Atlanta Braves: The walk that sent the Braves to the World Series
The New York Mets made Atlanta Braves fans feel like it was the 90s’ all over again this past year, with the tightest NL East race in recent memory. It had been a while since the Braves-Mets rivalry had been this hot, but nothing could have been hotter than the eight days of dramatic baseball the Mets and Braves played in October 1999.
The 1990s Atlanta Braves need no introduction as to just how good they were. You may not know a lot of the specifics about the team of the 90’s, but you’d be hard pressed to forget names like Maddux, Smoltz, Glavine, Jones, Sanders, and McGriff. Names like these are synonymous with the successes of the Braves during that period of dominance from 1991 to 2005. During the 90s, the Braves made the NLCS six times, and won the series five times. One of the most dramatic championship games belongs, in my opinion, to Game Six of the 1999 NLCS.
The lead up
The Braves finished that year with 103 wins to the Mets’ 97. The Braves had plenty of reasons for their confidence heading into that year’s NLCS. They had won the World Series in 1995, and made several deep World Series runs in 1991 and 1992. The NL East was Atlanta’s division, and that was certainly the case come late September 1996, when the Mets hit a cold streak, and dropped five of six games to the Braves. The wild card picture looked just as bleak for the Mets. Who found themselves two games out of a playoff spot with three games left in the season. Yet, fortunes turned for the Mets in the final week of the season, as they swept the Pittsburgh Pirates while the Wildcard leading Cincinnati Reds lost two out of three to the Milwaukee Brewers.
On October 4th, 1994, the Mets beat the Reds in a one game wildcard and thereby making their first playoff appearance since 1988 and advancing to the NLDS to face the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Braves faced the Houston Astros in their NLDS match up, as both teams beat their respective opponents in 3-1 series victories. Now the stage was set for an exciting postseason meeting. The Mets had star players themselves, like Mike Piazza, Al Leiter, and Robin Ventura, who were eager to bring a World Series back to Mets fans. The Braves didn’t flinch at the Mets’ roster, nor did they pay heed to the words of their fans.
The first 5 games
Game one was played at Turner Field on October 12th, where the Braves held on for a 4-2 victory over the Mets. Greg Maddux pitched like his life depended on it, and John Rocker worked a shut down save.
Game two was closer than Braves fans would have liked, with the Mets scoring first in the second inning, and again in the fourth. However, in the sixth inning, Chipper Jones walked before Brian Jordan belted a home run to tie the game. Andruw Jones singled shortly after, and Eddie Pérez followed suit with Jordan and Jones, hitting a two run home run off of Mets starter Kenny Rogers. Putting the Braves up 4–2. The Mets scored one more run in the 8th, but the Braves held on and went up 2-0 in the series.
Game three looked like the end of the road for the Mets when Tom Glavine pitched seven shutout innings at Shea Stadium in front of a disheartened Mets crowd. The Mets managed seven hits in the game, but lost 1-0 and went down 3-0 in the series. Now, with their backs to the wall, the Mets staved off a Braves victory in the eighth inning of Game Four, after back-to-back leadoff home runs by Brian Jordan and Ryan Klesko put the Braves up 2-1. Mets first baseman, John Olerud, saved the day with a home run in the sixth, and a two run single in the bottom of eighth. The Braves lost 3-2 making the series 3-1.
Every moment was all or nothing for the Mets in game 5, who struck in the first inning, taking a 2-0 lead. The Braves came right back and tied the game 2-2 in the top of the fourth, and it remained that way until the top of the 15th, when Braves’ second baseman, Keith Lockhart, hit a home run and put the Braves up 3-2. However, after a leadoff single, sac-bunt, walk, and intentional walk, Robin Ventura stepped up to the plate with the bases loaded in a tie game. Ventura was 1-6 for the night and had an 0.56 batting average for the series. For many, he was the last person you’d expect to clutch up in a moment like this.
