Wednesday, October 12, 2011

1991 NLCS: Smoltz with the shutout

How They Got Here
Pittsburgh's path to the 1991 NLCS began with Game 6 of the 1990 NLCS. As the Pirates watched Cincinnati celebrate its upset victory in the championship series, the Pirates knew how easily it could have been them, knew what mistakes they had made to cost them that series.

The next year, the Pirates were even better. All-world left fielder Barry Bonds took a small step back in 1991 - and really, considering he had one of the best all-around seasons ever in 1990, a small step back was to be expected. Make no mistake, though, he was still brilliant, and in 1991, his teammates around him were better. A well-balanced Pirates team - both at bat and on the mound - cruised to the NL East title by 14 games, spending seemingly the entire month of September figuring out how to make the next step in October.

In retrospect, it's easy to look at the 1990 season as the beginning of Atlanta's incredible dynasty. It was hard to see it that way at the time, though, as they scuffled to a last-place finish. But, while finishing last, the Braves got full seasons from young hitters David Justice and Ron Gant and pitching prospects Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, and John Smoltz.

All that losing just made the stronger, and in 1991, the Braves turned it around. Justice and Gant took a step forward, and were joined by league MVP Terry Pendleton. Meanwhile, Glavine, Avery, and Smoltz got even better. Never was that more apparent than in the final weekend of the season, when the three young aces turned a one-game division deficit into a division championship with three straight victories.

The series was pretty evenly matched on paper, and the teams alternated wins in games 1-4. The Pirates broke the pattern in Game 5, as Zane Smith outpitched Glavine in a 1-0 Pittsburgh win that put the Pirates one game away from the World Series. They were returning home, too, with their two best pitchers going in games 6 and 7.

Game 6 was another brilliantly pitched game. Pittsburgh's Doug Drabek matched Avery inning after scoreless inning, with Atlanta finally breaking through with a run by Gant in the 9th inning. Pittsburgh couldn't answer, and the series went to a Game 7.

The Game
Pittsburgh's 20-game winner, John Smiley, took the mound to start Game 7. He did not take the mound to start the second inning of Game 7, as the Braves struck with three first-inning runs. Brian Hunter's two-out, two-run home run was the big blow, the one that knocked Smiley out of the game in the first inning.

Given a 3-0 lead before he threw a pitch, Smoltz took the ball and immediately faced a threat of his own. With two outs, the Pirates had two runners on base as Bonds came up. Bonds, dropped to fifth in the batting order after a second consecutive miserable postseason, had a chance to even things up again, but instead grounded out meekly to second.

From there, Smoltz put it into cruise control. Atlanta added a run in the fifth, but they needn't have bothered. Pittsburgh didn't threaten again until the eighth, when again they put two runners on base with two outs, and again Bonds stood at the plate. Faced with one more chance to redeem himself and exorcise his postseason demons, Bonds instead flied out to left. Three outs later, the Braves were heading to their first World Series since moving to Atlanta.

The Braves faced another Cinderella story of sorts in the World Series, going up against a fellow worst-to-first team in Minnesota. While home-field advantage meant next to nothing in the NLCS, it was huge in the World Series, as the home team won the first six games. John Smoltz again got the ball for Atlanta in Game 7, and again put up zeros, leaving in the 8th inning with the game still scoreless. The Twins finally broke through, winning the World Series with a run in the bottom of the 10th.

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, went into 1992 knowing they'd only have one more chance before free agency ripped apart their team. Again, they made it to the NLCS, where their opponents were, again, the Braves. Again, the series went to a seventh game. And again, Pittsburgh knew only heartbreak.

The Rundown
What I'm doing.

The list so far:
18. 1991 NLCS: Atlanta 4, Pittsburgh 0
19. 1973 NLCS: New York 7, Cincinnati 2
20. 1987 NLCS: St. Louis 6, San Francisco 0
21. 1988 NLCS: Los Angeles 6, New York 0
22. 2004 ALCS: Boston 10, New York 3
23. 1986 ALCS: Boston 8, California 1
24: 1996 NLCS: Atlanta 15, St. Louis 0

Still to come:
1972 NLCS: Cincinnati vs. Pittsburgh
1972 ALCS: Detroit vs. Oakland
1973 ALCS: Baltimore vs. Oakland
1976 ALCS: Kansas City vs. New York
1977 ALCS: Kansas City vs. New York
1980 NLCS: Houston vs. Philadelphia
1981 NLCS: Los Angeles vs. Montreal
1982 ALCS: California vs. Milwaukee
1984 NLCS: Chicago vs. San Diego
1985 ALCS: Kansas City vs. Toronto
1992 NLCS: Atlanta vs. Pittsburgh
2003 NLCS: Chicago vs. Florida
2003 ALCS: Boston vs. New York
2004 NLCS: Houston vs. St. Louis
2006 NLCS: New York vs. St. Louis
2007 ALCS: Boston vs. Cleveland
2008 ALCS: Boston vs. Tampa Bay

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