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Braves Throwback Thursday: The red-hot start of 1982 & the ice-cold start of 1988

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Atlanta team was feast-or-famine early in season in 1980s

Atlanta Braves
Dale Murphy was a mainstay of Atlanta Braves teams that started 13-0 in 1982 and 0-10 in 1988.
Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

The 1980s are a fascinating decade in the history of the Atlanta Braves, with outstanding players such as Dale Murphy, Phil Niekro and Bob Horner donning the team’s colors, along with colorful characters like Pascual Perez, Terry Forster and well, Bob Horner.

The Braves came out of nowhere to win the National League West Division in 1982, boosted by an NL-record 13-game winning streak to open the season. Six years later in 1988, they endured the worst season in modern Atlanta history, a 106-loss campaign that began with 10 straight defeats.

What follows is the story of two of the most memorable streaks in Atlanta Braves history, one great and one not-so-great.

The post-Hank Aaron years were a slog for the Braves, who lost an average of 95 games every season from 1975-79 and never finished higher than fifth in the NL West. Ted Turner had taken over as the team’s owner in 1976, but made many more headlines for his off-field antics than for anything good his team did.

But by 1980, the Braves started to come around behind the ever-present Niekro and emerging young stars such as Murphy and Horner. Atlanta finished 81-80 in 1980, buy slipped back to 50-56 in the strike-shortened 1981 season.

That was enough to get manager Bobby Cox fired, with Turner saying he would look to hire someone just like the man he’d just dismissed (it didn’t make sense at the time, either). He settled on former Brave Joe Torre, who’d recently been fired himself after five uninspiring seasons managing the New York Mets, in which he’d never won more than 67 games.

Needless to say, expectations weren’t high for the Braves heading into 1982. A poll of 218 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America picked Atlanta to finish fifth in the NL West (ahead of only San Diego), and even the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Tim Tucker pegged the Braves fourth in the division (the defending World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers were of course the overwhelming NL West favorites).

Turner, ever the cockeyed optimist, predicted the Braves would win the division. Torre was a little more cautious in a preseason Q&A with Tucker published on April 4, the Sunday prior to Opening Day.

“I think we’re capable, yes,” Torre said. “But whether you win it or not depends on so many things, including what the other teams in the division do. I haven’t seen them all.”

Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies
Joe Torre managed the Atlanta Braves from 1982-84, winning the NL West championship in his first season. (Getty Images)

The Braves had certainly had a strong spring, posting a Grapefruit League best 18-6 record, including a 2.65 team earned run average. But the pitching staff took a hit when the 43-year-old Niekro went on the disabled list for the first time in his 19-year career due to bruised ribs and an ankle injury.

That elevated Rick Mahler into the role of Opening Day starter for the Braves in San Diego on April 6, and the 28-year-old right-hander turned in a gem. Mahler pitched a complete-game two-hitter as Atlanta won 1-0, the lone run coming on Glenn Hubbard’s RBI double in the fifth.

Atlanta’s 1982 season was off and running.

The Braves won again the next night 6-4 behind a homer and a double from Murphy. Atlanta had the next day off before its home-opener at Fulton County Stadium against Houston on Friday, April 9.

The Braves swept the Astros, winning 6-2, 8-6 and then 5-0, behind another complete-game shutout from Mahler. Murphy and Horner both homered as Mahler pitched a five-hitter and outdueled none other than Nolan Ryan.

“I’m not really a shutout pitcher,” Mahler told the AJC after his 97-pitch effort. “We got the runs today, and we got the defense. A pitcher always makes a few mistakes, and a couple of balls were hit hard, but we continued to make the big plays. The longer I went the better I felt.”

The Braves’ 5-0 start was not only their best since moving to Atlanta in 1966, but tied the 1957 World Series champion Milwaukee Braves for best start in 20th-century club history. Only the Boston Beaneaters of 1888 (9-0) and 1891 (6-0) had done better in the franchise’s annals.

Atlanta then hit the road for six games in Cincinnati and Houston. By the time the Braves returned home a week later, they had tied the major-league record for consecutive victories to start a season.

