch into right field scoring Klesko and putting the tying run on third base.  Yankees fans had seen their closer John Wettelend blow saves before, including in the 1995 ALDS against the Mariners.  He had come a long way since then but there was always that worry in the back of their head. "This would be the worst time for him to blow one..."  At the plate was Mark Lemke.  Like Pendleton, Lemke was the symbol of this Braves team.  In 1991 he had been the surprise star  The man who seemed to come up with the big hit whenever they needed it.  Like Pendleton he would not make this easy.  The at bat seemed to take forever. On a 3-2 count Lemke popped the ball along the third base line.  It was right at the dugout.  Charlie Hayes tracked the ball and fell into the dugout trying to catch the final out.  He emerged from the dugout with an empty glove. How many times have you seen it?  A seemingly game or inning ending near out and the batter redeems himself with a base hit.  Not this time.  The baseball gods rewarded Hayes's efforts with a seemingly identical chance, only this time without the necessary dive.  The Yankees were World Champs.  The "team of the decade" the year before were now second.

A Pattern Forms:
The next few years seemed to set a pattern.  The Braves were clearly head and shoulders above their division. In 1997 they won 101 games and although the Marlins were a Wild Card team, the Braves were 9 games better in the regular season.  The Braves were a different team by now.  Terry Pendleton was gone.  David Justice and Marquis Grissom  were traded to Cleveland.  Greg McMichael had been sent to the Mets. Avery was injured.  What had not changed was the pitching, the foundation of this team.  Smoltz, Glavine and Maddux.  The 1997 Braves swept through the Astros in the ALDS with seeming ease and it was thought they would have no trouble making it back to the World Series.  The Marlins had other ideas.  Before they knew what had happened the Marlins had won the NLCS in six games and the Braves were home scratching their heads.

The 1998 Braves were even stronger.  They won 106 games.  The Marlins were no longer a threat after being dismantled.  The Braves had what could be considered the greatest rotation in history with five starters above 15 wins and the realistic possibility at mid season of having five 20 game winners.  Andres Galaraga was now playing first base in place of McGriff and a resurgent Walt Weiss was playing short stop.  Chipper Jones was now widely accepted as one of the best players in the league and the Braves rolled to another division title by 18 games ahead of the Mets.  The Cubs offered little resistance in the NLDS and the Braves quickly won the series 3 games to 1.  They were seemingly toying with the Cubs in Game 2, going 10 innings before taking the game 2-1. Their next opponent was the San Diego Padres.  No one gave the Padres much of a chance except the Padres and their fans.  San Diego shocked the Braves.  They jumped out to a 3 games to 0 lead before the Braves knew what had hit them.  Led by Ken Caminitti, Steve Finley, Greg Vaughn and Mr. Padre Tony Gwynn, the Padres advanced to the World Series for only the second time in their history.  The Braves, again, went home for the winter.

In 1999 they again won the east with 103 wins.  The Mets finished a "close" 6 1/2 games behind them and won the Wild Card.  Again the Braves won the NLDS with seeming ease against Houston, although they did actually lose one game this year,   They looked to break the pattern of the past few years against the Mets in the NLCS.  In a series that would usher in an intense Mets-Braves rivalry, the Braves triumphed.  The Braves jumped out to a 3 games to 0 lead but a 3-2 win in Game 4 kept the Mets alive.  In the pouring rain of Game 5 the teams needed 15 innings to decide the game.  The Braves scored one in the top of the 15th but the Mets won in the bottom of the inning with a walk off grand slam that turned into a walk off single when the team celebration stopped the runners from advancing.  Regardless the Braves advanced the next game when they walked off in their own fashion.  With the bases loaded in the bottom of the 11th, Kenny Rogers walked Andruw Jones to score the NLCS winning run.

Now the almost dynasty had a direct challenge.  The Yankees had beaten them in the 1996 World Series in what should have been the second crown (or third or fourth or fifth) in the dynasty.  Since then the Yankees had won the 1998 World Series and now faced the Braves again.  On the line was the title of team of the decade.  The Braves were now in their 5th World Series in a 9 year period.  They had only won once.  The Yankees had not even reached the playoffs in the decade until the Braves were already being handed the title of team of the decade.  Since then the Yankees had won two World Series and were going for their third.  Except for a 10 inning loss the Braves never really had a chance.  They were swept out with relative ease ending the decade in the heart breaking fashion that had become their trademark.

The Continuing Saga:
As the years went on the pattern remained.  2000 was 95 wins, a close division win over the Mets by 1 game.  They were swept out of the first round by the Cardinals.

2001 saw the Braves in a hot pennant chase with the Phillies.  They put the Phillies away on the last weekend of the season.  They swept the Astros in the first round but were knocked out by the Diamondbacks in the NLCS.

In 2002 they won 101 games, best in the NL and 19 games ahead of second place Montreal.  They lost in the first round to the San Francisco Giants.

In 2003 they were 10 games better than the wild card Marlins.  The Cubs knocked them out in the NLDS.

In 2004 they were 10 games better than the improving Phillies.  They lost to the Astros in the NLDS.

In 2005 the Phillies again pushed the Braves to the limit and finished only 2 games back.  The Astros knocked them out in the first round.

Year after year the Braves dominated the regular season.  No one could question that this was a great team.  Star after star played for the team.  Gary Sheffield.  Brian Jordan.  Andres Galaraga.  Bret Boone.  Rafael Furcal.  J.D. Drew, Vinny Castilla.  Julio Franco.  B.J. Surhoff.  Reggie Sanders. Ozzie Guillen.  Maddux moved on.  Glavine moved on.  Smoltz became a closer and then a starter again.

