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Braves Friday Flashback: Atlanta hurled back-to-back shutouts to finish off Pittsburgh in 1991 NLCS

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Steve Avery, John Smoltz helped Braves clinch first NL pennant since 1958

Minnesota Twins v Atlanta Braves
John Smoltz, shown here in Game 4 of the 1991 World Series, pitched a 4-0 shutout in Game 7 of that season’s National League Championship Series. (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images)

The Braves have played 151 postseason games since moving to Atlanta in 1966, and only twice have they pitched back-to-back shutouts.

One, of course, came this week, as the Braves blanked the Cincinnati Reds 1-0 (in 13 innings) and 5-0 to win the National League Wild Card Series. Atlanta awaits the winner of the Chicago Cubs-Miami Marlins for an NL Division Series beginning Tuesday.

The other came at the beginning of the Braves’ great run in the 1990s and early 2000s. In Games 6 and 7 of the 1991 National League Championship Series, Atlanta shut out the Pittsburgh Pirates 1-0 and 4-0 to advance to its first World Series since 1958, when it was still located in Milwaukee.

Like the 2020 series, those two games in 1991 featured phenomenal young pitchers for the Braves — one left-handed, the other right-handed. Steve Avery — then 21 years old — worked eight shutout innings in Game 6, while 24-year-old John Smoltz went the distance in Game 7.

Here’s a look back at how Avery, Smoltz and the Braves got in that position 29 years ago this month, how they got through it and what happened next …

Steve Avery was the No. 3 overall pick in the 1988 draft out of John F. Kennedy High School in the Detroit suburb of Taylor, Mich., going to Atlanta after the San Diego Padres selected pitcher Andy Benes and the Cleveland Indians took shortstop Mark Lewis. The 6-foot-4 left-hander could touch 90 mph with his fastball, but also utilized a sharp-breaking curveball and a change-up, and had gone 13-0 with a 0.51 ERA and 196 strikeouts in 88 innings as a high school senior.

Steve Avery was the Atlanta Braves’ first-round pick (No. 3 overall) in the 1988 MLB draft. (Getty Images)

Avery turned down a scholarship to Stanford to sign with the Braves on June 30, 1998, receiving a bonus of $211,500 — which was briefly a record for a high school pitcher (it was broken a few weeks later by Montreal Expos draftee Reid Cornelius). Avery spent the rest of 1988 at Rookie-level Pulaski, going 7-1 with a 1.50 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 66.1 innings.

The big-league Braves went an MLB-worst 54-106 in 1988, but by the next year Avery was on the fast-track to the majors. He split 1989 — his age 19 season — between High-A Durham and Double-AA Greenville, going a combined 12-7 with a 2.11 ERA and 165 strikeouts in 171 innings.

Avery went 5-5 with a 3.83 ERA in 13 starts for Triple-A Richmond in 1990. On June 13, two months past his 20th birthday, Avery was called up to Atlanta to start against the eventual World Series champion Cincinnati Reds.

Avery was shelled in his debut, giving up eight earned runs on eight hits in just 2 1/3 innings. Nine days later, Braves manager Russ Nixon was fired, and general manager Bobby Cox moved back into the dugout — bringing Mazzone up from Richmond to be his pitching coach.

Avery finished the 1990 season with a 3-11 record and a 5.64 ERA in 99 innings, but showed flashes of brilliance — including seven innings of one-run ball against the Dodgers on Aug. 10 and a 6-hit shutout of the Cubs on Aug. 24. He’d settled in as at least a solid No. 4 starter behind young veterans John Smoltz (14-11, 3.85 ERA in 1990) and Tom Glavine (10-12, 4.28) as well as free-agent import Charlie Leibrandt (9-11, 3.16).

Cox relinquished general manager duties at the end of the 1990 season and new GM John Schuerholz quickly set about re-shaping the roster. Most notably, he signed free agents Terry Pendleton, Sid Bream, and Rafael Belliard and traded for Otis Nixon to shore up what had been a wretched Atlanta defense.