As rain began to fall on the anxious crowd of over 40,000, Ventura calmly collected himself and walked up to bat. He laid off an inside pitch for ball one, and then swung out of his shoes for the first strike. With an even count, Braves pitcher Kevin McGlinchy missed badly outside and fell down 2-1. Ahead in the count, Ventura reset himself and awaited McGlinchy’s pitch, a 91 mph fastball down the middle. Ventura crushed the ball out of Shea Stadium. The roar of the Mets faithful drowned out stunned broadcasters who struggled to truly comprehend the scene. The Mets fought off elimination yet again with a walk-off grand slam to send game 6 back to Atlanta. Ventura never even touched home plate as he was mobbed by his teammates. The hit has since been dubbed the “Grand slam single.”
Game 6 was the deciding factor in the series. Both teams’ seasons hung in a carefully woven balance. It all came down to this. Whoever won this game would likely take the pennant. The Mets three game win streak had built up all the momentum the Mets needed. A game 6 win would, in the minds of Mets players and fans, be the final nail in the coffin. The Braves, however, had the assurance that they only needed one win. Yet, the fear of being eliminated became a very real possibility.
The Braves, knowing the dire situation they could find themselves in, wasted no time, and scored five runs in the first inning. Not shaken, the Mets played in the spirit of baseball’s adage: “It ain’t over till it’s over.” The Mets scored three runs in the top of the sixth inning and etched ever so closer to the Braves’ lead. Intent on keeping their World Series hopes on lock, the Braves responded with two more runs of their own in the bottom of the sixth. Extending their lead to 7-3.
The Braves were sitting on more than comfort when starter John Smoltz came into the top of the seventh in relief. Mets hitters Matt Franco and Rickey Henderson had already hit back-to-back doubles before Smoltz came in. John Olerud whacked a single off Smoltz and moved the Mets closer 7-5. Then came the future hall of fame catcher, Mike Piazza. Piazza smoked a pitch off Smoltz as the stunned Braves crowd watched the ball soar into the right field stands. Piazza rounded the bases in a dead silent Turner Field. The game was tied 7-7. The Mets had battled all the way back, and we’re within reach of clinching a game 7. Smoltz was booted out, and it gave the two weary laden bullpens a tall order to fill. The Braves bullpen cracked first, allowing another run to score in the eighth inning, handing the Mets an 8-7 lead.
In the bottom of the eighth, Braves catcher Eddie Perez singled, stole second, and came home when Brian Hunter lofted a single. The ninth inning saw no theatrics as the night drew on. A sac fly in the top of the tenth brought home the go-ahead run for the Mets, with the Braves hanging on by a thread. Down but not out, Ozzie Guillén singled home Andruw Jones off Mets pitcher Armando Benítez to re-tie the game at 9–9. After failing to score in the top of the 11th, the Mets had nothing left to give after fighting so hard. The beginning of the end was near when Mets pitcher Kenny Rogers came into the game and gave up a leadoff double to Gerald Williams.
Bret Boone then made a sacrifice bunt to move Williams to third with one out. Mets manager Bobby Valentine then issued intentional walks to Chipper Jones and Brian Jordan to load the bases. Hoping for a double play, Rogers began to work on Andruw Jones. However, that much needed double play never came. With the crowd on their feet, Rogers got a full count on Jones. With tension so thick in the air you could cut it with a knife, Rogers missed on a 3–2 pitch to score Williams and walk in the winning run.
An anti-climatic end to a chaotic game. Manager Bobby Valentine yelled in frustration as he watched Rogers miss. Rogers cussed himself out as he walked off the mound, defeated. The Braves’ dogpiled at home plate as their ticket to the world series was punched. However, one could argue that the Braves had run out of gas themselves following the game 6 win. The world series would go poorly for the Braves, who were swept by the Yankees, and did not return to the fall classic until 2021, when they beat the Houston Astros in six games. The Mets, in contrast, made it to the World Series the following year in 2000, but lost to the Yankees themselves. They struggled for most of the 2000s and 2010s. Finally returning to the World Series in 2015, but losing to the Kansas City Royals in five games.
Game 6 is largely forgotten in the realm of baseball history, for reasons unknown. However, it remains as a shining example of how baseball can bring miracles, or heartbreak. Depending on who you ask.