For the past 5 years or so, the Atlanta Braves have been a team condemned to fifth or last place in the National League West. From early spring training to the last game of the regular season, the Braves were the joke of professional baseball. They were a team victimized by poor starting pitchers, a lack of offense, and lop-sided trades. They went through managers and coaches one after another. Nothing seemed to go right, especially the attendance which averaged a sad 5,000 fans (or less) per home game.
Last season, the Braves finished last place in the N.L. West by showing off a poor 65-97 record. The main attractions from the 1990 team were Rookie of the Year outfielder Dave Justice, All Star catcher Greg Olson, and 30/30 outfielder Ron Gant. Outside of these three, the Braves were an absolute bore.
As Atlanta entered this 1991 season, they were projected to go nowhere. Overshadowed by the World Champion Cincinnati Reds and the over-talented Los Angeles Dodgers, the Braves were a sure bet to fade from the standings early. But after 115 games, America's Team is finally living up to its name and has baseball fans second guessing.
Led by former Blue Jays manager Bobby Cox, Atlanta is in second place with a 63-52 record and only 1 1/2 games behind the Dodgers. They lead the National League in team hitting (.265 avg.) and are fifth in team E.R.A. (3.63). There's a winning attitude in the clubhouse and a lot of excitement going through the Braves and their fans.
The question you may be asking is, "How is a last place team capable of making a complete turnaround in one year?" Well, the answer - I mean answers- are quite simple. During the off-season, General Manager Bobby Sherholtz signed three veteran free agents: 3B Terry Pendleton, 1B Sid Bream, and SS Rafael Belliard. This was a gamble that has definitely paid off for Atlanta. Pendleton, an outstanding defensive thirdbaseman, has been the Braves' M.V.P. thus far this season. He is slugging an amazing .325 with 16 homeruns and 65 R.B.I. Sid Bream, who arguably has one of the best throwing arms among all firstbasemen, hit for a .285 average with 9 homers before going down with an injury on July 18th. Veteran shortstop Rafael Belliard, who stands only 5'6", was the Braves' starting shortstop for most of the first half of the season. He has great range and an amazing arm, but his career .223 batting average is not too impressive.
Free agents haven't been the only factor contributing to the complete turnaround. The Braves are blessed with one of the finest young pitching staffs in the majors. Tom Glavine of Billerica has boosted the team with his immortal season. Glavine, only 25, was the starting pitcher for the N.L. in the All Star Game. He has pitched himself to a 15-7 record with a dazzling 2.24 E.R.A. including 142 strikeouts in 176 innings. Another bright star is Steve Avery. The 21-year-old lefthander had a rough 1990 season going 3-11 as a rookie, but has bounced back this season to a 13-6 record along with an E.R.A. of 3.57. A major disappointment so far has been the 24-year-old righthander John Smoltz. Smoltz had a nightmarish first half, going 2-11, but he has settled down in the second half and is now 8-13 with an E.R.A. of 4.81. The Braves, in pursuit of a pennant, recently called up Armando Reynoso. Reynoso, 22, had a 10-6 record with the Triple A Richmond Braves this season. So far he has looked impressive with the Braves. In his big league debut against the Houston Astros, Armando pitched six scoreless innings allowing only two hits as the Braves won 3-0. He followed that game with a 3-2 win over the Padres in only his second start in the majors.
In the past, the Atlanta bullpen has been ineffective. They haven't had a real closer ever since Bruce Sutter had his career ended with a rotator cuff injury in the mid '80s. Who would have thought that righthander journeyman Juan Berenguer, used by the Tigers, Giants, and Twins as a starter of set-up man, would be the Atlanta closer. Nicknamed "Se"or Smoke" due to his blazing fastball, Juan has blown only one save in 17 opportunities and has allowed only one inherited runner to score. Also set-up men Marvin Freeman (2.89), Mike Stanton (2.42), and Kent Merker (2.77) have given the Braves some much needed quality innings and have combined for 11 saves.
Pitching may be vital to winning ball games, but let's not forget that baseball is a team sport. That means everyone must contribute and put together solid years in order to be successful. This is exactly what Atlanta has done. Outfielders Ron Gant, Otis Nixon, and Lonnie Smith have given the Braves one of the more dominant outfields in the N.L. Gant, a strong and speedy centerfielder, is leading the N.L. in home runs with 27 and is well on his way to another 30/30 season. In right field, taking the place of the injured Dave Justice, is Otis Nixon. Nixon is giving the Braves just what they need. Otis is currently hitting .318 and has stolen a league-leading 63 bases. And in left field is Lonnie Smith, a man who was given up on by the Royals but was offered a second chance by the Braves in 1988. Smith has given the Atlanta team consistent offense ever since and is a career .290 hitter with above average power.
To top everything off, the Braves have gotten solid seasons out of shortstop Jeff Blauser (.267, 9HR, 48 RBI), catcher Greg Olson (.270,6HR, 32RBI), and second baseman Jeff Treadway (.323, 3HR, 24RBI). Rookie sensations Brian Hunter and Keith Mitchell have both given the Braves hits in key situations and appear to be future stars.
With one month left in the 1991 season, the Atlanta Braves appear to be for real. The only thing that stands in the way of them and the N.L. West pennant is the Los Angeles Dodgers. It's going to be a close race all the way down to the final game of the season!
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.