As Atlanta’s fortunes turned in 1991, so did Avery’s. He stood at 13-8 with a 3.96 ERA heading into his Aug. 30 start at Philadelphia, when he went seven innings, allowing just one run on four hits, with a season-high 10 strikeouts in a 6-1 victory.

Beginning Sept. 4, Avery reeled off three straight starts in which he pitched a total of 26 2/3 innings and allowed just one earned run. The capper was a six-hit shutout of the Dodgers in Los Angeles on Sept. 20, a game that put the Braves up by a half-game in the NL West standings.

“Tell you what,” Dodgers pitcher Tim Belcher told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “He is going to be a pain in a lot of people’s sides for a lot of years.”

The Dodgers and Braves traded the NL West lead back-and-forth for the next two weeks, and Avery beat Houston 5-2 in Game 160 to give Atlanta a two-game lead with two to play. Smoltz went the distance the following day, also winning 5-2 to clinch the division and secure the Braves’ worst-to-first turnaround.

That set up a meeting with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Championship Series. Doug Drabek outdueled Glavine — who went 20-11 with a 2.55 ERA and won the NL Cy Young Award that year — 5-1 in Game 1, setting up Avery to pitch Game 2 vs. former Braves lefty Zane Smith.

Atlanta scored the game’s only run in the fifth inning when Mark Lemke doubled home David Justice. Avery retired the Pirates 1-2-3 in the sixth, got a key double-play grounder in the seventh and then got Andy Van Slyke to ground out with runners on first and third to end the eighth.

Amazingly, Cox stayed with Avery to start the ninth, and Bobby Bonilla led off with a double. After Avery got Barry Bonds to pop up to short for the first out, Alejandro Peña came on.

After Peña’s wild pitch sent Bonilla to third, he got Steve Buechele to bounce out back to the mound and then struck out Curtis Wilkerson to end a 1-0, series-evening victory. Peña had the save, but all the talk after the game was about Avery.

“He may be 21, but it’s a mature 21,” Braves catcher Greg Olson told the AJC. “… Once he gets the ball and he’s on the mound, he is focused in. He takes a deep breath, his eyes get big, I put down the sign and he goes. Nothing has distracted him yet. I hope nothing will.”

The victory was the Braves’ first in the postseason since the move from Milwaukee (they’d been swept in the NLCS in both 1969 and 1982). Back in Atlanta for Game 3, the Braves won 10-3 behind Smoltz — plus homers from Bream, Olson and Ron Gant — to take a 2-1 series lead.

However, Pittsburgh won the next two. They took Game 4 3-2 in 10 innings on Mike Lavalliere’s two-out RBI single off Mark Wohlers, then won 1-0 in Game 5 when Glavine allowed only Jose Lind’s fifth-inning RBI single.

That sent the series back to Pittsburgh with the Pirates up 3-2. Avery was set to take the mound for Game 6, with Atlanta’s backs firmly against the wall.

Atlanta Braves v San Francisco Giants
Steve Avery pitched 16 1⁄3 scoreless innings for the Braves against the Pirates in the 1991 NLCS. (Getty Images).

A pre-game report in the AJC referred to Avery as “Cool Hand Steve.” By the following day, he’d picked up an even more memorable nickname.

Avery struck out the side in the first, then got two more Ks in a 1-2-3 second inning. Don Slaught was thrown out trying to extend a leadoff single into a double in the third, then Avery got the next two men to keep it scoreless.

Avery got through the fourth and fifth unscathed as well, allowing just a walk. Double-play grounders erased Lind’s leadoff single in the sixth and Van Slyke’s one-out walk in the seventh.

Drabek was very nearly as dominant as Avery, stranding seven Braves base-runners through eight (with Lonnie Smith doubling twice but failing to score). After Avery worked around a one-out single in the bottom of the eighth to keep it 0-0, Atlanta finally broke through in the top of the ninth.