The Braves rolled past the Reds 6-1, 8-5 and 5-2, with Horner and Chris Chambliss both homering in the opener and Murphy — who would win the first of back-to-back NL Most Valuable Player Awards that year — clubbing the fourth homer of the young season in the second game. Atlanta rallied late in Game 2 thanks to a three-run seventh, with Horner doubling home the tying run and Bruce Benedict singling home two for the lead.

Atlanta Braves
Bob Horner (5) and Dale Murphy was the star sluggers of the 1982 NL West champion Atlanta Braves. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

The series finale went 10 innings, with Benedict doubling home the tying run in the ninth and forcing in the go-ahead run with a bases-loaded walk in the 10th. Rafael Ramirez doubled in two runs to make it a 5-2 lead, with Rick Camp retiring the Reds in order in the bottom of the inning.

“To win a game like that, you’ve got to be very lucky,” Torre told the AJC. “But I’ll take it.”

With the Braves off to an 8-0 start, they were suddenly THE big sports story in Atlanta. “Everyone is saying ‘How ’bout them Braves?’,” Jesse Outlar wrote in the AJC on April 15.

After an off day, the Braves blew through the Astros in a three-game weekend set in Houston to run their record to 11-0. Atlanta won 5-3, 2-1 and 6-5, the latter tying the Oakland Athletics’ one-year-old MLB record for longest unbeaten streak to open a season.

Mahler didn’t make it out of the fifth in the opener, but the bullpen picked him up with 4 2/3 scoreless innings. In Game 2, Horner’s two-run double in the first stood up for the only runs Atlanta would need.

And in Game 3, the Braves overcame an early 4-1 deficit behind Murphy’s two-run triple and Chambliss’ RBI double in the sixth to tie it. Back-up catcher Biff Pocoroba then delivered a two-run double in the eighth to put Atlanta on top for good.

Hundreds of fans met the team at the airport after the Houston series, as they returned home to face the Cincinnati Reds for a series beginning on Tuesday, April 20.

“We lost for a lot of years,” Horner told the AJC. “Now we’re getting a little bit of a reward here.”

Atlanta beat Cincinnati 4-2 to break the Oakland record and surge to 12-0, but it wasn’t easy. Starting pitcher Tommy Boggs was knocked out in the third inning after giving up two early runs, but Steve Bedrosian then pitched 4 1/3 scoreless innings to keep his team in the game.

Atlanta Braves v San Diego Padres
Claudell Washington (15) had a number of clutch hits during the Atlanta Braves’ 13-game season-opening winning streak in 1982. (Getty Images)

Chambliss’ solo homer in the third make it 2-1, then Ramirez’ shot in the fifth tied it. Claudell Washington’s RBI triple later in the inning gave the Braves the lead (he later scored on a wild pitch to make it a 4-2 game).

The game was played before a raucous Tuesday night crowd of 37,268 at Fulton County Stadium. Nine days earlier, the Braves had drawn just 11,322 for a Sunday afternoon game against the Astros.

’’We haven’t had this kind of crowd in a long time,’’ Horner told the New York Times. ‘’Usually, when there’s excitement in a game we played, it was the other team doing something special.’’

The streak reached 13 in walk-off fashion the following night, with the Braves winning 4-3. The Reds took an early lead on Larry Biittner’s three-run homer vs. Mahler in the third inning, but Atlanta got within one after Chambliss’ solo blast in the fifth and Ramirez’s sacrifice fly in the seventh.

Camp held the Reds scoreless in the eighth and ninth innings, and third-string catcher Matt Sinatro — in the game because Benedict had been pinch-run for and Pocoroba was being saved to pinch-hit — led off the bottom of the ninth with a walk. Ramirez then laid down a bunt, which squirted past Reds pitcher Bob Shirley for a hit.

After pinch-hitter Rufino Linares flew out, Brett Butler hit what looked like a sure game-ending double play ball toward short. However, the ball struck the leaping Sinatro on the foot, resulting in just one out and an infield hit for Butler.