In 2006 it ended.  The Mets overtook the Braves and it would be a totally different Braves team that  reached the playoffs in 2010.  The almost dynasty that won 13 division titles and 5 National League titles won only one World Series.

Bobby Cox was in his second stint as manager of the Braves during the "almost dynasty" of the 1990's/  Originally hired in 1978 as the Braves manager he left after the 1981 season.  From 1982 through 1985 Cox led the Blue Jays, taking them just one game short of the World Series in 1985.  Cox returned to manage the Braves part way through the 1990 season and remained until 2010.  When Cox left following 1981, who replaced him as the Braves manager?

Answer to Last Week's Question:
Many people remember Deion Sanders as a Hall of Fame Defensive Back for the Falcons, 49ers, Cowboys (and near the endof his career the Redskins and Ravens).  It would be hard to decide who was the better two sport athlete between Deion and Bo Jackson.  Jackson's injury deprived us of the opportunity to see what the man could really do.  Sanders played with the Braves and Falcons during the almost dynasty and made 8 Pro Bowls during that time.  The Braves had another two sport star who made an impact on both the Atlanta Football and Baseball franchises.  Although his career in football was much shorter (1989-1991) Brian Jordan was a big part of a strong Atlanta secondary.  Jordan played for the Falcons and even had a playoff interception against the eventual Super Bowl Champion Washington Redskins.  Jordan played 15 years in the majors for the Cardinals, Braves, Dodgers and Rangers.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Almost a Dynasty: 1990's Braves Part 1

What actually makes a sports dynasty?  Obviously a teem needs to be successful for a continuous amount of time.  Every sport has that one iconic dynasty that fits the Dynasty category.  The NBA had the Boston Celtics who won nine out of ten championships.  The Montreal Canadiens won 7 of nine Stanley Cups (including six straight).  The NFL had several dynasties including the 49'ers, the Steelers, the Cowboys and, most recently, the Patriots.  Baseball itself has had the Yankees dynasties in several incarnations including the 1930's, 1950's and 2000's.

So what actually makes a team a dynasty?  There can of course be several definitions since there are varying levels of success.  A team can dominate their division for a decade but be bounced out in the first round of the playoffs year after year.  We could of course consider that to be a divisional dynasty but you wouldn't call it an overall baseball dynasty.  So let us set the parameters for this series of articles.  A dynasty, for our purposes here, is a team that wins multiple World Series championships (above two as back to back is nice but not a dynasty) within a 5-10 year period.  That being defined, this series will explore those teams that may have been a divisional or league dynasty but for whatever reason could not get over the hump to that World Series dynasty.

This series will show an array of near dynasties.  Some are teams that made the World Series year after year but fell short.  Others will be teams that competed right down to the end of the regular season year after year just to be beaten out.  It will be a series of near misses and what could have beens.

Don't miss the other almost dynasty articles: The Detroit Tigers of the 1900's, The Chicago White Sox of the 1910's , the Pittsburgh Pirates of the 1920's, the Boston Red Sox of the 1940s, the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s, the Milwaukee Braves of the 1950s, the Los Angeles Dodgers of the 1970's and the Oakland A's of the 1980's.  Now let's get started with this weeks "almost dynasty": The Atlanta Braves of the 1990's

America's Team?:
The television station TBS was built around the Atlanta Braves.  When it began broadcasting nationally the showtimes always started five minutes after the start of the hour to match the start times of the Braves games.  The only problem was people could see the reruns of Gilligan's Island and the Brady Bunch on any station and the Braves were terrible.  They had superstar Dale Murphy  but that was really it.  In 1990 the team finished dead last but the rumor was they had some good talent in the pipeline.  So hopefully, in a few years, they might just compete.

They were building a strong group of players who would take them right up to the strike year of 1994.  There was no lack of talent on the team that few realized was there but there were, of course, some key players:

Greg Olson:  Olson had played one season with the Twins on a one year contract in 1989. He signed with the Braves for 1990 and impressed everyone in his rookie year, even making the All Star team.  Injuries would slow his career greatly.

Terry Pendleton: A free agent signing from the Cardinals, Pendleton would be the veteran leader of the young Braves.  Pendleton was a key part of the Cardinals World Series teams in 1985 and 1987.  He would bring the winning attitude to Atlanta.

David Justice:  Justice was one of the talented young players in the Braves' system.  He had played just a few games in 1989 but won the rookie of the year in 1990.

Ron Gant: Gant was probably the most talented of all the Braves young players.  He had speed and power and could play great defense.  There were some who believed he could even chase the 40-40 mark.

Lonnie Smith: Known as "Skates" because he ran the bases like he was on roller skates, he had already won World Series titles with the Phillies, Cardinals and Royals.  He signed with the Braves just before the 1988 season and suffered through the poor years with the Braves of the late 1980's.

Tom Glavine:  A second round draft pick of the Braves in 1984, Glavine showed flashes of greatness in his rookie year of 1987.  With the change of leadership to Bobby Cox and the introduction of Leo Mazone as pitching coach, Glavine would put everything together.

Steve Avery:  The #3 overall draft pick in 1988, Avery was considered the future of the franchise. It was believed that he would be the ace of the staff for years to come.

