The 2001 Major League Baseball season is remembered for a lot of things — Barry Bonds’ record-smashing 73 home runs, the debuts of future Hall-of-Famers Albert Pujols and Ichiro Suzuki, the Seattle Mariners’ charge to an American League record 116 wins, the tragedy of 9/11 that interrupted the season for a week in September, and an instant classic World Series won by the Arizona Diamondbacks on a walk-off hit by Luis Gonzalez in the bottom of the 9th inning of Game 7.
It was also the last time the Atlanta Braves won a playoff series, when they swept the Houston Astros in three games in the National League Division Series.
Given the Braves’ postseason success throughout the 1990s — including five World Series berths and the 1995 championship — that they would go 17 years and counting without winning a playoff series seems inexplicable. But it’s happened, and it’s a trend that Atlanta and its fans hope to reverse starting tonight against the St. Louis Cardinals.
But we’re not here to talk about all the Braves’ failures of recent years; we’re here to celebrate that most-recent postseason triumph, which took place 18 years ago this month.
Though the 2001 Braves won the National League East for the seventh consecutive season — a streak that would reach 11 in a row by 2005 (their first three division championships had come in the NL West), it was not an especially strong Atlanta team that faced the Astros in the division series. In fact, the case could be made that the 2001 Braves were the weakest team during the franchise’s string of division championships from 1991-2005.
Atlanta went just 88-74, winning the NL East by a mere two games over the Philadelphia Phillies. The 88 victories were the Braves’ fewest in a non-strike year since 1990, and the two-game margin of victory in the division was their slimmest since 1993 (when they won 104 games and the San Francisco Giants won 103).
Behind typically strong seasons from Greg Maddux (17-11, 3.05 ERA) and Tom Glavine (16-7, 3.57) — plus a late-career renaissance from John Burkett (12-12, 3.04) — the Braves led the NL in ERA in a season that featured a super-charged (naturally or otherwise) offensive environment. Mike Remlinger (2.76 ERA) and Kerry Ligtenberg (3.02) turned in excellent work out of the bullpen, and John Smoltz — who was coming off Tommy John surgery — stepped in as closer after Atlanta traded the mercurial John Rocker in June for veteran relievers Steve Karsay and Steve Reed.
However, the 2001 Braves were an anemic offensive team for that era, ranking 13th in the 16-team National League in runs scored (729) and 10th in homers (174). Chipper Jones performed at a near-MVP level (1.032 OPS with 38 homers), but didn’t have a ton of help beyond right fielder Brian Jordan (.830 OPS, 25 homers). No one else in the regular lineup posted an OPS+ above league average, not center fielder Andruw Jones (94), not 2000 Rookie of the Year Rafael Furcal (77), who missed half the year with a shoulder injury.
The right side of the infield was a revolving door all year, with starting second baseman Quilvio Veras released in August (rookie Marcus Giles took over), and over-the-hill veterans such as Rico Brogna and Ken Caminiti getting extended trials at first base. The Braves got so desperate for first base help that they signed 42-year-old Julio Franco out of the Mexican League at the end of August (Franco posted a .300/.376/.444 triple slash line in 101 plate appearances, and was probably Atlanta’s third-best hitter by season’s end).
The Houston Astros were NL Central champions at 93-69, claiming the division title on a tiebreaker after beating the St. Louis Cardinals (who also went 93-69) nine times in 16 regular-season meetings. They’d split six meetings with the Braves during the regular season, losing two of three in Houston in late April, but winning two of three in Atlanta in August — a series in which all three games were decided by one run.
The Astros were a superior offensive team, bashing 208 home runs (fourth in the league) and scoring 847 runs (second). Pacing the Houston lineup were four of the league’s top hitters: first baseman Jeff Bagwell (.966 OPS, 39 homers), second baseman Craig Biggio (.838 OPS, 20 homers), left fielder Lance Berkman (1.051 OPS, 34 homers) and right fielder Moises Alou (.949 OPS, 27 homers).
Houston was not a good pitching team, with an aggregate ERA of 4.37 that ranked 10th in the league. Rookie Roy Oswalt (12-3, 2.73 ERA) had helped stabilize the starting staff after making his debut in May, but all the other starters besides Wade Miller (16-8, 3.40) were below average. Billy Wagner (2.73 ERA, 39 saves) and Octavio Dotel (2.66) formed a potent lefty-righty punch in the bullpen.
The Astros had never won a playoff series up to that point, losing in the National League championship series in 1980 and 1986, and in the NLDS in 1981, 1997, 1998 and 1999. The division series losses in 1997 and 1999 had come at the hands of the Braves.
That history weighed heavily as the 2001 NLDS began at Houston’s Enron Field (as it was then known) on Oct. 9, 2001. Astros manager Larry Dierker and several of his players went out of their way to insist that they were not daunted by the Braves’ dominance over them in recent postseason series.
