As the 2020 Atlanta Braves try to bounce back from getting debacled by the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, let’s harken back to a happier time in the franchise’s history.
Twenty-one years ago this week, the Braves held off the New York Mets in six games to win the NL pennant. The victory resulted in Atlanta’s fifth (and most-recent) trip to the World Series.
The 1999 NLCS is remembered primarily for three things:
1. Robin Ventura’s “grand slam single” to give the Mets a 15-inning win in Game 5
2. Andruw Jones’ “walk-off walk” in the 11th inning to hand the Braves the victory and the pennant in Game 6
3. John Rocker
We dealt with the third of those in great detail in this space late last year, and will get to the other two in due time. But first, a quick recap of the 1999 regular-season and lead-up to the NLCS.
The Braves were coming off their eighth division title in nine years in 1999, but had failed to make the World Series in either 1997 or 1998 despite back-to-back 100-win seasons. Before the 1999 season even began, however, the club got a tremendous jolt.
All-Star first baseman Andres Galarraga, who’d clubbed 44 homers and driven in 121 at the Braves’ clean-up hitter in 1998, was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his back in February. “The Big Cat” would miss the entire 1999 season, causing Atlanta to move Ryan Klesko to first base (his natural position) and play fourth outfielder Gerald Williams full-time in left field.
Then in mid-May, pitcher John Smoltz went on the disabled list with elbow inflammation, the first of two trips to the DL that year (though he’d return toward the end of July and finish out the season before undergoing Tommy John surgery, which caused him to miss all of 2000 and much of 2001). Catcher Javy Lopez — who’d hit 34 homers in 1998 — went down with a knee injury in late June, then was shut down for the year toward the end of July.
Though they stayed healthy, rotation stalwarts Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux were also a little off in 1999. Maddux posted a 3.57 ERA that season (up from 2.22 in 1998), while Glavine’s ERA ballooned to 4.12 (his worst mark since 1990).
Kevin Millwood had his best season, though, going 18-7 with a 2.68 ERA in 33 starts. On the offensive side, Klesko, second baseman Bret Boone and outfielders Andruw Jones and Brian Jordan all eclipsed the 20-home run mark.
And then there was Chipper Jones. The 27-year-old third baseman had the greatest season of his Hall-of-Fame career, batting .319/.441/.633 with 41 doubles and 45 home runs.
Despite all that, the Braves found themselves two games back of the Mets in the NL East following a 3-2 loss to Pittsburgh on Aug. 4. New York was carried that season largely by its bullpen (which included Armando Benitez, John Franco and Turk Wendell, among others) and offense, with Mike Piazza, John Olerud, Edgardo Alfonso, Robin Ventura and 40-year-old leadoff man Rickey Henderson all posting an OPS+ of at least 125 that season.
As August heated up, so did the Braves.
Atlanta went 18-4 from Aug. 5-29, including a season-high 10-game winning streak. The Mets continued to keep pace, however, and were within one game of first as they visited Turner Field to begin a three-game series on Tuesday, Sept. 21.
Chipper Jones homered twice in Game 1, then once each in the latter two — driving in a total of nine runs — as the Braves swept the series and all but locked up the division title. (As it turned out, Jones’ performance in that series pretty much secured him the National League MVP award as well.)
The Braves swept the Montreal Expos in their next series to clinch the NL East. They finished with a league-best record of 103-59, seven games ahead of the Mets.
New York ended the regular portion of the schedule at 96-66, tied with the Cincinnati Reds for the lone NL wild-card spot. That required a one-game playoff, which the Mets won 5-0 behind a complete-game, two-hitter from Al Leiter and homers by Alfonso and Henderson.
The Braves and Mets both won their Division Series in four games, Atlanta turning back the NL Central champion Houston Astros and New York picking off the NL West champion Arizona Diamondbacks. That set up a National League Championship Series matchup between the two NL East rivals, their first postseason meeting since the 1969 NLCS (a 3-0 sweep by the eventual World Series champion “Miracle” Mets).
The 1999 NLCS opened on Oct. 12 at Turner Field, with Maddux paired up against the Mets’ Masato Yoshii. The Japanese right-hander had gone 12-8 with a 4.40 ERA in his second season stateside following a decade of professional ball in his native country.
The Braves jumped on top in the first, with Williams singling, then stealing second and coming home on a base hit by Boone. The Mets evened the score on Piazza’s RBI ground in the fourth, but Williams singled home Walt Weiss in the fifth to put Atlanta on top for good.
Eddie Perez — filling in for the injured Lopez — homered in the sixth to make it 3-1. That was more than enough for Maddux, who cruised through seven, allowing just the one run on five hits.
Weiss then singled home Andruw Jones in the eighth to put Atlanta up 4-1. Rocker got two quick outs in the ninth before an error, a wild pitch and a Todd Pratt single cut the lead to 4-2, but the Atlanta closer induced Rey Ordoñez into a ground ball for the final out and a 4-2 Braves win.
Game 2 the following night pitted Millwood vs. Mets lefty Kenny Rogers, and New York went up 2-0 after five on Roger Cedeno’s RBI single and Melvin Mora’s solo homer. But the Braves homered twice off Rogers in the sixth, two run blasts by Jordan and Perez to go up 4-2.
Millwood got the first out of the eighth, but Mora reached on another error by Chipper Jones at third. Alfonso followed with an RBI double to make it 4-3 and ending Millwood’s night.