John Smoltz:  A native of Detroit, he wanted nothing more than to pitch with his idol Jack Morris. That dream looked like it would come true when he was drafted by the Tigers but ended when he was traded to the Braves for Doyle Alexander at the 1987 trade deadline.

Chopping Down the Competition:
The rebuilding process began before the 1990 season but took a loud step forward when the Braves traded fan favorite and two time MVP Dale Murphy and Pitching prospect Tommy Greene to the Phillies in exchange for Pitcher Jeff Parrett and Catcher Jim Vatcher.  Fans were not happy that Murphy was gone and the players that were received in return did little to help.  The trade made it clear that a youth movement was in process.  December of 1990 took another big step forward when they signed Pendleton to play Third Base and Sid Bream from the AL East Champion Pirates to play First Base.  On April 1 they added the man that would get the offense started for the Braves when Otis Nixon was acquired from Montreal for Jimmy Kremers.

Heading into the 1991 season no one gave the Braves much of a chance. The critics favorite was the defending champion Reds.  The dark horse team was the San Diego Padres who had made a blockbuster trade in sending Joe Carter and Roberto Almoar to the Blue Jays in exchange for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez.

The 1991 Braves started about as expected, or maybe slightly better, with an 8-10 record.  The Reds, Padres and Dodgers were ahead of them.  A strong May put the team five games above .500 and only 1/2 game behind the first place Dodgers.  Still, no one gave them much of a chance.  After all, it was a long way to October and the team had finished last the previous season.  They seemed to settle back into their expected role in June, falling to third and 7 1/2 behind the pace.  Then a funny thing happened.  They didn't play tremendously above everyone else.  They didn't run off huge winning streaks but they won more than they lost and by the end of July the lead had been cut in half.  They continued gaining ground by playing steady ball.  The would win three or four in a row but avoid long losing streaks and before you knew it, on August 28, they took over first place.  The critics couldn't wait for them to collapse.  They could not possibly be for real.  They waited for the Braves to fade.  With the slimmest of leads on September 20 the team lost 4 of their next 5  to fall 2 games behind the Dodgers.  With less than two weeks left the critics started to say I told you so.  But something was happening in Atlanta.  The stadium was packed.  The fans were excited and the "Tomahawk Chop" was gaining attention nationwide.  The Dodgers played .500 the last two weeks going 4-4.  The Braves were nearly unbeatbale.  They went 7-1 down the stretch.

The teams entered play on Saturday, October 5 with Atlanta ahead by one game.  The Braves were at home against Houston.  The Dodgers were playing the hated Giants in San Francisco.  With a 13-13 John Smoltz on the mound the Braves led 4-0 after 3 innings and would win 5-2 with relative ease.  Then it was time to sit and wait.  If the Giants could beat the Dodgers the Braves would clinch the division.  The Giants sent a young Trevor Wilson (12-11) to the mound.  The Giants finally broke the scoreless tie in the 3rd with a single run.  The Dodgers, however, could not seem to get anything going against Wilson.  He held them to 2 hits and 2 walks.  There was never any real threat and the Dodgers lost 4-0.  The Braves had gone from last place in 1990 to the top of the division in 1991.  Now to face the defending NL East Champion Pirates in the NLCS.

The Pirates were a stacked team with All Stars at nearly every position.  Their Outfield trio of Bonillia-Bonds-Van Slyke was considered the best outfield in baseball.  Their middle infielders Jay Bell and Chico Lind were the top double play combination and their starting pitching of Doug Drabek, John Smiley and Neal Heaton were frightening on the mound.  The Braves were given little chance and when Van Slyke homered in the opening frame of the opening game, little changed in the minds of the experts. Two innings later the Pirates added 2 more runs and eventually won 5-1.  This Braves season had been fun, but time to step aside and let the big boys take over.  With Steve Avery on the mound for Game 2 the Braves faced off against former Brave Zane Smith.  Both pitchers seemed to constantly be working out of trouble.  Avery would allow 6 hits and walked 2.  Smith would allow 8 hits and walk 2.  The difference came down to the Braves' 6th inning.  David Justice singled to start the inning.  Two quick outs that followed gave the impression that this inning was like the others.  Then Mark Lemke, only playing in this series because Jeff Blauser had broken his leg, doubled.  He had hit only .234 all year but he now had the biggest hit of his career, so far.  It gave the Braves a 1-0 lead, enough to tie the series at one game each.

The Braves crushed the Pirates 10-3 in Game 3 and when the Braves jumped out to a 2-0 first inning lead in Game 4 it looked like they were going to take control of the series.  The Pirates cut the lead to 2-1 in the second and tied it in the 5th.  The score would remain that way into the 10th inning.  With everything on the line the Pirates mounted an attack. Van Slyke walked on four pitches.  Bonilla popped out and Bonds flew out to left.  Van Slyke stole second and Steve Buechelle walked.  A single by Mike "Spanky" LaValiere brought in Van Slyke but the inning ended when Buechele tried to score and Lemke made a perfect relay throw to the plate.  The Braves could not answer in the bottom of the inning and the series was tied.

What followed in Games 5 and 6 were tight, tense, hard fought, well pitched games.  Zane Smith faced off against Glavine in Game 5.  Glavine pitched 8 innings, allowed only 6 hits, walked three and allowed only 1 run.  Zane Smith pitched 7 2/3 allowing 7 hits, walking only 1 and allowing 0 runs.  The Pirates took the lead in the series 3 games to 2.  Steve Avery faced off against Doug Drabek in Game 6.  Drabek was clearly the Pirates ace and pitched like it.  He allowed only 7 hits and walked three in a complete game effort allowing only a single run, an RBI double by Greg Olson in the Top of the 9th.  Avery pitched 8 innings and allowed only 3 hits and 2 walks but no runs.  The series was tied 3-3.