Ron Gant walked with one out, then stole second with two outs. Olson then lined a double to left to finally bring home the game’s first run, with Drabek holding it to 1-0 heading to the bottom of the ninth.

Avery had been lifted for pinch-hitter Tommy Gregg in the top of the ninth, which turned the game — and the season — over to Peña. The Braves closer allowed a Gary Varsho single and a sacrifice bunt, then threw a wild pitch that put the tying run on third.

Van Slyke fouled off six pitches against Peña — including one that looked like a homer off the bat — before striking out looking at a changeup to end the game and even the series at 3-3. Aftewards, it was Van Slyke who coined the nickname that would continue to follow Avery, who had worked 16 1/3 scoreless innings, with nine hits allowed and 17 strikeouts in the series.

“Poison Avery,” Van Slyke said. “You can’t get near him.”

The 1991 NLCS was going to a seventh game after Avery’s second 1-0 victory. It would be a pair of “John S’s” on the mound for Game 7, lefty John Smiley for Pittsburgh vs. right-hander John Smoltz for Atlanta.

Atlanta Braves
The Atlanta Braves traded for John Smoltz in 1987, dealing veteran pitcher Doyle Alexander to the Detroit Tigers to get the future Hall-of-Famer. (Getty Images)

Smoltz’s rise to prominence with the Braves had been less sudden than Avery’s, and certainly had a few more fits and starts along the way. A 22nd-round pick of the defending World Series champion Detroit Tigers in 1985 out of Waverly High School in Lansing, Mich. (about 90 miles from where Avery grew up).

The 6-foot-3 Smoltz went 10-3 with a 1.48 ERA and 154 strikeouts in 76 2/3 innings as a high school senior, pitching two no-hitters. Primarily a fastball/curveball pitcher as an amateur, he originally had designs on playing baseball at nearby Michigan State, and waited until late September before turning down the Spartans and turning pro.

The 1985 season was all but over by the time Smoltz signed, so he didn’t make his pro debut until the following spring. He spent that season with Single-A Lakeland, going 7-8 with a 3.56 ERA and just 46 strikeouts in 96 innings.

Smoltz was in the midst of getting shelled to the tune of a 5.68 ERA in 21 starts at Double-A Glens Falls in 1987 when his life — and the Braves’ future changed. On Aug. 12, the Tigers — who were battling the Toronto Blue Jays for the AL East title — dealt Smoltz to last-place Atlanta for veteran right-hander Doyle Alexander.

“We want to keep adding arms and build for the future,” said Cox, then the Braves’ GM. “… There’s no question Doyle is one of the top pitchers in the game. But right now, he’s better off with a team that’s a contender.”

Most baseball fans know that Alexander went 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA in 11 starts for Detroit, helping the Tigers win the East by two games over Toronto. However, he lost both his starts in the ALCS vs. the eventual champion Minnesota Twins, who took the series in five.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue the Tigers didn’t get what they paid for in the trade. Who knew a former 22nd-round pick would blossom into a Hall-of-Famer?

(One other Alexander-related note before we move on: to fill the roster spot opened up by the trade, the Braves promoted Glavine — their second-round pick in 1984 — from Triple-A. He went 2-4 with a 5.54 ERA the rest of the way and remained a fixture in the Atlanta rotation for the next 15 years).

The 20-year-old Smoltz had three unmemorable starts at Triple-A Richmond in 1987, but got off to a fast start the following year. He was 10-5 with a 2.79 ERA and 115 strikeouts in 135 1/3 innings by July 23, when the moribund Braves called him up to face a powerful Mets lineup at Shea Stadium in New York.

Smoltz’s debut turned out to be one of the best in franchise history, surrendering just a first-inning run in a 6-1 victory. He went eight innings, allowing just four hits and one walk with two strikeouts.

