After setting the baseball world on its ear in 1990, the Pirates were able to win a second consecutive Eastern Division crown in 1991.  They came into the NLCS this time as prohibitive favorites over the upstart Atlanta Braves, the team that finished last in the NL west in 1990 only to rise from the ashes to capture the 1991 NL Western Division pennant.  This season the Pirates could make an argument that they were the best team in baseball, unfortunately to prove that argument they would have to find a way to score runs against the young Braves pitching.

Things started off OK for Pittsburgh as they thrilled the 57, 347 fans that came out to see the opener with an easy 5-1 victory.  Andy Van Slyke opened up in the first inning with a home run and the team never looked back.  Starting pitcher Doug Drabek tossed 6 shutout innings in picking up the win.  Drabek would also unfortunately hurt himself while running the bases during the contest.

While 5 runs is hardly a phenomenal offensive output, it would prove to be the high water mark in this series for the club, as the team would be shutout 3 times and score only 7 more runs in the final 6 games.  The first sign of things to come was the 1-0 shutout they endured in game two.  Braves starter Steve Avery was the youngest pitcher to start a championship series game since Bret Saberhagen in 1984 and he completely dominated the black and gold bats.  Avery and Alejandro Pena completely stymied the Bucs as they held the team to six hits and had trouble getting the ball out of the infield as Atlanta only ha to make one outfield putout in the entire game tying an NLCS record.  All that the Braves would need in this game was an RBI double in the sixth inning by Mark Lemke to come away with the win as Zane Smith, Roger Mason and Stan Belinda also had an outstanding outing holding Atlanta to 1 run on 8 hits in the loss.

As the series moved to Fulton County Stadium in game 3, Pittsburgh would be introduced to that inane noise that still today resonates in every Pirate fans mind, the tomahawk chant.  Former President Jimmy Carter, owner Ted Turner and his wife Jane Fonda all had their foam tomahawks going up and down all evening in one of the most irritating fan chants since the 1903 club had to endure the mocking song Tessie as the Pilgrims of Boston, now Red Sox, upset the Bucs in the first World Series ever played.

Orlando Merced got things going well early on as he hit John Smoltz’s first pitch of the game over the right-center field fence to give the Bucs a 1-0 lead, it was a lead they quickly would relinquish as the Braves scored four in the first inning and chased John Smiley out of the game with one more in the second and third to give the Braves a 6-1 lead. Greg Olson and Sid Bream would smack homers for the Braves in what would turn out to be a 10-3 victory while Jay Bell added one in the losing cause.

Smoltz, who gave up his first homer since July 31st in this game, nevertheless pitched will in the win.  The hurler also had the distinction of being the first pitcher to steal a base in NLCS history, when he swiped second in the sixth inning.

Looking to just about end the series, the Braves jumped off to an early 2-0 lead in the first inning of game 4 before the Bucs tied it on a David Justice throwing error in the fifth inning.  Atlanta starter Charlie Leibrandt took the blame for not properly covering third on the play but regardless the game was now 2-2. 

Randy Tomlin, Bob Walk and Belinda would completely halt the Braves attack as they shut them out the rest of the game after the 2 first inning runs.  It would take extra innings for the Pirates to tie up the series, which they did in the 10th when Van Slyke started off the inning with a walk and a stolen base before catcher Don Slaught knocked him in with a double giving Pittsburgh a 3-2 win.

In game 5, Pittsburgh took back the home field advantage in the series by giving Atlanta a little of their own medicine in a 1-0 victory, to bring a 3 games to 2 lead back to the friendly confines of Three Rivers Stadium.  The Bucs scored a run in the fifth on a walk and two singles to give them the only run they needed, unfortunately it would be the last run they scored in the series.  Smith was again magnificent, giving way to Mason the final two innings in the nine hit shutout.  The Pirates got a little lucky in this one on two occasions, the first when Justice missed third base when coming home in the second and was called out, and the second also in the second when Glavine missed a suicide squeeze bunt with the bases loaded causing Brian Hunter to be thrown out at in a rundown between third and home.

Game six proved to be the most exciting contest of the series and also one that yanked the spirit out of the Pirates.
Drabek and Avery locked up in an eight inning scoreless dual when Greg Olson doubled in a run in the top of the ninth to give the Braves a 1-0 lead.  Alejandro Pena came in for the ninth to close it out when Van Slyke almost resurrected himself to Bill Mazeroski status when he launched a shot towards right field that just turned foul which would have give the Bucs a 2-1 series ending win.  Instead Pena retired the side causing a final game 7 the following evening.

As it appeared the Bucs spirit was gone, so were the fans, as over 11,000 seats remained unsold for the climatic contest.  Brian Hunter hit a 2 run homer in the first as Pirate southpaw John Smiley was knocked out of the game in the opening frame with the Braves up 3-0.  Hunter added an RBI single in the fifth for the clinching, heartbreaking 4-0 loss, sending Atlanta to the fall classic.  So inept was the Pirate offense that they were scoreless over the last 22 innings of the series and the final 27 innings at Three Rivers.

The two rivals would meet again one year from now, which made the defeat of the 1991 NLCS very civil in comparison.

By Pirates Encyclopedia
1991 NLCS, Atlanta Braves, Pittsburgh Pirates


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