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Worst to First: Looking Back on the Miracle Season of the 1991 Atlanta Braves

October 15th, 2011 at 11:21 PM
By Jonathan McCullough

After finishing dead last in 1990, the Atlanta Braves would probably have been happy with simply an average team. A couple of key free agent signings and a 39-40 record during the first half showed the Braves were on the right track, but no one could have predicted what this special Braves team would accomplish.

After heading into the All-Star break 9.5 games behind the first-place Dodgers, the Braves charged into the second half on a mission, gaining seven games on the Dodgers within the first two weeks after the break. The Braves would go on to mount a 55-28 record in the second half in thrilling and dramatic fashion. A combined no-hitter in September and an incredible come-from-behind victory on October 1 after being down 6-0 were just two of the clutch performances the Braves put together to overtake the Dodgers and finish with a 94-68 record. The Braves clinched the division on the next to last game of the season, as the team gathered on the field and watched the San Francisco Giants finish off the Dodgers.

This miracle season did not happen by accident, however. John Schuerholz took over as the Braves' general manager following the 1990 season, and he proceeded to make several significant free agent acquisitions. The Braves had a solid mix of youth and veterans on the pitching staff, but the offense needed an overhaul. The Braves signed Terry Pendleton, Sid Bream, and Deion Sanders before the 1991 season to join a homegrown core of Ron Gant and David Justice. Schuerholz also traded for Otis Nixon to give the lineup some major speed at the top of the order. Finally, future Hall-of-Famer Bobby Cox put on his spikes and made his way to the dugout for his first full season as the Braves' skipper after a stint as general manager.

The key to the Braves' miracle season (and the subsequent division title streak) was the starting pitching. Tom Glavine (20-11, 2.55 ERA) became the ace of the staff as he won the Cy Young award at just 25 years of age. John Smoltz rebounded from an abysmal first half during which he went 2-11 with a 5.16 ERA to post a 14-13 record with a 3.80 ERA by season's end. Charlie Liebrandt (15-13, 3.49 ERA) provided a solid veteran presence in a young rotation, and 21-year-old Steve Avery came of age as he posted an 18-8 record with a 3.38 ERA.

As for the offense, newcomer Terry Pendleton won the National League MVP award with a .319 average, 22 homers and 86 RBI. Ron Gant (32 homers, 105 RBI, 34 steals) proved to be a valuable middle-of-the-order bat with his power and speed combination. David Justice (.275 average, 21 homers, 87 RBI) followed his stellar rookie season with another strong campaign. Finally, Otis Nixon provided a true speed threat with 72 stolen bases in only 124 games.

The bullpen had a strong season as well, as Juan Berenguer, Mike Stanton and Kent Mercker each threw over 60 innings with sub-3 ERA's. Marvin Freeman and Alejandro Pena also gave the Braves a boost in relief.

The Atlanta Braves put together a miraculous season, becoming the first National League team to go from last place one season to first place the following year. A gut-wrenching game 7 loss to the Minnesota Twins in the World Series put a damper on an otherwise incredible year. Despite the outcome, the city of Atlanta was rejuvenated with the thunderous sound of the tomahawk chop reverberating throughout Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. A dynasty was born.

Tags: Atlanta, Atlanta Braves, Bobby Cox, David Justice, John Smoltz, MLB, Ron Gant, Steve Avery, Terry Pendleton, Tom Glavine

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