Smoltz was nowhere near that good the rest of his rookie year, finishing with a 2-7 record and a 5.48 ERA in 12 starts. But he blossomed into an All-star in 1989, going 12-11 with five complete games and a 2.94 ERA in 29 starts for a Braves team that won just 63 games.

Smoltz was not quite as good in 1990, going 14-11 with a pair of shutouts in 34 starts, but seeing his ERA rise to 3.85. Then in 1991 as the Braves began to win, Smoltz suddenly hit the skids.

Smoltz allowed four runs in 4 1/3 innings in a 6-4 loss to the Dodgers on Opening Day, then had back-to-back starts in late May in which he allowed five and six runs. He had June starts in which he surrendered six, six and eight runs, and then was rocked for five runs in 1 1/3 innings in Los Angeles on July 6.

Heading into the All-Star break, Smoltz was 2-11 with a 5.16 ERA. Smoltz and the Braves were at a loss.

“He has to erase the whole first half from his mind,” Cox told the AJC. “There’s really not much I can say.”

It was around that time Smoltz began visiting with Dr. Jack Llewellyn, an Atlanta sports psychologist and former coach who had helped other baseball players overcome mental obstacles. Llewellyn had Smoltz watch videotape highlights of his best games, and visualize making those same pitches once he went back on the mound.

Llewellyn’s techniques paid immediate dividends for Smoltz, who reeled off three straight victories after the All-Star break. After back-to-back rough starts against the Cubs and Pirates in late July, he was virtually untouchable down the stretch.

Smoltz pitched a complete game to beat the Giants 5-2 on Aug. 5, then allowed a total of two runs in his next three starts. Seven shutout innings against the Mets came on Aug. 29, then back-to-back starts of one run each in September.

In Smoltz’s last three starts of 1991, he pitched 26 innings and allowed three runs. He pitched a complete game over Houston to clinch the NL West on Oct. 5, with Olson leaping into his arms in a now-iconic image.

“I was just destined,” said Smoltz, who finished the 1991 regular season at 14-13 with a 3.80 ERA in 36 starts. “I kept telling myself I wanted this game. I wanted to pitch the clincher game.”

John Smoltz
John Smoltz got off to a 2-11 start for the Braves in 1991, but turned his season around after visiting with a sports psychologist. (Photo by Rich Pilling/Getty Images)

Smoltz didn’t pitch until Game 3 of the NLCS, and allowed a leadoff homer to Orlando Merced before the Braves all but put the game away with four runs in the bottom of the first. He pitched 6 1/3 innings, giving up eight hits, three runs and two walks with seven strikeouts in a 10-3 victory.

Smoltz’s legend as one of baseball’s best-ever big-game pitchers would begin to be cemented five days later at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. The Braves staked him to a 3-0 lead in the top of the first on Gant’s sacrifice fly and Brian Hunter’s two-run homer off Smiley, and Smoltz didn’t need much else.

He allowed singles to Merced and Bell to begin the first, then got three straight outs. A one-out walk by Lavalliere accounted for the only baserunner in the second, but Smoltz retired the side in order in the third.

Bonds doubled to left with one out in the fourth, then an error by Lemke put runners on the corners with two outs. Smoltz got Lind to bounce out to second to end the inning, and Hunter doubled home the Braves’ fourth run in the top of the fifth.

Smoltz had 1-2-3 innings in the fifth and sixth, then allowed Lavalliere’s one-out single in the seventh. He got Lind on another grounder, then struck out Wilkerson for the third out.

Singles by Bell and Bonilla put runners on the corners with two outs in the eighth. Bonds then flew out to medium left-center for the third out.

Smoltz finished off the shutout with a perfect ninth, with Lind grounding out to Hunter at first for the final out of a six-hit, one-walk, eight-strikeout shutout. The Braves, who had finished last five times in six years from 1985-90, were headed to the World Series.

“All you can do is tip your hat to (Avery and Smoltz),” Olson wrote in a “Playoff Diary” for the AJC. “They just wanted to pitch.”