That brought on Rocker, who struck out Olerud and Ventura (with an intentional walk of Piazza in between) to end the inning. Smoltz made his first career relief appearance in the ninth, getting a pop-up, a ground-out and a strikeout of pinch-hitter Bobby Bonilla to preserve the win.
Here’s video of Perez’s go-ahead homer:
The series then shifted to New York, which is where things got (stayed?) interesting. On a Friday night at Shea Stadium, the Braves won 1-0 to go up 3-0 in the series.
The only run of the game scored in the top of the first, when Williams and Boone executed a double steal of third and second. Piazza overthrew third on the play, allowing Williams to trot home.
Glavine, Leiter and their bullpens hung zeroes the rest of the way. Rocker worked the ninth for Atlanta, retiring three straight after the leadoff man reached on an error by Weiss at shortstop.
Here’s the final out:
Game 4 was another pitcher’s duel, with Smoltz and New York’s Rick Reed both allowing two runs. The Mets took a 1-0 lead on Olerud’s solo homer in the sixth, but the Braves took it back when Klesko and Jordan went deep back-to-back in the eighth.
With a man on first and one out in the eighth, Mike Remlinger replaced Smoltz. After a strikeout and a walk, Rocker came on to face Olerud, and the Mets finally got to him.
Cedeno and Mora pulled off a double steal, then Olerud chopped a single off the glove of Braves backup shortstop Ozzie Guillen to score them both and put the Mets up 3-2. Benitez got three straight outs in the ninth and New York had its first win of the series.
Here’s video of Olerud’s hit:
Game 5 was of course a 5-hour, 46-minute classic, just not one that ended in the Braves’ favor. Olerud homered off Maddux in the first to give the Mets a 2-0 lead, then Chipper Jones and Jordan tied it with back-to-back RBI hits off Yoshii in the fourth.
There the score stayed through the fifth inning, then the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th. The Braves came closest to scoring in the 13th, when Chipper Jones laced a two-out double past Mora into the right-field corner, but Keith Lockhart was thrown out at the plate by relay man Ordoñez to end the inning.
The Braves finally broke the scoring drought in the top of the 15th, when Lockhart tripled home Weiss to put the Braves on top 3-2. Kevin McGlinchy — the sixth Atlanta pitcher — took the mound for his second inning of work in the bottom of the 15th, but couldn’t finish it off.
Shawon Dunston led off with a single, then stole second. McGlinchey walked Matt Franco, and Alfonso followed by bunting both runners over.
Olerud was intentionally walked to load the bases, but McGlinchey then unintentionally walked Pratt to tie the game. That brought up Ventura, who smashed a 2-1 pitch over the wall in right-center for a walk-off grand slam …
… except Ventura was mobbed by teammates after he rounded first base and never bothered to touch second. Thus, the hit was technically ruled a single and the Mets won by an official score of 4-3.
Either way, the Braves’ series lead was now at 3-2. The teams traveled back to Turner Field for Game 6 on Tuesday, Oct. 19. It was after midnight Atlanta time before this one ended.
The game looked to be a laugher early, as Atlanta knocked Leiter out with five runs in the bottom of the first. Perez singled home two of the runs, while Jordan knocked in another.
Millwood was spotless until the sixth, when he surrendered Piazza’s sacrifice fly and Darryl Hamilton’s two-run single to make it a 5-3 game. The Braves answered in the bottom of the inning with Jose Hernandez’s two-run single to go back up 7-3.
Smoltz came on in relief in the seventh, but coughed up the entire lead. Henderson and Olerud knocked home one run each, then Piazza blasted a two-run homer to straight-away right to tie it at 7-7.
Here’s Piazza’s game-tying homer:
Each team scored in the eighth to make it 8-8, the Mets on Mora’s RBI single off Remlinger and the Braves on Brian Hunter’s run-scoring hit vs. Franco. Rocker got New York 1-2-3 in the top of the ninth and Benitez worked around a two-out walk of Chipper Jones — who earned nine free passes in the series — in the bottom to send the game to extra innings.
The Mets took their first lead of the game at 9-8 in the top of the 10th on Pratt’s sacrifice fly, but the Braves tied it 9-9 when Guillen singled home Andruw Jones in the bottom of the inning. Klesko — who’d pinch-hit for Hunter — was thrown out at third on the play, then Benitez got Jorge Fabregas to fly out and end the inning.
Russ Springer worked a 1-2-3 top of the 11th, setting up the decisive bottom of the inning with Rogers on the mound for the Mets. Williams led off with a double, then took second on Boone’s sacrifice bunt.
The Mets then intentionally walked both Chipper Jones and Jordan, bringing up Andruw Jones with the bases loaded. Rogers could not find the strike zone, walking Jones on a full-count pitch to give Atlanta a 10-9 win and end the series in about the most anticlimactic way possible.
Here’s Andruw Jones’ walk, which has achieved posterity as the most-recent pennant-winning play for the Atlanta Braves:
Perez was the series MVP, going 10-for-20 with two doubles, two homers and five driven in. Olerud homered twice and knocked in a series-high six in defeat for New York.
The Braves’ pitching staff allowed just 18 runs in 60 1/3 innings (an ERA of 2.68), with Glavine and Maddux combining to give up only three runs in 21 innings. Rocker pitched in all six games, allowing two unearned runs on three hits with two walks and nine strikeouts in 6 2⁄3 innings.
So after dispatching the Mets, the Braves advanced to the World Series against another New York team, the Yankees. … The less said about that series, the better (Google it, if you dare).
Darryl Palmer is a contributing writer for Talking Chop. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.