Jan. 15, 2018
Greatest Teams Never to Win the World Series in the Past 30 Years-02 Braves
A post-99 Atlanta Braves team made it? Yes.
After the 1998 season, it seemed like the Braves started to run its limits on their payroll. Ted Turner wasn't active with the squad and wasn't in the "spend at all means" for the Braves. The farm system which produced the likes of Chipper, Javy, Klesko, Rafael Furcal, and others, wasn't as plentiful as it once was (though it did get a spike later with Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur later on). And the cog of the Braves, the pitchers of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz were aging, getting older, and/or having arm issues (notably Smoltz).
And the year before, the Braves were pretty thin, as Andres Galarraga was gone, Smoltz was still battling arm troubles and found himself on the DL before going to the bullpen. And the Braves replaced the Big Cat with Rico Brogna while lacking punch at 2B when Quilvio Veras got injured, LF with BJ Surhoff who never embraced being a Brave, and Dave Martinez (good hitter, but just not a power guy). They went into the farm after Veras got hurt to get Marcus Giles (who played well) and then went to the Mexican leagues to get 42-year old Julio Franco before September rolled around. The offense was weak, but the pitching ranked #1 in the NL (again) though the arms weren't as stout, but a key trade sent controversial closer John Rocker out of Atlanta and brought in two quality relievers in Steve Reed and Steve Karsay. It was enough to win the division AND sneak into the NLCS where they were ripped by the duo of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in Arizona.
Atlanta, still wanting to compete and having likely the last hurrah for Maddux and Glavine (both free agents after the 2002 season), made some key moves in the off-season. The Braves signed Vinny Castilla at 3rd base for of all things defensive purposes (we normally think Castilla as a part of the Blake Street Bomber Rockies and having those monster years, and yes, he was added for more depth with the bat, but Chipper was having issues playing 3rd for the previous few years, notably when he imploded with the arm in 2000). Atlanta then did under-the-radar signings of relievers Chris Hammond (who hadn't pitched in 2 years prior), Darren Holmes (also did not play the year before), and then trading for Kevin Gryboski from Seattle. But the big move the Braves made was trading for star slugger Gary Sheffield from the Dodgers. It wasn't a "well, we made sure we keep the Mets and Phillies off our butts" but a "we are serious about a World Series this year."
Upon first look, you would say the Braves offense was nothing to write home about in 2002. And you'd be right. Castilla was down, Javy Lopez was very down, Giles got hurt so you had utilityman Keith Lockhart playing a lot, over 40 Julio Franco at 1st. The outfield, from an offensive standpoint was stout with the Jonses (Chipper & Andruw), and Sheffield who took a little time warming up to Atlanta, before starting to obliterate everything he saw. Sheffield hit .359 in the 2nd half (though he hit more HR in the first half), and had an OPS of a 1.031 down the stretch, including one of the impressive feats, nearly a 1-handed HR against the Cardinals on Sunday Night Baseball (I was in attendance for that).
Atlanta got off to their typical slow April start, going 12-15, but picked up the pace quickly in May, going 18-10 and taking the lead, and fending off the Mets and never looked back on the division. From that point on, Atlanta went 71-34 the rest of the way, including a 21-5 June to pretty much seal the division as the Mets fell off badly, while the Marlins, Expos, and Phillies just never mustered anything at all. By mid-July Atlanta held a double digit lead as the rest of the NL East continued to languish. It was a foregone conclusion the Braves would win the division and by a wide margin. By mid-August, Atlanta held a 19.5 game lead and on September 9th, Atlanta won the division with ease. The rest of the time was to prepare for October.
WHY WERE THEY SO GOOD? The pitching as always. We have to remember this is when the offensive outbursts were at its all-time high and we were a year removed from Bonds and 73 HR's. It was just unreal on the domination by the sluggers, but somehow, the Braves still found a way to just fool hitters all throughout the National League. Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux were still Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux. Both hit ERA's under 3 (Glavine at 2.96 and Maddux at 2.62). But then Kevin Millwood, who had become a star pitcher in his own right, went 18-8 with a 3.24 ERA and the lowest WHIP on the team at 1.15. Even Damian Moss (12-6, 3.42 ERA, 1.28 WHIP) was rolling.