Game 7 had John Smiley, the Pirates young star pitcher, face off against John Smoltz.  Of the Braves starters Smoltz was considered the weakest one.  At only 13-12 on the season Smoltz did not have the pedigree that Glavine and Avery had and was not the experienced veteran that Charlie Leibrandt was.  True to form, the Braves got their offense from an unexpected source.  A sacrifice fly scored Lonnie Smith but with two out it was Brian Hunter, playing first base for the Braves, who hit a 2 run Home Run to give Atlanta a three run lead.  When that was followed by a Greg Olson single John Smiley was gone.  Smoltz would stick around and shut out the Pirates on 6 hits and 1 walk.  It was almost unbelievable but the Braves were going to the World Series.

Never before in the history of the game had a team that finished in last place the season before reached first place the following year.  The Braves accomplished that in 1991 but what was more amazing was that their opponent, the Minnesota Twins, had done the same thing.  The World Series of 1991 was one of the greatest World Series of all time.  There were non-stop thrills. Close games.  Pitching duels.  Plays at the plate.  Spectacular defensive plays.  Every time fans thought it couldn't get any better it did.

Game 1 went to the Twins by a score of 5-2 with the Twins' Jack Morris beating Charlie Leibrandt.  Leibrandt had pitched in a World Series before with the 1985 Royals.  His legacy in that post season was the hard luck loser.  His fortunes would not change this season.  The Twins took Game 2 in Minnesota as well by a score of 3-2.  Glavine had pitched 8 strong innings and allowed only 4 hits while walking 3.  Unfortunately two of the four hits were Home Runs.  The second of the two Home Runs was a lead off Home Run by Scott Leius in the bottom of the 8th to break a 2-2 tie.  The shocking part of the first two games for the Braves was the lack of power.  The Twins hit four Home Runs in the first two games. The Braves had none.

With Steve Avery on the mound and pitching like an ace the Braves jumped out to a 4-1 lead in Game 3 but Braves errors and Home Runs by Kirby Puckett and Chilli Davis allowed the Twins to tie the game at 4 in the 8th.  Both teams threatened in the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th. Gant led off the 12th with a fly ball to left field.  Justice followed with a single.  Brian Hunter popped out to second. Justice then stole second to put himself in scoring position and Olson walked putting two on and two out.  Up to the plate stepped Mark Lemke.  He had the big hit in the NLCS and made the great defensive play that helped upset the Pirates now he was asked to win a World Series game.  Lemke shot the ball into shallow left field.  With two outs Justice was moving at the crack of the bat.  He was a few steps around third by the time the ball was fielded but it was barely past the infield dirt.  Justice ran slightly wide on the base paths.  The throw came to the left of home plate, in line with where Justice was running.  Justice adjusted and slid to the first base side of the plate. Justice went into his slide as Brian Harper caught the ball at the plate and dove toward Justice.  It was one of those plays that needs to be watched several times in slow motion to see what the right call was but the call that was made was right.  Safe.  The Braves had barely avoided falling to a 3-0 hole and had now tightened the series to 2-1.

Game 3 was a brief preview of something that was to come but no one knew the gem that was on the horizon and this gave only hints of what was possible.  It was Smoltz vs Morris.  Morris pitched 6 strong innings and allowed only 6 hits and 1 run.  Morris was replaced for a pinch hitter in the top of the 7th with a 2-1 lead. A Lonnie Smith Home Run in the bottom of the inning tied it.  Smoltz  had been replaced by a pinch hitter in the 7th so neither starter got a decision.  They entered the bottom of the 9th tied at 2.  With 1 out Lemke again got the big hit with a triple.  Jeff Blauser was walked intentionally bringing up the pitcher's spot and the chess game began. The Braves sent up Francisco Cabrera to pinch hit.  The Twins removed Mark Guthrie and brought in relief pitcher Steve Bedrosian.  The Braves pinch hit Jerry Willard, a back up catcher, for Cabrera.  All this when all the Braves needed was a fly ball.  Willard delivered.  As the ball left the bat Jack Buck, announcing for CBS yelled out "That's gonna be a winner for Atlanta!"  But wait Jack.  There's more.  Lemke tagged at third as Shane Mack camped under the ball that seemed like it would never come down.  Lemke waited.  Mack waited.  One of those odd moments of inaction in baseball that last the blink of an eye but seem to take forever.  One of those moments of inaction that last a second where it seems that time has stopped.  And as soon as that moment ends the field erupts in motion.  The ball smacked Mack's glove and Lemke tore for home.

Mack's body becomes a living catapult, launching the ball towards home. The pitcher, backing up the play at the plate, sprints behind the catcher.  The third base coach, swinging his arm like a windmill, running down the line with the runner, almost as though he can score the run himself.  The Braves bench jumping up and down in anticipation.  The Twins bench leaning, bending, twisting, hands white knuckling the railing, praying for a good throw.  Mack threw a perfect one hop peg to the plate.  Harper, poised just in front of the plate, caught the ball and made contact with Lemke, who brushed against Harper as he went into his slide.  "and he is.."Jack Buck screamed "!  They called him safe!"  And he was. Harper had made contact with Lemke but the ball was in Harper's right hand and never tagged Lemke.  The series was now tied.

