The best Braves team of baseball’s modern era – this includes manifestations in Boston and Milwaukee – was the 1998 Atlanta edition. It went 106-56. It won the National League East by 18 games. Twenty-one years later, we’ve all but forgotten it.
That team included three Hall of Fame pitchers, a Hall of Fame third baseman and a Hall of Fame manager. It also included Andruw Jones, Andres Galarraga, Javy Lopez, Ryan Klesko and Denny Neagle. It didn’t win the World Series. It didn’t make the World Series. It lost to San Diego in the NLCS.
We tend to bunch the Braves’ post-Leyritz postseasons of that era under the same droopy tent. The aborted October of ’98 stands out – although Jim Leyritz, by now a Padre, figured here, too – as a cautionary tale. In a short series, matchups matter. A majestic Braves assemblage was overmatched by a left-hander who lost more big-league games than he won.
The Braves swept the Cubs in the Division Series and expected to face Houston, which won 102 games and had imported Randy Johnson at the trade deadline in the attempt to get past the Braves. The Astros were undone in the NLDS by San Diego, which trumped Johnson twice. The Padres came to Turner Field and stole two games, the first on Ken Caminiti’s 10th-inning homer off Kerry Ligtenberg, the second when Kevin Brown threw a shutout.
Down 2-0 and facing the unassuming Sterling Hitchcock, Bobby Cox ran out his righty lineup. Klesko, Michael Tucker and Keith Lockhart were benched in favor of Danny Bautista, Gerald Williams and Tony Graffanino. To be fair, Cox had done this all season, and the Braves had gone a league-best 27-13 against lefty starters. On this sunny Saturday, the right-handed Lopez also sat. Greg Maddux got the Game 3 start, and that meant he got Eddie Perez as personal catcher.
The Braves lost 4-1. Bautista, Williams and Graffanino went 0-for-8. (Perez had two hits, though.) Lopez was deployed as a pinch-hitter against Trevor Hoffman with the Braves down 2-1 and the bases loaded in the eighth. This was the “Hell’s Bells” October: Hoffman struck him out.
The Braves fought through two elimination games, their Game 5 victory – in which Maddux posted his only career save – being an all-timer. They brought the series back to Atlanta, whereupon they again faced Hitchcock, working on short rest because Padres manager Bruce Bochy burned Brown in relief in the ridiculous Game 5. Using the righty lineup again, the Braves lost 5-0. They managed two hits.
The winningest team in Braves annals was bested by a garden-variety lefty. As they say in baseball: That’s baseball.