In this article, we’re continuing our look at the 1998 Braves, who might be the best Braves team to never win a championship. We began this series with an overall look at the team. Today we are going to begin diving in to their NLCS loss to the Padres. I think the big takeaway from this exercise will be that the playoffs in Major League Baseball are largely unpredictable. This 1998 Braves team had a little bit of everything: power, speed, defense, starting pitching. If there was a weakness it might have been in the bullpen which ranked 16th in fWAR in 1998 per Fangraphs.
Atlanta ran through the Cubs in the Division Series in dominant fashion. Chicago scored just four runs total in the three-game sweep with John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux all flexing their muscles. The worst outing of the three in that series was Maddux allowing two runs in seven innings.
That set the stage for a matchup with the Padres in the League Championship Series. San Diego was no joke that season either, having won the NL West with a 98-64 record. Their pitchers ranked second in fWAR behind the Braves but their offensive performance was more middle of the pack overall. Still, this was a very good team with some solid offensive players. Greg Vaughn hit 50 home runs and led the team with a 156 OPS+. Tony Gwynn put together a .321/.364/.501 season at the plate while Ken Caminiti slugged 29 homers and put up a 132 OPS+ of his own.
Their pitching staff was anchored by Kevin Brown who posted a 2.38 ERA with an even more impressive 2.23 FIP in 257 innings. Brown was already something of a nemesis for the Braves after helping the Marlins to a World Series title in 1997. In the 1997 NLCS, Brown beat Maddux in Game 1 and then Glavine in the deciding Game 6 to send the Braves home. San Diego’s bullpen ranked eighth in fWAR that season but featured Hall of Fame closer Trevor Hoffman in the back end.
Game 1 of the series featured a matchup between Smoltz and Andy Ashby who had a solid regular season with a 3.34 ERA (3.99 FIP) in 226 2/3 innings.
These were the lineups for Game 1 of the 1998 NLCS:
NLCS Game 1 Lineups
|Quilvio Veras 2B
|Walt Weiss SS
|Tony Gwynn RF
|Keith Lockhart 2B
|Greg Vaughn LF
|Chipper Jones 3B
|Ken Caminiti 3B
|Andres Galarraga 1B
|Wally Joyner 1B
|Ryan Klesko LF
|Steve Finley CF
|Javy Lopez C
|Carlos Hernandez C
|Andruw Jones CF
|Chris Gomez SS
|Michael Tucker LF
|Andy Ashby P
|John Smoltz P
Not a bad lineup for the Braves if you can look past Keith Lockhart in the two-hole. Walt Weiss didn’t homer in 424 regular season plate appearances but put together a .386 OBP.
1st Inning - Padres 0, Braves 0
Smoltz ran into trouble quickly as he issued a leadoff walk to Quilvio Veras to open the game. If you recognize Veras’ name it is for good reason. He would be dealt to the Braves in December of 1999 along with Wally Joyner and Reggie Sanders in exchange for Bret Boone, Ryan Klesko and Jason Shiell. Veras would spend two seasons with the Braves appearing in 155 games while hitting .282/.376/.385 in 659 plate appearances.
With Veras at first, Gwynn tapped back to the left of the mound but reached on an error by Smoltz. Veras advanced all the way to third to set San Diego up with runners at the corners with no one out. Smoltz dug in from there getting Vaughn to tap back to the mound, struck out Ken Caminiti and got Joyner to ground out weakly to second to end the threat.
Ashby escaped the first relatively stress free. Weiss flew out to center to get things started. Lockhart followed with a single to center but Chipper Jones grounded into a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning.
2nd Inning - Padres 0, Braves 0
Smoltz uncharacteristically walked the leadoff man again in the second as Steve Finley took the free pass with four straight balls. Catcher Carlos Hernandez flied out to center for the first out. That would bring up shortstop Chris Gomez who grounded the first pitch he saw to Galarraga at first. Galarraga then whipped the ball to Weiss at second for the 3-6-3 double play to end the inning.
Ashby mowed his way through the Braves in the second, striking out Galarraga, retiring Ryan Klesko on a popup in fair territory, and getting Javy Lopez to ground out.