Fans couldn't take these late inning wins.  The needed a game to go a little more easily and give their hearts a break.  They got it in Game 5.  The power that had been missing from Games 1 and 2 suddenly appeared in Game 5 as Hunter, Justice and Lonnie Smith hit Home Runs and the Braves scored 14 runs on 17 hits putting them just one win from the World Series title. The Twins jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first but this Series had a pattern and the Braves tied it in the 5th.  The Twins untied it in the bottom of the 5th.  The Braves tied it again in the 7th and extra innings were needed.  Several double plays by both teams erased any chances the teams had of scoring.  The Twins entered the bottom of the 11th with the heart of the order to come up.  Mr. Twin, Kirby Puckett, sent Twins fans home happy with a Home Run to Centerfield.  Puckett, who had already made a game saving catch against the wall now became the Twins' offensive hero.

Game 7 was nothing short of spectacular.  Morris vs Smoltz in arguably the greatest World Series game in history.  Unfortunately for the almost dynasty, the Twins came out on top.

Flash in the Pan or Real Contender?
There were questions for the Braves as they entered the 1992 season, mostly people wanted to know if this team was for real or were they just a one time contender.  The 1992 Braves started only 11-11 and were in last place near the end of April.  By May 30 they had fallen below .500 but had climbed one standings spot to 5th.  In June (19-6) and July (16-9) they made their move on the NL West.  By the All Star Break they had climbed to second and cut the lead to 1 game.  By August 1 they were just 1/2 game out.  By August 31 they had a 6 1/2 game lead.  The lead reached as high as 10 1/2 but ended at 8.  There was now little question that this was a very strong team.

Their opponent in the NLCS, as it was in 1991, was the Pirates. Pittsburgh had lost Bobby Bonillia as a free agent to the Mets but no one thought the Pirates were a push over.  The Braves jumped out to a three games to 1 lead in the Series and looked like they would waltz into the World Series.  Avery was knocked out in the first inning of Game 5 and Glavine fared little better in Game 6.  Smoltz pitched well in Game 7 but just as had happened in the 1991 series he had no support.  He left in the 7th trailing.  The Braves entered the 9th trailing 2-0.  Pendleton led off with a double and when an error allowed Justice to reach first safely Pendleton moved to third.  Sid Bream then walked to load the bases with no out.  As Ron Gant stepped in Braves fans had dreams of a grand slam.  They settled for an RBI sac fly.  Damon Berryhill, playing for an injured Greg Olson, walked to load the bases.  Brian Hunter popped out for the second out and Atlanta was one out away from blowing a once secure 3 games to 1 lead.  With the Pitcher's spot due up Francisco Cabrera pinch hit.  On the fourth pitch of the at bat Cabrera lined a ball into left field.  Justice scored easily and as he reached the plate he turned and saw Sid Bream, one of the slowest runners in baseball (thanks to repeated knee injuries) lumbering around third.  He could see the throw coming to the plate and wildly gestured to Bream that he would need to slide.  Bream did and the throw came in late.  Lying on the ground a wave of Braves flowed on top of Bream celebrating the Braves's second straight National League title.  Now on to Toronto to face the Blue Jays and...oh shit.  Jack Morris.

Morris started Game 1 for Toronto and faced off against Glavine.  Glavine pitched a complete game and allowed only four hits and walking none. One of the four hits was a solo Home Run  by Joe Carter.  The Braves trailed because of that hit as they entered the 6th.  With one out Justice drew a walk.  He moved to second when  Sid Bream singled and moved to third when Gant grounded to short stop.  Gant's speed allowed him to avoid the double play and on the 1-1 pitch he stole second.  At the plate was Damon Berryhill, a former Cubs Catcher who had signed with the Braves to back up Olson.  When Olson was injured he was moved into the starting position.  It worked out fine for the Braves when he launched a three run Home Run to give the Braves a 3-1 lead that would give them Game 1.

The Braves led 4-2 entering the 8th inning of Game 2 with a chance to take control of the series.  An RBI single by Dave Winfield cut the lead to 4-3.  The Braves went in order in the bottom of the 8th.  To start the top of the 9th Braves closer Jeff Reardon got Pat Borders to fly out but he walked Derek Bell.  With All Stars like Winfield, Carter, Alomar, John Olerud and Devon White, it was easy to overlook the strong play by other Blue Jays.  Ed Sprague, an under rated utility man, pinch hit for the pitcher and gave the Jays the lead with a two run Home Run.  The Braves fought in the 9th.  Lemke was unable to reach base but Lonnie Smith took one for the team and reached first by getting hit by a pitch.  He was replaced by Gant as a pinch runner.  Otis Nixon lined out to Center Field for the second out and sensing the urgency of the situation Gant stole second to put himself in scoring position.  Stepping to the plate was the polarizing figure of Deion Sanders.  The loved/hated Sanders drew a walk to bring up the team leader Pendleton.  Swinging at the first pitch Pendleton popped out to third base ending the threat and the game.