Pocoroba then pinch-hit against Reds closer Jim Kern, who promptly threw a wild pitch, which moved Butler to third and Ramirez to second. After Kern intentionally walked Pocoroba to load the bases, Reds manager John McNamara brought in left-hander Joe Price to face Claudell Washington.

Washington lined a 1-0 pitch to center, scoring Ramirez and a diving Butler for a 4-3 victory and the Braves’ 13th consecutive win. Here’s video:

The streak finally ended the following night with a 2-1 loss, as Reds pitcher Bruce Berenyi singled home the eventual winning run in the top of the fifth. The Braves loaded the bases with one out in the seventh, but couldn’t get another clutch hit.

Nevertheless, the Braves woke up on Friday, April 23, with a 13-1 record and a 3 ½-game lead in the National League West. They would need every bit of that cushion with the way the season played out.

An 11-game losing streak in early August dropped the Braves to 62-52, and 2-1/2 games behind the Dodgers in the division. Atlanta snapped out of what AJC beat writer Gerry Fraley called a “fiery crash” with a six-game winning streak that moved them back into a first-place tie with the Dodgers on Aug. 29.

The Braves and Dodgers traded the lead back and forth for most of September, and Atlanta won two of three in Los Angeles to take a one-game advantage into the final weekend of the regular season. Both teams finished up on the road — the Braves with three in San Diego, the Dodgers with three in San Francisco.

Atlanta won its series-opener 4-0 behind a three-hitter from Niekro, who also homered. Los Angeles matched the Braves with its own 4-0 win, a three-hitter from Jerry Reuss.

On Saturday, the Braves won 4-2 and the Dodgers 15-2. Atlanta needed only to win on Sunday — or have the Dodgers lose — to secure its first postseason berth since 1969.

Atlanta went down 5-1, as Alan Wiggins’ three-run triple off Camp highlighted a five-run fourth. The Braves then had to watch nervously in their clubhouse as the Dodgers and Giants finished their game in San Francisco, with a Los Angeles win meaning a one-game playoff for the division title.

With the score tied 2-2 in the seventh, Giants second baseman Joe Morgan pounded a three-run homer — off future Brave Forster — to put his team up for good. San Francisco closed out a 5-3 victory, and the Braves were NL West champions by a single game.

As it turned out, the Braves lost their last four games of the season, including a three-game sweep by the eventual World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series. Atlanta famously had a 1-0 lead behind Niekro in the fifth inning of Game 1, which was wiped out by rain (the game was re-started the following day without Niekro on the mound, and the Cardinals pounded Perez in a 7-0 victory).

MLB Photos Archive
Forty-three-year-old knuckleballer Phil Niekro was the Atlanta Braves’ ace pitcher in 1982, as he had been for much of the previous two decades. (Photo by Rich Pilling/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

And that would be that in terms of postseason baseball for the Atlanta Braves in the 1980s, as the franchise began a steady downward spiral. The 1983 team held a 6-1/2 game lead in the NL West as late as mid-August, before Horner’s season-ending broken wrist and the disastrous Len Barker trade resulted in the Braves finishing three games back of the Dodgers.

Niekro left as a free agent after the season, and the Braves slipped to 80-82 in 1984 despite another huge year from Murphy, who hit 36 homers and drove in 100 runs with a .919 OPS (Horner re-injured his wrist in May and played in just 32 games). That gave Turner and the Atlanta front office brain trust the excuse they needed to fire Torre and replace him with highly respected “organization man” Eddie Haas, who had been with the Braves since 1957 as a player, coach and minor-league manager.

Haas didn’t even make it through one year. He was fired and replaced by third-base coach Bobby Wine on Aug. 26, 1985, after a six-game losing streak dropped the Braves to 50-71 and 21 games out of first place.

The Braves limped to a 66-96 finish (ahead of only the lowly Giants, who went 62-100). After the season, Turner cleaned house in the front office, firing general manager John Mullen and hiring Cox — fresh off a successful four-year stint as manager in Toronto — as GM.

Cox hired veteran manager Chuck Tanner, who had won the World Series with the Pittsburgh Pirates seven years earlier. The 1986 Braves improved record-wise to 72-89, but finished last in the NL West, 23 ½ games behind division champion Houston. (If there was a highlight that season, it came on July 6, when Horner hit four home runs against the Montreal Expos. Fittingly, the Braves lost the game 11-8.)