Of course, the good times wouldn’t last in the World Series, as the Braves lost to the Minnesota Twins in seven games. Atlanta fell in a 2-0 hole before Avery took the mound for Game 3 at Fulton County Stadium, pitching seven innings of three-run ball in a game the Braves won 5-4 on Lemke’s walk-off single in the 10th.

Smoltz started Game 4 the following night, allowing two runs and striking out seven. The Braves won 3-2 in another walk-off, this one Jerry Willard’s sacrifice fly that drove home Lemke.

After Glavine won a 14-5 laugher in Game 5, the series shifted back to Minnesota. Avery allowed three runs in six innings but the Braves couldn’t end it in regulation, with the Twins winning 4-3 on Kirby Puckett’s iconic walk-off homer off Leibrandt in the 11th.

That set up one of the most-famous games in World Series history, with Smoltz squaring off against Jack Morris. The Braves had their opportunities (notably in the infamous eighth inning, AKA the Lonnie Smith inning), but lost 1-0 in 10 when Gene Larkin singled off Peña with the bases loaded and one out.

Smoltz pitched 7 1/3 shutout innings, allowing just six hits and one walk with four strikeouts. But Morris delivered one of the all-time great World Series pitching performances, going the full 10 innings and striking out eight with two walks and seven hits allowed.

“It’s a tough way to lose,” Smoltz said. “Later on, we’ll realize what we accomplished. We had a great year. Hopefully, we will learn something from this.”

Smoltz continued his great work in Atlanta for the next 17 years, making seven more All-Star teams, twice leading the National League in strikeouts and winning the NL Cy Young Award in 1996 when he went 24-8 with a 2.94 ERA. Following Tommy John surgery in 2000, he moved to the bullpen and was one of the top closers in baseball for four years, setting an NL record with 55 saves in 2002.

John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery
Steve Avery, left, John Smoltz, center, and Tom Glavine anchored the Atlanta Braves’ pitching rotation in the early 1990s, before arm problems curtailed Avery’s career. Smoltz and Glavine both wound up in the Baseball Hall of Fame. (Getty Images)

Smoltz returned to the rotation in 2005, and finished his career in Atlanta in 2008. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2015, joining Cox and rotation-mates Glavine and Greg Maddux (who had signed with the Braves as a free agent in 1993) in Cooperstown.

Avery was very good again in 1992 and even better in 1993, when he went 18-6 with a 2.94 ERA in 35 starts for an Atlanta team that won 104 games and a third straight NL West title. But that would be the end of Avery as a dominant pitcher, as a strained lat muscle late in the 1993 season helped lead to a precipitous decline.

Avery went 8-3 with a 4.04 ERA in the strike-shortened 1994, then saw his ERA balloon to 4.67 in 29 starts in 1995. He briefly re-captured his glory during that postseason, first pitching six shutout innings in the clinching Game 4 of the NLCS vs. Cincinnati (a 6-0 win), then giving up just one run in six innings of a 5-2 Braves win in Game 4 of the World Series against Cleveland.

He was again largely ineffective in 1996 (7-10, 4.47 ERA) and was allowed to leave as a free agent after the season. Following two years in Boston, Avery signed with Cincinnati.

In July of 1999, Avery blew out his labrum and missed the rest of the season. He pitched in the minors for the Braves in 2000 (posting a 5.16 ERA across 19 starts), then sat out two full years before one last go as a reliever at age 33 with his home-state Tigers in 2003.

Smoltz became one of the defining pitchers of his generation, while Avery left us wondering “what if” after some early brilliance. But 29 years ago this month, they teamed up to carry the Braves into the World Series with back-to-back dominant outings.

Darryl Palmer is a contributing writer for Talking Chop. Email him at darrylpalmerbraves4@gmail.com. No, that’s not his real name.

References: Baseball-Reference.com; SABR Bio Project; Newspapers.com; The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, Bill James and Rob Neyer, Fireside Books, 2004