We saw baseball's best pitching staff in its finest hour--so far.
In winning the National League pennant, the Atlanta Braves'
pitchers reduced the Cincinnati Reds' potent lineup to a
procession of confused hitters who whiffed regularly, lofted
lazy fly balls and topped weak grounders. As a result, Cincy's
vaunted running game never got up to speed, slugger Ron Gant
turned into Ron Can't, and cleanup hitter Reggie Sanders brought
new meaning to the term strikeout king. "I'm numb," said the
Reds' magnificent shortstop, Barry Larkin, after his team was
swept out of the National League Championship Series in four
games. "I'm dumbfounded."
What was worse for the Cleveland Indians--who needed six games to
get past the Seattle Mariners in the American League
Championship Series--was that the Braves' staff had a week to
rest and set its rotation for the World Series.
The Atlanta starters--Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and
Steve Avery, who worked in that order during the NLCS--combined
for a 1.29 ERA in 28 innings against Cincinnati. However, for
the World Series, perennial Cy Young Award winner Maddux, who
pitched the Division Series clincher against the Colorado
Rockies on Oct. 7, would regain his customary Game 1 assignment.
Atlanta would be trying to win its first world championship in
three tries in this decade. "We know we have to win the World
Series," said a champagne-soaked Smoltz after the Braves' 6-0
pennant-clinching victory over the Reds on Oct. 15. "This isn't
a relief. If we lose in the World Series, then we might as well
have lost this series. It won't be good enough."
Remember that when they lost the 1991 World Series to the
Minnesota Twins in seven games and the '92 Series to the Toronto
Blue Jays in six, the Braves did not have Maddux, who was still
toiling for the Chicago Cubs. (Charlie Leibrandt, with a 15-13
record, was Atlanta's Game 1 starter against the Twins.) And
when the Braves suffered six of their eight World Series losses
in their opponents' last at bat, they didn't have a stopper like
Mark Wohlers. He made an appearance in each game against the
Reds, giving up just two hits and striking out eight batters in
five innings. In fact, the Atlanta bullpen combined to allow
Cincinnati only one run in 11 innings.
"You can't pitch better than we did," said Brave pitching coach
Leo Mazzone after his staff held Gant without an extra-base hit
and struck out Sanders 10 times in 16 at bats. "Not just the
starters, but 1 through 11."
Mazzone could just as easily have tipped his cap to all the
Atlanta players, 1 through 25. So widespread were their
contributions to the sweep that the series' Most Valuable Player
was Mike Devereaux, a spare outfielder who went 4 for 13. The
player who struck the blow in Game 3 that doomed the Reds was
Charlie O'Brien, a career backup catcher who writes the names
of his kids on his bats. And the leading hitters in the series
were Atlanta's third and fourth batters, third baseman Chipper
Jones and first baseman Fred McGriff, respectively, who each
went 7 for 16 (.438).
The last time the Braves went to the World Series, they didn't
have the kind of punch coming off the bench that players like
Devereaux and O'Brien provide, nor did they have a big-game
rookie like Jones or an anchor in the middle of the lineup like
McGriff, who figured in nearly every Atlanta rally.
Heading into the Championship Series, Larkin had pronounced the
two teams so evenly matched that he predicted a role player
would likely decide the outcome. He was half right. Playing in
his first postseason, the 32-year-old Devereaux delivered the
game-winning hit in Game 1, a two-out single in the 11th inning
that gave the Braves a 2-1 victory. Before that, Devereaux had
been best known for driving in 107 runs as a Baltimore Oriole in
1992. He didn't join the Braves until Aug. 25, when he was
acquired from the Chicago White Sox in a trade for a minor
"In my first at bat against Colorado [in the Division Series], I
said to myself, This is the biggest at bat of my life,"
Devereaux said after Game 1 of the NLCS. "My second at bat of
that series, I said, This is the biggest at bat.... Tonight, I
said, This is the biggest. This was definitely the biggest hit
of my life." Still, he nearly topped it four nights later when
he started Game 4 in place of rightfielder David Justice, who
had a sore knee. In the seventh inning, with Atlanta ahead 2-0
and two runners on, Devereaux crushed a fastball into the seats
for a 5-0 lead. "It's like a dream, like something you see on
TV," he said after picking up his MVP trophy.
Just as unlikely a hero was the 34-year-old O'Brien, a 10-year
veteran with a career .219 batting average who earns his keep as
one of the best defensive catchers in the game. Two nights after
Atlanta's regular catcher, Javy Lopez, hit a three-run homer to
salt away the Braves' 6-2 victory in Game 2, O'Brien broke open
a scoreless Game 3 with his own three-run blast in the sixth
inning. The Braves went on to win 5-2.
A free-agent pickup by the Braves before the 1994 season,
O'Brien has found his niche as Maddux's regular catcher. He even
keeps Maddux's '87 rookie card taped above his locker. O'Brien
has a spread near Tulsa called the Catch 22 Ranch--he wears
number 11 for Atlanta but has worn 22 most of his career--and
he's an avid hunter. He likens hitting a big homer to the thrill
of bagging a buck. "The only problem is, I can look at my
mounted deer, but I can't hang this homer on the wall," he said.
"I've got to get a videotape of the home run or my kids won't
O'Brien has four children: Alisha, 11; Andrea, 9; Chris, 6; and
Cameron, 3. He writes Alisha's name on his bat at the start of
every season, uses the bat until it breaks and then writes the
name of the next-oldest child on the new bat. The huge home run
against the Reds was tattooed with Andrea's name. "That was the
first thing she asked the next day: 'Was my name on the bat?'"
said O'Brien. "Chris can't wait till I break the bat, because
he's next. They're all excited. This has been a big thrill for
The Braves-Reds series was a postseason matchup that baseball
insiders had been anticipating since spring training. Atlanta
used three platoons of scouts to follow Cincinnati in September,
and it paid off. The Reds' base runners stole just four bases in
seven tries against the Braves and were twice nailed on
pitchouts. Cincy's shaky bullpen was torched for 12 runs in
11 2/3 innings. Gant and Sanders went a combined 5 for 32. As a
team the Reds batted .209, including 3 for 29 with runners in
scoring position. They grounded into eight double plays and did
not hit a home run.
Could the Braves dominate the American League champs the way
they did the Reds? Said Glavine, "This series showed we are as
good as we thought we were."
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Gant misfired often and Jones (10) was tops in pops, to the delight of Brave owner Ted Turner and wife Jane Fonda, who heard Dwight Smith belt out the anthem. [Ron Gant]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: AL TIELEMANS[See caption above--Chipper Jones catching foul ball; Ted Turner and Jane Fonda]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [See caption above--Dwight Smith singing]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO McGriff torpedoed Larkin early in Game 1, but he was up and cruising home with the winning run in the 11th inning. [Fred McGriff sliding under Barry Larkin]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN BIEVER (2) Role players O'Brien (left), who won Game 3 with a home run, and Devereaux, the series MVP, took star turns. [Charlie O'Brien; Mike Devereaux talking with reporters]