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Braves' New World

Upstart Atlanta won a thriller of a race for the title in the National League West

Ninety minutes after the first-place Atlanta Braves beat the Houston Astros last Saturday, and 87 minutes after the San Francisco Giants eliminated the second-place Los Angeles Dodgers from the National League West race, the Braves' division championship-clinching celebration was still raging in their clubhouse. Champagne flowed, shaving cream squirted, and Atlanta third baseman Terry Pendleton sipped a beer.

"I've known Terry for 20 years, I grew up with him, and he has never had a beer in his life," said Braves reserve catcher Jerry Willard. "He came to my bachelor party with a 12-pack of 7 Up. If Terry drinks even a sip of beer, that shows what we did was big."

It was huge. Losers 97 times in 1990, the Braves came into this season having finished at least 20 games out of first six straight times. They and this season's other Cinderella team, the American League West-winning Minnesota Twins, are the only teams in this century to go from last place one year to first the next.

Atlanta got to the top by going 55-28 after the All-Star break and winning 21 of its last 29 games, including eight in a row through Saturday's clincher. After Aug. 22, the Braves and the Dodgers were never separated by more than two games. There were five ties and nine lead changes during the stretch run. "If we didn't buckle under this pressure, it's not going to happen in the playoffs against the Pirates," said Atlanta catcher Greg Olson.

The Braves' biggest test came on Oct. 1 in Cincinnati. Trailing the Dodgers by a game, they fell behind 6-0 in the first inning against Reds ace Jose Rijo. But they chipped away at the lead and capped one of baseball's greatest comebacks with a ninth-inning, two-run homer by David Justice off Rob Dibble to win 7-6.

The next night the Braves pulled even by beating the Reds 6-3 while the Dodgers lost to the Padres, who scored six runs in the eighth inning on seven hits—five of which never left the infield—and a throwing error for a come-from-behind 9-4 win. "I was going to walk off the field doing the Tomahawk Chop," said San Diego reliever Larry Andersen, a Dodger hater. "But it would have been bush."

A number of National League players expressed their dislike of L.A. and their support of the Braves. When the Astros got to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on Friday, they were tomahawked by the fans. "We tomahawked back," said Houston pitcher Jim Deshaies. "This race reminds me of the movie Major League: Down-and-out team comes to life. They even have a Willie Mays Hayes—Deion, the designated speedster."

Deion Sanders wasn't needed. Last Friday night the Astros made four errors as the Braves won 5-2 behind Steve Avery, who finished the season with an 18-8 record. The game ended in time for the Braves to watch the Dodgers-Giants game on TV. In the first inning, San Francisco's Will Clark hit a two-run homer off Ramon Martinez, whereupon Olson bounded into manager Bobby Cox's office and said, "When I got on first in San Francisco [on Sept. 17], Will told me, 'Don't worry, I love hitting the Dodgers. I hate 'em.' " The Giants' eventual 4-1 win gave the Braves a one-game lead.

On Saturday, Atlanta's John Smoltz tossed an eight-hitter to beat the Astros 5-2 while Trevor Wilson of the Giants finished off the Dodgers 4-0 on a two-hitter. "This saved our season," said Clark, whose team had a winning record (10-8) this year against only one team, the Dodgers. The Giants knock the Dodgers out of a title race once every decade; they did it in 1951, '62, '71, '82 and now '91.

The dueling finishes couldn't have been scripted better. After Smoltz got the final out on Saturday at 5:23 p.m. EDT, his teammates mobbed him, then stayed on the field to watch the Dodger game on the Diamond Vision screen. At 5:26 p.m. EDT, when the last out was made in San Francisco, the Braves and the crowd of 44,994 erupted again.

"At the beginning of the year, Las Vegas would have made the odds 500 to 1 against us," said second baseman Jeff Blauser. "That's why this is the world's greatest game. It's not like this in other sports. I don't want to get too philosophical, but baseball is the epitome of America. We were down and out, but we battled back. And now, we're here."



On Saturday, Smoltz (29) and mates shared an embrace, then a clinch.