Tom Glavine won the Cy Young in 1991, deservedly so. But the stopper on that Braves staff was its youngest member, a 21-year-old lefty from Michigan with a dazzling change-up who was at his best when it mattered most.
Steve Avery got the decision in the Braves’ final two victories that season over the rival Dodgers, who scored only three runs in four games versus the baby-faced assassin. On Sept. 17, he went the distance to win the rubber game of a series at Fulco. Five days later, the Braves, 1/2-game behind the Dodgers with 15 to play, traveled to Chavez Ravine for the final series between the two teams. Avery was sublime.
It was scoreless entering the 6th, when, with two outs and one on, Ron Gant hit his 30th homer. The Dodgers responded in the bottom half of the inning, putting two on with no outs and the heart of the order coming up. Avery settled down, striking out Darryl Strawberry and retiring future Hall of Famer Eddie Murray on a foul pop. Kal Daniels followed with a single but Avery retired Juan Samuel to leave the bases loaded. He would retire nine of the next 10, finishing the shutout by striking out Gary Carter.
As dominant as he was against the Dodgers, Avery was even better against the Pirates, winning both starts, on the road, despite receiving only two runs of support from the Braves offense. He took the mound in Game 6 against Pirates ace Doug Drabek with the Braves one loss from elimination. Avery was unfazed, striking out five of the first six batters he faced. Only five Pirates reached base in eight scoreless frames.
He was stout in the World Series that year, too, walking just one in 13 innings. Avery had 50 wins before his 24th birthday and appeared to have a higher ceiling than Glavine or Smoltz. But his left shoulder didn’t cooperate, and by 1995 he was struggling to remain in the rotation, though he was outstanding in the postseason that year. He won the NLCS clincher against the Reds, pitching six shutout innings, and held the Indians to one run in six innings in Game 4, putting the Braves just one win away from their first world championship.
Avery’s Braves career ended after the ’96 season and retired after a failed comeback attempt with the Tigers in 2003. His final Atlanta numbers weren’t dazzling — Ron Reed and Pat Jarvis won more games — but Avery’s wins were almost always consequential. When you think of the glory years, you think of #33.