Atlanta Braves
Chuck Tanner, right, managed the Atlanta Braves from 1986-88. (Getty Images)

The 1987 season saw the Braves slide back to 69-92, though they finished fifth in the six-team division. Murphy hit 44 home runs, but Atlanta’s pitching staff posted a league-worst 4.63 ERA. (Horner was long-gone, having rejected the Braves’ lowball contract offer and jumping to Japan. He would later receive more than $7 million as part of the MLB Players’ Association collusion settlement with club owners.)

The Braves did make two promising moves late in 1987, trading veteran starting pitcher Doyle Alexander to the Detroit Tigers for minor-leaguer John Smoltz on Aug. 12, and calling up former second-round pick Tom Glavine to make his major-league debut five days later. Yet, with Murphy now in his early 30s, youngsters Glavine, Zane Smith, Gerald Perry, Andres Thomas and Dion James still developing and big-ticket free agent Bruce Sutter still working his way back from shoulder surgery, expectations weren’t all that high for 1988.

The AJC picked the Braves to finish last in the NL West in 1988.

“By most accounts, they’re the worst team in the league,” Peter Pascarelli wrote in The Sporting News on April 1.

“At different times during spring training, the eternally optimistic Chuck Tanner … compared Zane Smith with Whitey Ford, Andres Thomas with Dave Concepcion, Tommy Greene with Don Drysdale, Jeff Blauser with Pee Wee Reese, and Tom Glavine with John Tudor,” Steve Wulf wrote in Sports Illustrated’s 1988 Baseball Preview issue. “Before this season is half over, however, other people may be comparing the Braves with the ’62 Mets.”

That comparison wasn’t far off. The Braves lost 10-9 in 13 innings to the Cubs on Opening Day April 5, with Sutter blowing a two-run lead in the ninth.

Greg Maddux shut them out 3-0 on three hits the next day, with Zane Smith suffering the loss despite allowing just one run in seven innings. Atlanta then hosted the Los Angeles Dodgers for four and lost them all — 5-2, 6-3, 11-3 and 3-1 — to fall to 0-6.

“I’d be lying like hell if I said this wasn’t deflating,” Perry told the AJC after the fourth loss to the Dodgers. “No matter how we’re losing, we’re still losing.”

Atlanta Braves
Bruce Sutter blew a two-run, ninth-inning lead on Opening Day 1988, the first of 10 straight losses for the Atlanta Braves to begin the season. (Getty Images)
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

After an off day, the Braves tied the 1980 franchise record for worst start, dropping an 8-3 decision to Nolan Ryan and Houston at Fulton County Stadium on April 12. They sunk to 0-8 — with every loss coming at home — when the Astros’ Jim Deshaies worked them over 4-0 with a two-hitter the following day.

From there it was off to Los Angeles for three more games with the Dodgers beginning on April 15. L.A. won the opener 3-2, with Hershiser outdueling Glavine and Rick Dempsey delivering the go-ahead hit in the seventh.

The Braves fell to 0-10 the following day, a 7-4 Dodgers win in which Pedro Guerrero drove in four and Mahler was tagged for six runs in five innings. Ten games into the season, Atlanta was 7 ½ games out of first place.

The Braves’ 0-10 start was the worst in National League history, a game worse than those aforementioned 1962 Mets. Atlanta’s only consolation was that the Baltimore Orioles were even worse in 1988, standing at 0-11 on their way to an MLB record-worst 0-21 season-opening stretch.

“This is the hardest stretch of any season I’ve ever gone through,” Tanner told the AJC. “It’s hard, but we’ll work it out. We knew it was going to be tough. Somebody’s going to pay.”

As it turned out, the Braves made the Dodgers pay the following day, winning 3-1 when Damaso Garcia lifted a two-run homer off future Hall-of-Famer (and future Braves broadcaster) Don Sutton, and James later added an RBI triple. Zane Smith pitched a complete game four-hitter, allowing just a third-inning RBI single by Steve Sax.

