Today’s Postseason Series From The Baseball Project That May Or May Not Amount To Anything is the 1991 National League Championship Series. The series featured one expected team and one unexpected. The Pittsburgh Pirates had won their second straight NL East title, and did so rather easily. Led by reigning MVP Barry Bonds, the Pirates won the division by 14 games. Along with Bonds, the lineup also had Andy Van Slyke, Bobby Bonilla and a young Jay Bell. On the mound they were led by reigning Cy Young winner Doug Drabek. They led the league in runs and were second in runs allowed and had an NL best 98-64 record.
The Atlanta Braves on the other hand were not on anyone’s radar. In 1990 they lost 97 games and eventually traded their popular but aging and diminishing star Dale Murphy. In 1991 they had played better, but at the All-Star break they were 9 ½ games out and were a game below .500. But the Braves got red hot and by the morning of August 14 were just a half a game behind the Dodgers. The Braves and Dodgers would seesaw between first and second until the next to last day of the year. While the Braves of those days are now known for their starting pitching (Glavine, Smoltz, Steve Avery, and Charlie Leibrandt), they were also a good offense, ranking second in runs (though their ballpark was nicknamed “The Launching Pad” for a reason). The lineup was led by David Justice, Ron Gant, and offseason free agent signing Terry Pendleton. Pendleton that year led the NL in hits, average, and total bases on the way to robbing Bonds of the MVP. As for the rotation, Tom Glavine won his first Cy Young award while Steve Avery amazed everyone with an 18-8 record and John Smoltz won his last six decisions and lowered his ERA by a full run in the process.
Game 1 in Pittsburgh was not much of a contest. Van Slyke homered off of Glavine in the first and doubled home a run in the third, which would be all the Pirates needed. They would touch up Glavine for four runs in six innings while Drabek and Bob Walk combined to allow one run as the Bucs took the opener, 5-1. In Game 2 Steve Avery went up against former Brave Zane Smith. Avery was phenomenal, shutting out the Pirates’ offense over 8.1 innings while the Braves managed to get a run in the sixth, giving the Braves a 1-0 win to even the series. Game 3 in Atlanta was a rout. It looked like it might have been one right away as Orlando Merced led off the game with a homerun off of Smoltz and was followed with a Jay Bell single, but Smoltz managed to get out of it without any further damage. After getting the first two out in the bottom half, John Smiley allowed three straight doubles and a homerun. The Braves got a fifth run in the second to chase Smiley and then they never looked back. The 10-3 final gave the Braves a 2-1 series lead. Game 4 looked to be more of the same when the Braves scored two in the first for the early lead. But they couldn’t add on and the Pirates chipped back to tie it in the fifth. The game remained tied until the tenth when the Pirates scraped a run across to win 3-2 and even up the series. Game 5 was another game scarce of runs. The Pirates eked one across in the fifth and that was enough as the Pirates took a 3-2 series lead going back to Pittsburgh.
The Pirates had to feel good about Game 6. Their ace, Doug Drabek, was on the mound while the Braves were throwing the young Steve Avery. The game ended up being an underrated classic (I still can’t find any clips of the game). Drabek kept up his end. What was unexpected was Avery matching him. The game remained scoreless until the ninth. Having already thrown 109 pitches, Leyland opted to keep Drabek in for the ninth. After a one out walk to Ron Gant (and 119 pitches in) Sid Bream took Drabek to deep left, but not deep enough. Then came Greg Olson to the plate. On the first pitch Gant stole second. Then on the second pitch Olson laced a double into left field, scoring Gant. Drabek ended up finishing up the inning throwing a total of 136 pitches. Why Leyland allowed him to throw that many is beyond my comprehension, but at least he learned his lesson over the years. Oh, wait. . . Anyway, the Pirates got a leadoff single, then a sac bunt, a fly out, a wild pitch . . . and then Andy Van Slyke struck out looking with the tying run 90 feet away.
John Smiley took the hill for the Buccos in Game 7, but he didn’t take it for long. Lonnie Smith walked and Terry Pendleton singled to start off the game, then Ron Gant hit a sac fly to get the first run across. Smiley struck out Justice for the second out, but Brian Hunter launched the first pitch he saw over left field fence just inside the foul pole. After Greg Olson singled Smiley’s night was done. Hunter would add an RBI double in the fifth, but it wasn’t necessary. John Smoltz struck out eight and only once allowed a runner to reach third with less than two out. Being down 3-2 in the series and having to win both on the road, the young Braves shut out the Pirates for the rest of the series. The 4-0 win gave the Braves their first pennant in Atlanta and their first one as a franchise in 33 years. Barry Bonds became a goat, going 4-27 in the series. The Braves would go on to lose to the Twins in seven games, and would take four more years to win it all and become the only franchise to win the World Series in three different cities, 1914 in Boston, 1957 in Milwaukee, and 1995 in Atlanta (Off the top of my head, the Rams won the 1945 NFL title in Cleveland, the 1951 title in Los Angeles, and the 1999 title in St. Louis).