Steve Avery pitched 8 strong innings in Game 3 allowing only 5 hits.  Toronto's starter Juan Guzman pitched 8 innings and allowed 8 hits and walked 1.  The game was tied at 1 entering the 8th.  The Braves scored an unearned run when Otis Nixon reached on an error, stole second and scored on a Lonnie Smith single but any chance at a bigger inning ended when Justice was thrown out trying to take third.  The lead lasted all of 8 pitches.  Kelly Gruber made up for his own error that had led to Nixon's run when he launched a game tying Home Run to start the 8th.  The Braves did nothing in the 9th and when Avery gave up a lead off single to Alomar he was removed.  Alomar stole second and Joe Carter was walked intentionally putting two on with no one out.  Both runners advanced on Winfield's sac bunt (that's right a sacrifice bunt successfully put in play by a man who hit 500 Home Runs.  Can Ryan Howard or Many Ramirez do that?)  and the bases were loaded when Ed Sprague was walked intentionally.  This set up a bases loaded 1 out situation where a ground ball might lead to a game saving double play.  Instead Candy Maldonado hit a ball over the heads of the drawn in outfielders to win the give Toronto the lead in the series

Glavine pitched again in Game 4 and again was brilliant.  8 strong innings allowing only 6 hits (though he did walk 4).  He allowed a solo Home Run to Pat Borders in the Third and an RBI single to Devon White in the 7th. Unfortunately, Toronto held the Braves to only one run and suddenly the Braves were down 3 games to 1 in the series.

This Braves team had fought too hard to get back to this point after last year's devastating loss.  They had proven they were for real while the Twins had failed to even make the ALCS.  They had dominated their division, fought off a charge from the Pirates and now they were on the brink of blowing the whole thing.  In their way was Jack Morris.  His opponent was John Smoltz.  The two had faced off the year before in one of the greatest games ever played.  Could they do it again?  The teams traded runs through four and were tied at 2.  Two quick 5th inning outs made it appear that the tie would continue when Otis Nixon singled.  He stole second and scored on a Deion Sanders single.  Pendleton doubled but fan interference held Sanders at third.  David Justice was walked to load the bases with two outs.  The batter was Lonnie Smith.  He had been the goat the year before when his base running mistake was perceived to have lost the Braves Game 7.  Now he kept the Braves' season alive with a Grand Slam giving the Braves a 7-2 lead that would give them the game.

The Braves were confident that if any team could come back from a 3-1 series deficit they were that team.  Trailing 2-1 entering the 9th and with their season on the line, they fought to force a Game 7.  Blauser opened with a single and moved to second on Berryhill's sacrifice bunt.  Smith walked but when Francisco Cabrera lined out they were down to their final out of the season. Otis Nixon singled scoring Blauser and sending Smith to third.  Up to the plate stepped Ron Gant.  A base hit would win it and send the series to one final game.  Instead Gant flew out to end the inning.  But this game was tied and the Braves were still alive.  Neither team scored in the 10th.  With 2 out in the 11th and runners on first and second Dave Winfield stepped in.  He had not had a great post season to this point, which had added credence to Steinbrenner's nickname of "Mr. May".  Winfield reclaimed his reputation with a double that scored both runners giving the Jays a 2 run lead.  It wasn't over yet.  The Braves had life left in them.  As the stadium rang with the tomahawk chop Blauser singled.  Berryhill followed with a ground ball to the short stop but an error allowed Berryhill to reach first and Blauser to advance to third.  Berryhill was not a fast runner so John Smoltz pinch ran and advanced to second on a sac bunt.  Brian Hunter grounded to first base allowing Blauser to score but giving the Blue Jays just one more out to record before ending the series.  Otis Nixon was easily the fastest Brave.  He tried to extend the inning by catching the Jays off guard with a bunt.  He dragged the ball down the first base line.  If he could beat it out the game would be tied.  Pitcher Mike Timlin reacted but would it be quick enough?  Nixon tore past just as Timlin fielded the ball. Timlin flipped to first, just a few steps before Nixon hit the bag.  The Blue Jays were world champions.  For the second year in a row the Braves were so close yet unsuccessful.

The Greatest Rotation:
Avery, Smoltz and Glavine were the great trifecta entering their third year together.  Charlie Leibrandt had been the veteran presence in the rotation but he was not of the same caliber of the three young arms.  Pete Smith, their 5th starter, was dangerous but he was not on their level.  It would be hard to say the Braves were desperate for more pitching but when Cubs Pitcher Greg Maddux is available you can always find room for him.  The Braves signed  Maddux for the 1993 season making an already dangerous team now appear unbeatable.

Still, although they appeared unbeatable the Braves trailed the Giants by 5 games in the standings at the start of June.  By mid July they were 10 games back.  They made a trade for Fred McGriff on July 17 and although McGriff helped the Braves tremendously, it was now the Giants who appeared unbeatable.  They started cutting into the lead but as late as August 11 they were still 9 games back.  A 9 game winning streak cut the lead to 6 1/2.  Another 5 game win streak cut it to 4 1/2.  Winning 16 of the next 20 put them ahead of a collapsing Giants team with a 4 game lead and just two weeks left.  The Giants fought back and on the last day of the season they entered play tied.  The Braves were playing the first year Colorado Rockies.  The Giants faced their hated rivals the Dodgers, looking to return the favor done to the Braves in 1991.  The Braves won 5-3 behind Glavine, giving him his 22nd win of the year.  The Giants lost 12-1 thanks to 4 Home Runs (2 by young Catcher Mike Piazza).  The Braves had advanced to the NLCS for the third straight year.  This time they would face a gritty Philadelphia Phillies team.