Mercifully, the season-opening slide was over.

“I feel like I just won $2 million in the lottery,” outfielder Albert Hall told the AJC.

The excitement was short-lived. Braves won their next game 5-4 in Houston, but then dropped six of seven to stand at 3-16 at the end of April.

It didn’t get much better.

Tanner was fired May 22, along with four members of his coaching staff, including future Hall-of-Famer Willie Stargell. Russ Nixon, the manager at Double-A Greenville who had been Atlanta’s third base coach the previous two seasons, took over a Braves team that was 12-27.

Atlanta Braves
Russ Nixon took over as Atlanta Braves manager in late May 1988, after Chuck Tanner was fired following a 12-27 start. (Getty Images)
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Atlanta didn’t win its 20th game until June 10, then lost its next five to stand at 20-40 on June 15. The Braves were 30-54 at the All-Star break, 35-69 at the end of July, 45-88 at the end of August and finished 54-106 — the most losses for a Braves team since the 1935 Boston Braves went 38-115 and one of just two 100-loss seasons since the franchise moved to Atlanta in 1966 (the 1977 Braves went 61-101).

And it was earned. The Braves were last in the league in runs scored (555) and runs allowed (741), and hit just 96 home runs as a team.

Even Murphy’s steady play slipped dramatically. He batted just .226/.313/.421 with 24 homers and 77 RBIs, and failed to make the All-Star team for the first time since 1981. (Perry, who hit .300 with 74 RBIs and 29 steals, was the Braves’ lone All-Star in 1988.)

“We knew we were going to struggle but we didn’t know we were going to struggle that much,” Nixon told the AJC after a season-ending 1-0 loss to Cincinnati on Oct. 2. “I came in with my eyes open, but this was a little worse than I expected.”

Fortunately, the 1988 season would prove to be the bottom for the Atlanta Braves. They improved by nine wins in 1989 (but still finished 63-97 and in last place), then tacked on two more victories to go 65-97 in 1990.

Cox fired Nixon in June of 1990 and named himself the manager, and guided the Braves to a 40-57 finish. Glavine and Smoltz were establishing themselves as quality major-league pitchers by that time, and former No. 1 pick Steve Avery joined the big club in July.

John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery
Future start Steve Avery, left, John Smoltz, center, and Tom Glavine were all in the Atlanta Braves’ starting rotation by the end of the 1990 season. (Photo by Rich Pilling/Getty Images)

Ron Gant returned from a one-year minor-league exile to hit 32 homers and steal 33 bases in 1990, while David Justice bashed 28 homers and slugged .535 to claim NL Rookie of the Year honors. The Braves bid farewell to franchise icon Murphy in early August, dealing him and pitching prospect Tommy Greene to the Philadelphia Phillies for a package of reliever Jeff Parrett and some minor-league spare parts.

And then 1991 happened, with John Schuerholz, Terry Pendleton, Sid Bream, Otis Nixon, Rafael Belliard and others joining the fold and helping the Braves execute their worst-to-first World Series run. Atlanta would make the playoffs in every completed season from 1991 to 2005, winning five NL pennants and the 1995 World Series.

The 13-0 start in 1982 has never been equaled by another Braves team, and remains tied for the best season-opening stretch in MLB history. The 1987 Milwaukee Brewers — then in the American League — also started 13-0 on their way to a 91-win finish. (The best start for an Atlanta team since 1982 came in 1994, when the Braves began the year with seven straight wins, all on the road.)

No other Atlanta team has started 0-10 either, though one came close. The 2016 Braves — who finished 68-93 — started 0-9 before winning their next four. (The 1997 Chicago Cubs obliterated the Braves’ NL record, losing their first 14 games on the way to a 68-94 finish.)

Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez was fired in mid-May 2016, and replaced by Brian Snitker. Two years later, the Braves were division champions.

History has a way of repeating itself in baseball. But the 1982 and 1988 Braves teams remain etched into history, for reasons good and bad.

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

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com; SABR.org; SI Vault; Sporting News archives (via Paper of Record); Newspapers.com; MLB.com