3rd Inning - Braves 1, Padres 0
Smoltz began the third by striking out Ashby and then got Veras on a groundout back to the mound. Gwynn followed with a single back up the middle but Vaughn flew out to Tucker in right to end the inning.
Ashby faced the minimum through the first two innings with Andruw Jones leading off the third. Jones took the first pitch and then lined a solo home run over the wall in left to put the Braves in front, 1-0. Tucker followed with a double to left and it looked like the Braves were in business. Smoltz moved Tucker over to third with a sacrifice but Weiss lined back to Ashby at the mound, with Tucker getting doubled off third to end the inning. The Braves had the lead but squandered an opportunity to add another run.
4th Inning - Braves 1, Padres 0
Smoltz finally breezed his way through an inning, retiring Caminiti, Joyner, and Finley via groundout on just 12 pitches.
Lockhart led off the bottom of the frame with a double but the Braves again failed to cash him in. Chipper flew out to left while Ashby retired Galarraga and Klesko on groundouts.
5th Inning - Braves 1, Padres 1
San Diego finally scratched a run off Smoltz in the fifth. Hernandez lead off the inning with a single. Smoltz then ran the count to 3-2 against Gomez before sitting him down with a strikeout. Ashby moved Hernandez to second with a sacrifice for the second out of the inning. Smoltz then ran the count full again to Veras before losing him with a walk. Gwynn followed with a single to left that scored Hernandez to tie the game. Vaughn followed with a fly out to end the inning.
With the game now tied, Ashby struck out Lopez to start the inning. Andruw followed with a ground out to third. Tucker worked a two-out walk from Ashby but Smoltz tapped back to the mound to end the inning.
6th Inning - Braves 1, Padres 1
The score would remain tied in the sixth but the Padres continued to make Smoltz work. Smoltz retired Caminiti and Joyner on fly outs to begin the inning. He then issued back-to-back walks to Finley and Hernandez. Gomez again came through for the Braves with a strikeout looking on just three pitches.
The Braves on the other hand failed to make Ashby work. He needed just six pitches to get through the sixth inning, getting groundouts from Weiss, Lockhart and Chipper.
7th Inning - Braves 1, Padres 1
Smoltz struck out Ashby to lead off the seventh. Veras and Gwynn both followed with fly outs to Andruw in center.
It was getting late but the Braves were still unable to generate any offense against Ashby aside from the early solo homer. Galarraga struck out looking to lead off the inning. Klesko then grounded out. Lopez followed with a single to center, but Andruw grounded out to end the inning.
8th Inning - Padres 2, Braves 1
Here is where all of those early missed opportunities started to come back to bite Atlanta. Pinch hitter Ruben Rivera led off the eighth with a double to left, which would end Smoltz’s night. Bobby Cox would then turn to John Rocker to face Caminiti. This was Rocker’s rookie season with the Braves. He appeared in 47 games during the regular season, posting a 2.13 ERA, albeit with a 4.27 FIP.
Caminiti lined the first pitch from Rocker to Andruw in center for the first out. Rivera tagged up and moved over to third on the play. After just one pitch, Cox would take down Rocker in favor of Dennis Martinez, who would come in to face pinch hitter and noted Braves killer Jim Leyritz.
Martinez was a jack of all trades for the Braves, in 98 appearing in 53 games while making five starts. He got ahead in the count 1-2 before Leyritz grounded into the hole between first and second. Galarraga fielded it but his throw to Martinez was off the mark for an error. Rivera scored on the play to give the Padres back the lead while Leyritz moved up to second base.
Martinez then walked Finley intentionally to set up a double play. Hernandez lined a hit to center, but Leyritz was unable to score on the play. Gomez again came up in a big spot and failed to deliver swinging at the first pitch and grounding into a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning.
The Braves now had their work cut out for them trailing 2-1. Bruce Bochy would call on left-hander Randy Myers to replace Ashby. Cox would counter by sending Gerald Williams to the plate to pinch hit for Tucker. Williams had a nice season for the Braves during the regular season but he struck out here to begin the inning. Greg Colbrunn then came to the plate to pinch hit for Martinez and lined a single to center.