The Braves had four pitchers that any other team would call an ace.  Maddux's first year in Atlanta (20-10, 2.36) was spectacular.  Glavine (22-6, 3.20) and Avery (18-6 2.94) were spectacular.  Smoltz was "the weak link" in the group (15-11, 3.62) if you consider 15 wins a weak link.  Their opponents had nothing remotely comparable.  The Phillies pitchers Curt Schilling (16-7, 4.02) and Tommy Greene (16-4 3.42) were their top pitchers while Terry Mulholland (12-9, 3.25) and Danny Jackson (12-11, 3.77) added a veteran presence.  With the Braves experience and power there appeared to be no chance for the Phillies.  What happened next shocked everyone.  The Braves won games by the scores of 14-3 and 9-6 showing their offensive power.  The Phillies won games by the scores of 4-3 (in ten innings), 2-1, 4-3 (again in 10 innings) and 6-3 out lasting the Braves starters in dramatic fashion. Terry Pendleton had a good series hitting .367 and driving in 5 and McGriff did well hitting .435 and driving in 4 runs. Gant (.185) and Justice (.143) had horrible series adding to the Braves' struggles.  For the third straight year the Braves had lost to a team that, on paper, should have been easily beaten.  A pattern was starting to form.  A pattern of heartbreak and disappointment.

The disappointment would continue into the 1994 season.  The league used 1994 to debut the newly formatted divisional and wild card play.  The Braves waved goodbye to their historic rivalries with the Dodgers, Giants, Padres, Reds and Astros.  In the new format they would form new, bitter rivalries, with the Mets, Marlins, Expos and Phillies.  Baseball added an extra playoff round, giving the Braves (and all playoff teams) one more obstacle to reach the pinnacle.  As expected the Braves jumped out to a division lead but the surprising Expos took over first place by six games on August 11.  They would not get any closer and would not fall any farther back.  No one would.  The strike ended the season and the Braves would have to wait another year.

Team of the Decade:
The Braves were slightly changed as they entered the 1995 season but were still the favorites to win their division.  No longer with the team were some key players like Pendleton, Gant and Olson.  Replacing them were Javy Lopez,  Chipper Jones and Marquis Grissom.  The bedrock of the team was still, as always, pitching.  Maddux (19-2, 1.63) was basically unhittable but Avery suffered arm problems and would struggle through the year. There was no competition in the season and the Braves ran away with their new division by 22 games.

There was some fear that the upstart Colorado Rockies might do what the surprise Phillies had done in 1993 but the Braves quickly did away with Colorado.  Grissom, Chipper Jones (2 home runs in his first playoff game), and Javvy Lopez led the offense as the Braves easily advanced 3 games to 1.

Their next opponent was the up and coming  Cincinnati Reds in their first playoff appearance since 1990.  Now playing for the Reds, Ron Gant would have loved nothing more than to show the Braves that they had let him go too soon but his .188 average with only one run scored and one driven in did nothing to change their mind.  In fact the difference in the series came from a surprise source.  The trade deadline is often watched for big time deals.  David Cone going to Toronto in 1992.  Randy Johnson going to Houston in 1998.  Cliff Lee going to Texas in 2010.  Yet often the trades that get ignored give the highest results.  Dave Roberts to the Red Sox in 2004 for example or Mike Deveraux to the Braves in 1995.  The Braves acquired Devo from the White Sox for a minor league player on August 25, 1995.  He played in 29 games and hit only .255 for the Braves but made the post season roster.  What did he do in the NLCS?  He won the series MVP is all.  He hit .308, drove in 5 runs and hit a spirit crushing three run Home Run in the deciding game of the Braves' sweep of the Reds.

That old fear crept back in as the Braves faced the Cleveleand Indians in the 1995 World Series.  The Braves had the experience of playing together but the Indians had a different type of experience.  It was a collection of players who had won other places and they were names that echoed through post season history.  Eddie Murray.  Orel Hershiser.  Dennis Martinez.  Tony Pena.  They were joined by young talent.  Albert Belle,  Jim Thome.  Kenny Lofton.  Manny Ramirez.  This was the type of team that could shock you.

Tied at 1 in the 7th inning of Game 1 the Braves scored two to take the lead.  Cleveland scored one run in the 9th to cut the lead to 3-2 but Greg Maddux was spectacular in a complete game win.  He went the full 9 innings and allowed only 2 hits while walking no one.

The Braves took a 2 games to none lead in Game 2 when Glavine out pitched Dennis Martinez with some help from a two run Home Run from Javvy Lopez.

The Indians were not going down that easy.  Smoltz had a rough night in Game 3, lasting only 2 1/3 innings.  He left while the Braves trailed 4-1.  He would not take the loss.  The Braves fought back thanks to Home Runs by McGriff and Ryan Klesko.  They even managed to take a 6-5 lead on a Mike Deveraux RBI single.  The lead did not last long. The Indians quickly tied it and went on to win the game in the 11th inning.

The fear started to creep up again in Game 4.  The teams were tied at 1 going into the 7th inning.  Ken Hill was on the mound for Cleveland and he was pitching strong but in the 7th things fell apart.  With one out Marquis Girssom walked.  He scored on a Luis Polonia double.  Hill was removed.  Chipper Jones was intentionally walked and both he and Polonia advanced on a Passed Ball.  McGriff struck out and that fear started to gnaw at the Braves again.  Would they lose their chance at a big inning?  David Justice stepped in to face Paul Assenmacher.  Braves fans loved Justice.  He had been a key piece of this playoff run since 1991. He was their star.  They also hated seeing him in this situation.  It seemed to Braves fans that he never came through when they needed him.  His performance in 1993 in particular was fresh in their mind.  He took strike one and looked out at the mound.  You could see him thinking.  Assenmacher's pitch had been on the outside corner.  A perfect pitch.  He blew on his hands still thinking through Assenmacher's repertoire of pitches.  He stepped back in.  Assenmacher looped a perfect off speed pitch over the heart of the plate.  Justice watched strike 2.  He stepped out again blew on his hands.  He took ball 1 on the inside part of the plate.  He was one pitch away from another playoff failure and the bat hadn't left his shoulder.  The fourth pitch of the at bat was on the lower outside part of the plate  It was the same pitch that McGriff had struck out on.  There was one difference.  Justice connected.  It shot straight back up the middle.  Polonia and Jones scored and the Braves took the lead.  They would win 5-2 to take a 3 games to 1 lead.  It put them just one win away from a World Series title.  The same place they had been in 1991.

