If you wanted to study the psyche of a Braves fan during the Glory Years, Games 5 from the ’96 and ’98 NLCS would make excellent points of reference. The Braves trailed both series 3-to-1 to an opponent that had won 8 fewer games in the regular season. John Smoltz started both games, on the road.
In the ’96 NLCS, St. Louis won three in a row after dropping the first game, including a thriller in Game 4 that saw them storm back from a 3-0 deficit in the 7th, winning on a walk-off homer by Brian Jordan.
The Braves scored just three runs in dropping the first three in the ’98 series and trailed the Pads 3-2 entering the 7th of Game 4. Facing elimination, the bats responded with six runs, punctuated by a grand slam by the Big Cat, who had been struggling mightily.
A stirring win yet it did nothing to cure my pessimism about their chances. Of course the fact that no team had ever come back from a 3-0 deficit had much to do with it. But in the post-Leyritz world, pessimism reigns among Braves fans, especially in October.
Not so in ’96, even after the crushing defeat in Game 4.
Game 5 seemed over before St. Louis came to bat, as the Braves scored 5 in the top of the first.
The Cards (who started Ozzie Smith at SS and Willie McGee in CF that night, just as they had 14 years earlier when they swept the Braves in the ’82 NLCS) responded by loading the bases but Smoltzie coaxed a liner to CF by John Mabry to hold the 5-0 lead.
The Braves added two more in the second and this time the game really was over. But the scoring wasn’t, at least for the Bravos. They pounded out 22 hits — four each for Lemke and Javy Lopez, three for Marquis Grissom — and won 14-0.
World Series repeat here we come.
Game 5 in ’98 appeared destined to end miserably. Through 7 innings the Braves managed but two runs, stranding nine. Trailing 4-2 entering the 8th, the Padres brought in ace Kevin Brown to close it out.
What happened next was most unexpected.
Just as big was Tony Graffanino’s two-run double later that inning.
Graffanino’s hit turned out to be the game-winner, as Kerry Ligtenberg, who blew Game 1, allowed a two-run homer to Greg Myers in the 9th. Bobby called on Mad Dog for the final three outs, delaying the inevitable disappointment.
Bobby’s decision to bench Tucker, his only hot hitter, in favor of Danny Bautista for Game 6, was a curious decision that backfired. Tucker usually sat versus southpaws, and lefty Sterling Hitchcock was outstanding in Game 2, but an exception seemed to be in order. That belief was validated when Bautista went hitless in two ABs and then, in the top of the 5th with the Braves down 2-0, misplayed a fly ball by Hitchcock, scoring two and putting the game out of reach.
The Braves lost 5-0, and it wasn’t that close. Worse, Jim Leyritz drove in the winning run.
Hello, familiar dread.
We didn’t yet know thee on Oct. 14, 1996, and wouldn’t for another week. Mad Dog hurled a gem in Game 6 and the Braves scored 15 the following night, outscoring St. Louis 32-1 in the final three games of the NLCS.
They continued to pummel the ball in the World Series, outscoring the Yankees 24-9 through six innings of Game 4 of the World Series. At that point I doubt there was a Braves fan who didn’t think they’d win it all.
Then Leyritz happened, setting the stage for all the October disappointments that would follow.