Next up was Weiss, who worked the count to 2-2 before taking strike three for the second out. We would then get to see both managers strategize. Cox would send right-hander Tony Graffinino, pretty much the worst regular season hitter on the Braves, to the plate to pinch hit for Lockhart. However, Bochy countered by replacing Myers with right-hander Dan Miceli. Not to be outdone, Cox then called on Ozzie Guillen to replace Graffinino.
With the maneuvering finished, Guillen came through, lining the first pitch he saw to center to give the Braves runners at first and second with two outs and Chipper Jones at the plate.
Bochy wouldn’t mess around any longer and summoned Trevor Hoffman from the pen. Hoffman led the league with 53 saves in 98 and posted a microscopic 1.48 ERA (2.04 FIP) in 73 innings. Chipper fell behind 1-2 and flew out to Finley in center to end the inning.
9th Inning - Braves 2, Padres 2
Kerry Ligtenberg came on to work the ninth for the Braves. Ligtenberg saved 30 games in 1998 with a 2.71 ERA in 73 innings. First man up for San Diego in the ninth was shortstop Andy Sheets, who replaced Gomez at shortstop in a double switch during all of the managering in the eighth. He however suffered a similar fate as Gomez swinging at the first pitch and grounding out to Chipper at third for the first out. Ligtenberg then struck out Veras and got Gwynn to ground out to first to end the inning.
We would head to the ninth with the Braves needing a run to tie the game against arguably the best closer in baseball. (Hoffman finished first in WPA and RA9-WAR in 1998 among relievers, and second to Robb Nen in fWAR.) Galarraga led off the inning and worked the count full before before striking out for the first out. Klesko followed and worked another full count but this time earned the free pass to first base. Lopez then came up clutch with a single to left, advancing Klesko to third to give Atlanta runners at the corners with just one out.
Cox would send Danny Bautista in to run for Lopez at first as Hoffman would get ready to face Andruw. Jones worked the count to 3-0 but swung away and lifted a sacrifice fly to center that scored Klesko to tie the game. Hoffman would then retire Williams on a ground out to end the inning.
10th Inning - Padres 3, Braves 2
The game would head to extras with Eddie Perez taking over behind the plate. Ligtenberg would come out for his second inning of the work and would strike out Rivera to open the frame. Ligtenberg would then fall behind Caminiti 3-1 before surrendering a home run that cleared the wall in left center.
Leyritz grounded out for the second out. Finley then singled and stole second but Ligtenberg got Hernandez to ground out to end the inning.
The Braves would again have their backs against the wall heading to the bottom of the inning. Bochy would stick with Hoffman to begin the 10th and he seemed rejuvenated after regaining the lead, striking out Marty Malloy on three pitches to begin the inning. Hoffman then jumped ahead 1-2 on Weiss and put him away with another strikeout for the second out.
That would bring up the pitcher’s spot in the order. With no position players left on the bench, Cox would send Tom Glavine to the plate to face Hoffman. If you are wondering, Glavine was 17-for-71 at the plate during the regular season with one walk and 15 strikeouts.
Naturally, Hoffman fell behind 3-1 and walked Glavine to give the Braves some hope. That would be the end of the night for Hoffman who would exit after throwing 39 pitches. Bochy would turn to right-hander Donne Wall to face Chipper Jones who worked a five-pitch walk to put the potential tying run into scoring position. Galarraga stepped to the plate and swung at the first pitch, promptly flying out to center to end the game.
What an excruciating loss. The Braves had their chances but couldn’t get the timely hit when the needed it. Galarraga went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts and committed a costly error. Smoltz allowed four hits and two runs but walked five and struck out five in his seven innings of work. In many ways this feels like the key loss in this series as not only did Atlanta lose home field advantage but would also have to face Brown in Game 2.
Ligtenberg was really good in 1998, and by far the Braves’ best reliever. It’s hard to pin the loss on a weak bullpen in general, since Ligtenberg was probably the right call there, and sometimes a great hitter like Caminiti just beats you. This game was really about the Braves not being able to handle Andy Ashby and blowing key chances until they got beat.