Maddux pitched well in the next game but not nearly as well as he had in his first start and not nearly as well as Orel Hershiser.  He allowed 7 hits in seven innings and four runs and nearly started a bench clearing brawl when he threw up and in to Eddie Murray.  Maddux said he felt he had pitched well but "everything they got, I thought they earned."  The bottom line was that the Indians forced Game 6.  The great footnote to this Game was Ryan Klesko's 9th inning Home Run.  It did not effect the outcome of the game but it did make history.  It was the third straight game in the series (all in Cleveland) that Klesko had homered in making him the first player in baseball history to hit Home Runs in three straight road games.

Braves fans had seen this story before.  So close bu not there yet.  One of their aces, Glavine, was on the mound for Game 6 and it was so close they could taste the champagne.  Still they had to win and the Indians seemed to be getting stronger and more confident as the series went on.
Glavine was spectacular.  Through the first 5 innings Glavine had allowed only two walks (both to Albert Belle) and was untouchable by the other Indians.  The Braves had every opportunity to take control of the game. In the first Lemke singled but was erased when he tried to steal second.  Chipper singled but was stranded there.  In the second Dennis Martinez walked the first two batters but a double play and a pop fly cancelled the threat.  In the bottom of the 4th Braves fans nearly collapsed from the strain.  After two outs on three pitches to start the inning Justice doubled.  the red hot Klesko was walked intentionally and Javy Lopez was walked to load the bases. That brought up Rafael Belliard.  Another of the players still in Atlanta from that original World Series team in 1991.  The NBC broadcast booth of Bob Uecker, Joe Morgan and Bob Costas discussed the possibilities of pinch hitting for Belliard to get some runs.  The consensus was it was too soon to remove the defensively strong Shortstop who was not terrible at the bat.  Belliard half offered at the first pitch but the home plate umpire said he offered enough.  Strike 1.  Braves fans nationwide had the same sinking feeling when they saw Belliard swing at the next pitch of the at bat and fly harmlessly to Kenny Lofton.  It was happening again.

The Braves stranded two more runners in the 5th.  Glavine allowed his first hit of the game in the 6th but was able to avoid any trouble.  The bottom of the 6th started with David Justice leading off and the love-hate relationship with the fans continued.  His previous at bat had given him his first extra base hit of the postseason.  They prayed it was the start of a string of extra base hits.

Justice took strike one from new Cleveland pitcher Jim Poole.  He grimaced a little showing his displeasure with the call.  He took ball one.  It was not even close.  The third pitch came in and Justice put a signature swing on the ball.  He launched it and there was no doubt this one was gone.  Braves led 1-0.  Now could they hold it.

Glavine was better than ever. He woud leave the game after 8 innings.  He allowed only one hit and three walks.  He struck out 8.  The Braves continued to threaten but could not score and so with three outs left the Braves sent closer Mark Wohlers to the mound.  Wohlers got Kenny Lofton to pop up a 2-1 pitch. Two outs left.  Wohlers got pinch hitter Paul Sorrento to fly out.  One out left.  The stadium was literally rocking.  The anticipation that this was it was unavoidable.

The great thing about baseball is that you can never tell which pitch will change the game.  You will remember a specific pitch forever but before it is thrown you don't know that is the pitch you will remember.  When Kirk Gibson shocked the world his at bat had been long and drawn out.  When Dennis Eckersley released the now famous pitch it was just a pitch.  It didn't become a the pitch until it landed in the bleachers.  Braves fans expected a fight from Carlos Baerga.  With his bat being the only thing keeping the Indians from heading home for the winter there was no way he would swing at anything less than a perfect pitch.  Baerga swung at the first pitch and drove it on an arc towards left-center field.  Marquis Grissom ranged over on the run and easily corraled the ball.

In the NBC broadcast booth Bob Costas proclaimed "The team of the '90's has their championship".  When we see part two of the Braves almost dynasty it will be clear that Costas may have jumped the gun a bit.

The Braves dynasty of the 1990s through the early 2000s had two key players who were two sport stars in both Baseball and Football.  Both of these players were members of the Falcons and Braves teams.  Who were they?

Answer to Last Week's Question:
Rick Dempsey is best known as the catcher for the Orioles.  He played on the 1979 and 1983 playoff teams for Baltimore and won the World Series MVP in 1983.  When the Orioles sent an unhappy Storm Davis to the Padres and received Catcher Terry Kennedy in return, Dempsey became expendable and was released in November of 1986.  After a season with the Indians Dempsey was released and signed with the Dodgers as a backup for Scioscia.  Rick played in 77 games for the 1988 Dodgers and when Scioscia injured his leg in the series he was replaced by Dempsey.  Dempsey caught the final strike from Hershiser.