Nevertheless, even Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker admitted “certainly, they own our team,” according to a report in that morning’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Maddux tangled with Miller in Game 1, and Jordan staked the Braves to an early 2-0 lead with a first-inning sacrifice fly and a fourth inning homer. However, Houston’s Brad Ausmus tied the game in the fifth when he took Maddux deep for a two-run shot.
Alou gave the Astros the lead with an RBI groundout in the sixth, but the Braves rallied against the Astros’ bullpen in the eighth. Pinch-hitter Keith Lockhart doubled to lead off the inning, and scored the tying run on Giles’ RBI single against Michael Jackson.
After Franco reached on an error by shortstop Julio Lugo, the hard-throwing Wagner came in to face Chipper Jones. The Braves’ slugger lined Wagner’s first pitch — a 96-mph fastball — into the left field seats to put Atlanta up 6-3.
Andruw Jones added a homer in the top of the ninth off Mike Williams, and Alou countered with a solo shot to lead off the bottom of the ninth against Smoltz to make it 7-4. The veteran right-hander then induced three straight flyouts to nail down a six-out save and a 1-0 Atlanta lead in the series.
“We played well enough that we should’ve won that game,” said Wagner, who allowed the decisive homer to Chipper Jones. “If anybody should hang their head, it’s me. I threw the pitch that lost the game.”
Here’s video of Chipper Jones’ homer off Wagner:
After the opening slugfest, Game 2 in Houston the following night was anything but. Glavine outdueled Dave Mlicki 1-0 in a forgotten classic (there are no highlight videos on YouTube) in which the only run scored on a double-play grounder.
Glavine was not overpowering, but was good enough, allowing just six hits (all singles) and walking two with three strikeouts in eight innings. He induced 11 groundball outs and picked off Bagwell in the second inning.
Mlicki allowed one run — unearned — on four hits in five innings before the Astros bullpen shut down the Braves the rest of the way. Atlanta’s only run came in the second inning, with the help of some sloppy defense.
B.J. Surhoff led off the inning with a double, then Andruw Jones followed with a chopper to Lugo at shortstop. Lugo — who made three errors in the series, including two in Game 2 — threw wildly to first, allowing Surhoff to take third.
That would loom large, as Rey Sanchez followed by grounding into a 6-4-3 double play. Surhoff scored what would wind up being the game’s only run.
Houston’s only serious scoring threat came in the fifth, when Vinny Castilla and Ausmus delivered back-to-back one-out singles to put runners on the corners. Glavine then struck out pinch-hitter Chris Truby and got Biggio to ground into a force out to end the inning.
Glavine got double-play grounders to end the sixth and seventh innings, and retired Lugo on a fly ball with a runner on second to end the eighth. Smoltz took over for the ninth, allowing Bagwell’s leadoff single before getting Berkman to ground into a 3-6-3 double play and Alou to pop up to second to end the game.
“They’ve been here so many times,” Franco said of Glavine and Smoltz. “They know what to expect. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. … But they make it easy.”
The teams went back to Atlanta for Game 3, which proved less dramatic. The Braves won 6-2 behind Burkett to finish off the sweep.
Catcher Paul Bako hit a two-run homer off Houston starter Shane Reynolds in the second, and Franco added a solo shot in the third. After Bako’s RBI squeeze bunt in the fourth, Atlanta led 4-0.
Houston pinch-hitter Daryle Ward cut the lead in half with a two-run homer in the seventh, which chased Burkett from the game. Reed, Remlinger and Karsay kept the score at 4-2 through the top of the eighth.
Chipper Jones punctuated the game and the sweep with a two-run homer off Dotel in the bottom of the eighth. Smoltz then set the Astros down in order in the top of the ninth and Atlanta had won the series and advanced to the NLCS for the ninth time in 11 years.
Here’s video of the final out:
Atlanta’s pitching staff allowed just six runs in the series, two after Game 1. The Astros hit .200/.262/.316 as a team, with Alou, Berkman and Biggio combining to go 6-for-36 with no walks (Bagwell went 3-for-7 and walked five times).
The Braves hit .303 as a team, with Chipper and Andruw Jones combining to go 10-for-21. Atlanta hit six homers, two by Chipper Jones.
“For all the times we’ve been counted out this year, to have to hear that every day, this is awful nice,” Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz told the AJC.
The good times would end for the Braves in the NLCS, as they went down in five games to the eventual World Series champion Diamondbacks. Glavine’s 8-1 victory in Game 2 was Atlanta’s only bright spot, and Arizona aces Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling combined to hold the Braves to three runs in their three starts, with 31 strikeouts in 25 innings.
Starting with that NLCS vs. Arizona, Atlanta has lost eight straight playoff series or wildcard games. Included in that run were back-to-back Division Series defeats to the Astros in both 2004 and 2005, the latter ending with an 18-inning marathon in Game 4 (Houston moved to the American League in 2013).
The law of averages dictates Atlanta will eventually win another postseason series, perhaps the one that begins tonight against the Cardinals. Until then, we can remember the last time the Braves tasted playoff success, 18 years ago this month.
Sources: BaseballReference.com; Newspapers.com