But ironically, the bullpen was probably the best the Braves ever had in the run. Hammond had an ERA of 0.95 in 63 games. Darren Holmes had an ERA of 1.81 and a WHIP under 1. Veteran Mike Remlinger had an ERA of 1.99 and the guy to close games out was a rejuvenated John Smoltz, who saved 55 games and was lights out for the Braves.
The Braves headed into October, ready, going against Wild Card winner San Francisco. The rotation looked as strong as ever with seasoned vet Tom Glavine to start Game 1 and then Millwood, Maddux, and then it returned to Glavine.
WHAT WENT WRONG? You would think the year Atlanta had a relatively down year with the offense, the bats were to blame. Well, not really. Yes, Sheffield was the Brave who went VERY cold in the NLDS against the Giants (1 for 16 in the series), but the Jonses hit well (near .300 for both), Castilla was actually lights out. And Lockhart & Lopez both had great series. It was the pitching that fell apart. Glavine imploded in the first game and as probably a tell-tale sign of how things were going to be, Hammond gave up 2 runs in relief of Glavine, thus taking the Braves out of the first game (though Sheffield hit a double play to end the game as he was the tying run in the 9th). The offense continued their run with 7 runs off of Giants starter Kirk Rueter in Game 2 with a decent outing from Millwood. The Braves onslaught continued in San Francisco, winning 10-2 and a gem by Maddux. However, Glavine once again got rocked, giving up 8 runs in 2.2 IP and the Braves were back on a plane for Game 5 in Atlanta.
In Game 5, Millwood went against Giants pitcher Russ Ortiz and it was a duel but a clutch hit by Reggie Sanders and a HR by Bonds gave the Giants a 2-0 lead. The Braves got hits off Ortiz, but failed to deliver when needed only going 2-for-10. The 9th inning stung the most as the Braves got the first two guys on base of Furcal and Franco. Sheffield, Braves fans thinking he would snap out of funk, struck out by Robb Nen and then Chipper hit a sharp grounder to JT Snow who converted the double play to end the Braves chances.
AFTERMATH: There are a few things that happened with this squad that made it a "yep, this was the beginning of the end." You SENSED that the final REAL chance was this year for Atlanta. And it stung on a few instances. I was at that Game 5 for the Braves loss to the Giants. And I remember the place, loud as ever, the fans were LIVID that the Braves didn't win the game. Fans, in disgust, threw the foam Tomahawks they got when they arrived to the game, Coke bottles, and just were booing Atlanta for not winning instead of San Francisco winning. After the game and heading home I remember the fans calling in on the radio show talking about how they are tired of the same old story year in and year out and how the franchise was content of throwing out those divisional titles and how they were proud of the 11 straight titles of the division. The sports talk stations were mad and the franchise response was "well, yeah, you SHOULD be happy! This was another great year!" So when the next 3 years arrived for October baseball, the Braves had more empty seats than before. In 2003, the Cubs took down Atlanta and most fans that filled in Turner Field were Cubs fans. In 2004 fans were leaving as the Braves got shelled by Houston early. By 2005, Turner Field on a October day playoff game was about as packed than Turner Field on a July day playoff game.
But 2002 marked an end of an era. Tom Glavine left Atlanta for the Mets. The Braves also traded Kevin Millwood to Philadelphia for catcher Johnny Estrada, as insurance to WHEN Javy Lopez left via free agency the year after. The Braves in 2003 had a stronger offensive lineup with Giles contributing in a big way and the likes of Castilla, Sheffield, and Lopez put up huge numbers at the plate. But the losses of Millwood and Glavine off-set things a bit and the Braves traded for of all people Russ Ortiz and then Mike Hampton. While Ortiz and Hampton weren't anywhere form horrible, it wasn't the Maddux-Glavine combo and Maddux himself had his highest ERA as a Brave (3.96) and his numbers started to wane. The bullpen minus Smoltz was a dumpster fire and it wasn't much of a surprise the Braves were eliminated in the NLDS in 03. After that year, Atlanta lost Castilla, Sheffield, and Lopez to free agency. 2 more years of divisional titles with the rest of the NL East still trying to catch up but in 06, the Braves finally fell apart while the Mets ran away with ease.
The one thing I always thought had the Braves escaped the Giants in 2002, they may have hoisted the World Championship. The Yankees had been eliminated. The A's had been eliminated and the Cards had tossed the Diamondbacks in the NL and the Braves had St. Louis's number that year. Oh what could have been.
OTHER GREAT TEAMS WHO DIDN'T WIN A WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP:
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat