1991 Atlanta Braves Season Retrospective

selmaborntidefan

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This is the story of the 1991 Atlanta Braves as it happened.


January 30, 1991
Atlanta Falcons cornerback Deion Sanders signed a one-year contract with the Atlanta Braves and hopes to play both in the same city in the upcoming season. Sanders signed a minor league contract with the Triple A affiliate Richmond Braves that extends only to the end of July and has been invited to spring training as a non-roster player. If Sanders makes the team and plays until July, he will then have to decide which sport will be his primary occupation for the rest of the year. Sanders is scheduled to have arthroscopic knee surgery tomorrow and hints that baseball is his long-term future after completing two more years in the NFL. Pursued by the White Sox and Blue Jays as well, Sanders's financial adviser Eugene Parker pointed out all the positive assets of playing in the same city. Braves General Manager John Schuerholz said that Sanders's potential has always been known, pointing out that Schuerholz himself had drafted Sanders in the fourth round of the 1985 baseball draft, but the high school phenom never signed with Schuerholz's then team, the Kansas City Royals. The Braves also added Twins reliever Juan Berenguer, the sixth free agent that Schuerholz has added in a spending spree that has seen the Braves sign Terry Pendleton, Sid Bream, Rafael Belliard, and Mike Heath. The new signings will cost the Braves at least $30 million over the next four years.

February 13, 1991
Atlanta-Journal and Constitution columnist and standup comedian Lewis Grizzard opened his column today attacking not so much the signing of Deion Sanders as the history of the Atlanta Braves' dealings with baseball players in high art form.

"I remain convinced if the Braves had been in charge of World War Two, we'd all be speaking German. But I have to give them this: Just when you think they have made the worst move since buying a ticket on the Hindenburg, they top it." Grizzard went on to refer to the Braves' new signings as "a washed up third baseman" (Pendleton) and "a first baseman whose last name is a fish" (Bream). Grizzard finished his column with a strong statement: "the only way they'll get Atlanta to support a baseball team is if they give Atlanta one that wins occasionally."

The Braves also signed former major leaguer Glenn Wilson to a one-year pact and invited him to spring training. Pitchers report on February 22, position players five days later.

February 18, 1991
The Braves avoided arbitration with outfielder Odibe McDowell today, as the outfielder who hit .243 with seven homers and 25 RBIs in 113 games got a $235,000 raise to $925,000.

February 20, 1991
David Justice, the 1990 Rookie of the Year, signed a one-year contract worth $300,000.

February 27, 1991
The big story on the first day of spring training for position players is the health of Braves first baseman Nick Esasky, acquired from the Reds prior to 1990 but who played only nine games before a diagnosis of vertigo ended his season. The most popular question as training camp among the Braves players was, "How do you feel?"
 
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81usaf92

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1991 Braves were special. I love rewatching their games. But good grief I still have a sore spot for the Twins after it. A lot of people want to play the Yankees in the WS but I want the Twins.
 
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selmaborntidefan

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April 10, 1991
Game One:
Los Angeles Dodgers 6
Atlanta Braves 4
0-1, 1 game behind


The Braves began what was a hoped for revival by continuing the old-fashioned tradition of losing once again to the Los Angeles Dodgers, 6-4, in the season opener tonight in Atlanta. Despite an off-season spending spree on new free agents, including Terry Pendleton, Sid Bream, Mike Heath, Juan Berenguer, Otis Nixon, and Rafael Belliard and additional expenditures to upgrade both the Food Court and the playing surface, the 1991 Braves looked a lot like the 1990 Braves, who had the worst record in baseball (65-97). Their efforts weren't helped by the fact that the Los Angeles Dodgers are huge favorites to win (or at least contest) the National League West with defending world champion Cincinnati, and a strong pick to win the 1991 World Series.

John Smoltz got off to a slightly rough start in the first inning. Former Brave and stellar leadoff hitter Brett Butler singled to left, went to second on a balk, moved to third on an infield out by Juan Samuel and scored on a ground out by new Dodgers acquisition Darryl Strawberry to Bream at first. The Braves' first batter of the season was the recently obtained NFL superstar Deion Sanders, who grounded out to second base in a 1-2-3 bottom of the first for the Braves. Smoltz had the balk in the first and a wild pitch in the second though holding the Dodgers without further scoring until the fourth.

The Braves took the lead in the bottom of the third when Smotlz helped himself by driving home Mike Heath, who reached second base on an error by Darryl Strawberry and then scored on a single by the pitcher. Smoltz scored to make it 2-1 when Dodgers starter Tim Belcher threw a wild pitch of his own. But Smoltz and the Braves fell apart in the fifth inning.

Mike Sciocia began the fifth with a single to right and moved to second on a walk to Alfredo Griffin. Belcher forced Griffin at second on a fielder's choice that put Sciocia at third and Belcher at first with one out. A walk to Butler, a single to Samuel, and a double to Strawberry put home three runs and sent Smoltz to the showers in a 4-2 hole. Mike Stanton prevented further damage, and the Braves cut the lead to one when Justice doubled, Bream moved him to third with a ground, and Pendleton scored him with a sacrifice fly to center field.

But reliever Doug Sisk couldn't hold the narrower deficit, giving it right back by giving up a single to Strawberry and a walk to Eddie Murray. Jeff Parrett came on in relief and couldn't put out the fire, giving up two singles that scored two runs before the Braves turned a 1-5 double play off the bat of Alfredo Griffin. The scoring ended when David Justice drilled a cosmetic solo home run in the ninth that made the final score a Dodgers victory of 6-4. The Braves got only five hits (two by Justice) - and winner Belcher struck out five Braves - in an apathetic performance that did little to suggest all of the off-the-field moves are necessarily going to field a better team. Pendleton, given up on after hitting .230 last year in St Louis, went 0 for 3, though he did drive in a run with a sac fly. Indeed, the new free agent signees contributed nearly nothing substantive, going a combined 0 for 12, although Bream did have 12 putouts at first base.

The game was rained out on consecutive days as the opener was to have been played on April 8. Because other teams have already played two contests, the Braves are already 1.5 games out despite having played only one game.

April 11, 1991
Game Two:
Los Angeles Dodgers 4
Atlanta Braves 2
0-2
2 games behind


It may be early, but the Atlanta Braves have 160 games left to prove their suggested revival is more than just some fancy propaganda put out by a public relations department. While nobody expects the Braves to contend this year, the hope is that a climb to fourth place might enable the Braves to make a run at the 1992 or 1993 pennant, but the signs of getting better aren't here yet, and another slow start may strangle this effort in its cradle. By the time the Braves came to bat, they were well on their way to losing this game and wasting the time of the 14,000 or so fans who came out to see an afternoon game against the new belles of the ball, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Lefthander Charlie Leibrandt started the game, and by his third batter, he was trailing 1-0. Before he went to the dugout the first time, he was down, 3-0, and the bullpen was already getting warm. A single to Brett Butler and a double by Mike Sharperson, and the Braves were down. A two-base error by Rafael Belliard on a throw to third in an attempted fielder's choice and a sac fly, and the Braves were out while the Dodgers were out front, 3-0.

Ramon Martinez, who went 20-6 last year, had the game in the bag before he ever took the mound. Although he surrendered a one-out solo home run to Terry Pendleton in the bottom of the second, the Braves never mounted a single threat. Martinez scattered six hits, so scattered in fact, the Braves NEVER in a single inning ever had more than one baserunner. Martinez left after eight innings with a 4-1 lead obtained after a small ball rally by the Dodgers in the third scored Mike Scioscia.

With two outs in the ninth, the Braves did mount a threat when Tommy Gregg doubled while pinch-hitting for Kent Mercker. A Jeff Hamilton error scored Gregg and sent to Heath to second with third-string catcher Francisco Cabrera coming to the plate as the tying run against Dodgers closer Jay Howell, who struck him out. The loss dropped the Braves into a familiar spot - dead last in the National League West. The Braves have not spent a single day over .500 since April 23, 1989, and they've only been at exactly .500 two days since then.
 
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81usaf92

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April 11, 1991
Game Two:
Los Angeles Dodgers 4
Atlanta Braves 2
0-2


It may be early, but the Atlanta Braves have 160 games left to prove their suggested revival is more than just some fancy propaganda put out by a public relations department. While nobody expects the Braves to contend this year, the hope is that a climb to fourth place might enable the Braves to make a run at the 1992 or 1993 pennant, but the signs of getting better aren't here yet, and another slow start may strangle this effort in its cradle. By the time the Braves came to bat, they were well on their way to losing this game and wasting the time of the 14,000 or so fans who came out to see an afternoon game against the new belles of the ball, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Lefthander Charlie Leibrandt started the game, and by his third batter, he was trailing 1-0. Before he went to the dugout the first time, he was down, 3-0, and the bullpen was already getting warm. A single to Brett Butler and a double by Mike Sharperson, and the Braves were down. A two-base error by Rafael Belliard on a throw to third in an attempted fielder's choice and a sac fly, and the Braves were out while the Dodgers were out front, 3-0.

Ramon Martinez, who went 20-6 last year, had the game in the bag before he ever took the mound. Although he surrendered a one-out solo home run to Terry Pendleton in the bottom of the second, the Braves never mounted a single threat. Martinez scattered six hits, so scattered in fact, the Braves NEVER in a single inning ever had more than one baserunner. Martinez left after eight innings with a 4-1 lead obtained after a small ball rally by the Dodgers in the third scored Mike Scioscia.

With two outs in the ninth, the Braves did mount a threat when Tommy Gregg doubled while pinch-hitting for Kent Mercker. A Jeff Hamilton error scored Gregg and sent to Heath to second with third-string catcher Francisco Cabrera coming to the plate as the tying run against Dodgers closer Jay Howell, who struck him out. The loss dropped the Braves into a familiar spot - dead last in the National League West. The Braves have not spent a single day over .500 since April 23, 1989, and they've only been at exactly .500 two days since then.
I know we were still in the NL West at the time, but was it the Giants or the Dodgers at this point in time on the up and up going into 91?
 

selmaborntidefan

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I know we were still in the NL West at the time, but was it the Giants or the Dodgers at this point in time on the up and up going into 91?

Reds were defending world champs and a favorite.
Dodgers had added Darryl Strawberry in his prime to go with a helluva good looking pitching staff with Orel Hershiser and Ramon Martinez.

If you were to establish a pecking order for 1991, I'd say:

1) Reds and Dodgers
2) Giants - not as good as those two, presumed better than the next three
3) Astros, Padres, Braves - in that order
 
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81usaf92

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Reds were defending world champs and a favorite.
Dodgers had added Darryl Strawberry in his prime to go with a helluva good looking pitching staff with Orel Hershiser and Ramon Martinez.

If you were to establish a pecking order for 1991, I'd say:

1) Reds and Dodgers
2) Giants - not as good as those two, presumed better than the next three
3) Astros, Padres, Braves - in that order
I ask because revisionist history makes it like the Twins and Braves were total surprises. Keep in mind I didn’t see the 1991 season live. The 1st season I remember watching was 93.
 

ReturnToGlory

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I think the Braves were a bigger surprise than the Twins. We hadn't won a division title since 1982 and probably hadn't placed in the upper division since 1984. 1988-1990 was downright embarrassing. The Twins had just won the World Series just 4 years before in 1987
 

selmaborntidefan

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I ask because revisionist history makes it like the Twins and Braves were total surprises. Keep in mind I didn’t see the 1991 season live. The 1st season I remember watching was 93.
Well, the Braves WERE something of a surprise. Not a total surprise. One publication - forget which one off the top of my head - picked the Braves for fourth, which would have been the highest finish since 1984.

- it was known Bobby Cox was good and had been moving the chess pieces around
- it was known Schuerholz was good, but his last two free agent signings in KC had absolutely bombed
- it was known that adding Pendleton, Bream, and Belliard would improve the infield defense immensely, but the Braves had a long history of signing free agents who were total busts (they are STILL paying Bruce Sutter to this day)
- it was also known that calling in George Toma to revamp the worst infield in the NL was a positive
- and it was known that the young pitchers - particularly Glavine and Smoltz - had been victimized by pitching well and being undone by poor defense and lackluster offense

It seems obvious in retrospect, but it wasn't.

The Braves NOT finishing last would have been okay; the Braves winning the pennant was like having the Fourth of July parade in Atlanta cancelled due to snow.

As far as the Twins - they'd just won the World Series in 1987, but they were a bit of a surprise.

Here's what happened with the Twins: in May, the Texas Rangers reeled off a 14-game winning streak that the Twins ended. That win by the Twins started a 15-game winning streak that saw the Twins go 25-3 and move into first place. But if you want to know how narrow it was, go look at the standings - I THINK this is the only time in history where ALL SEVEN TEAMS in a 7-team division had records of .500 or better. The last place Angels were 81-81. The A's - who had won the division in 1988-89-90. They dropped to 84 wins in 1991 - the Twins won the division in 1987 with only 85.
 

selmaborntidefan

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I think the Braves were a bigger surprise than the Twins. We hadn't won a division title since 1982 and probably hadn't placed in the upper division since 1984. 1988-1990 was downright embarrassing. The Twins had just won the World Series just 4 years before in 1987
This is correct.

The shocker was that never before in the World Series era had ANY team gone "from last to first," and then it happened twice in the same year. Five-team divisions with wildcards have made this a non-accomplishment nowadays.
 
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DogPatch

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I’ll do my best. I hate to promise because because that’s a six-month commitment but I’m gonna try. I’m trying to pre-write a few and do like CA did with WW2 though not as good. The problem is the most difficult patch will be the most exciting.
Wow. That's a lot of work. Good luck.
 

selmaborntidefan

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I ask because revisionist history makes it like the Twins and Braves were total surprises. Keep in mind I didn’t see the 1991 season live. The 1st season I remember watching was 93.
I decided to go back and do a news search in my paper archive. I was a senior in college and newly engaged PLUS I spent some time in the hospital and damn near died in April, so my paying a lot of attention to baseball at that time wasn't happening.

A lot of folks had a Cubs-Blue Jays World Series. The Cubs signed former Blue Jays slugger George Bell to play alongside a now old Andre Dawson and an up and coming Jerome Walton. Their pitching rotation was the "we know he's pretty good" Greg Maddux, new free agent Danny Jackson (14-12 on the 85 Royals, 23-8 on the 1988 Reds and a decent pitcher), Rick Sutcliffe (84 Cy winner), and Mike Bielecki (19-game winner in 1989 when the Cubs won the East). The Mets had been favorites pretty much ever year since 1985, but they'd lost a lot. The Pirates won the division in 1990, but it was thought them losing Belliard, Bream, Ted Power (Reds), and RJ Reynolds go plus having no closer was going to kill them.

In the NL West, it was considered a two-team race between the Reds and Dodgers. The Reds had been a real, true TEAM in 1990; the Dodgers had added Strawberry.

You have to put yourself in the mindset of the time: the Red Sox won the AL East in 1986, 1988, and 1990. Sure, they didn't win it all, but they were up there. The Sox were favorites to win the East in 1991. It was an expected three-team race between the Red Sox, Orioles, and Blue Jays. The O's made what was thought to be a HUGE trade in their favor - they sent Pete Harnisch, Curt Schilling, and Steve Finley to the Astros for 30-year old Glenn Davis. Believe it or not, folks thought it was a steal for the Orioles.

Because they got swept while heavy favorites in the 1990 WS, the A's suddenly were being dissed as being awful with a lot of holes on the team. Yes, in six months they went from "greatest team ever" to "these guys can't hit their weight." A lot of folks forget the Chicago White Sox were one game out at the All-Star break in 1990, so it was thought to be a race between the A's, Angels, White Sox, and Royals, whose 1990 - when they were favorites to win it all and finished next to last - was being written off as a one-year fluke.

In March 1991, the AP predicted that things were looking up for the Braves. The assumption was that without a decent start, the Bobby Cox experiment was going to be over.

Btw - George Bell, whose mouth was as big as his bat, actually said that there was no way there could be a 1991 World Series with the Cubs and Blue Jays, boldly boasting, "It will take the Blue Jays at least three years to learn to win again with Fred McGriff, Tony Fernandez, and me." The Blue Jays won three straight division titles and two World Series in those three years with the replacements - Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter, and Candy Maldonado. Bell was out of baseball at the end of three years...after being traded by the Cubs for some dude named Sammy Sosa and being left off the post-season roster while the White Sox went to the ALCS and lost....to the Blue Jays.

George Bell was supposed to be a big reason to pick the Cubs.
He was one of the biggest reasons they finished 20 games out and below .500.
 
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selmaborntidefan

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April 12, 1991
Atlanta Braves at
Cincinnati Reds
Postponed due to rain
0-2
2 games behind


The Braves had their second rainout in five days as tonight's game in Cincinnati couldn't be played. With upcoming days off and the rainouts, Manager Bobby Cox announced that the Braves would temporarily regress to a four-man rotation as opposed to the previously planned five-day rotation. This decision most particularly affects rookie right hander Paul Marak, who was called up last September and was named the fifth starter. Given the team's horrible record last year, Marak was a breath of fresh air, compiling a 1-2 record with a 3.69 ERA in seven appearances. Cox announced Marak will be moving to the bullpen as a long reliever for the time being.
 

selmaborntidefan

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Okay. You've stumped the band with Paul Marak. Never heard of him.
Paul Marak was a military dependent born at RAF Lakenheath, UK who got called up to the Braves in September of 1990 when they expanded their roster to 40 players to close out the season.

He pitched okay in seven games down the stretch in 1990, going 1-2 with a 3.69 ERA. He was on the 40-Man roster when the Braves broke camp in April 1991, and since Bobby Cox planned on going with a five-man rotation, he was going to use Marak to get the Braves to the roster trimming deadline because Atlanta had a front-loaded schedule where they tore out playing 17 games in the first 20 days. This was also because of that old thing where you play the opener then skip a day and then play game two, which sorta messes with a five-man rotation. But the Braves got rained out on both the 8th and 9th of April, which jacked with the plan.

(The only pitch thrown at the Braves planned 1991 opener was by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. In the aftermath of Desert Storm, all the clubs were wanting the Heroes of Desert Storm to throw out the first pitch).

Marak got skipped over (I think) three times, and he didn't pitch at all because of the new free agents like Berenguer. He (and Deion Sanders both) were optioned to the minors, and I J Rosenberg's tale of Marak going was so sad, the 23-year old kid in tears because he hadn't had a chance to show what he could do in the big leagues. And Marak went to Richmond and got clobbered routinely and never got another chance to play. He retired from the minor leagues in 1993.

Remember - at that time, the Braves were putting almost anybody out there, so if you couldn't make the Braves you probably weren't going to play in the big leagues.

You can get Rosenberg's book about the 1991 season - it's mostly pictures - on EBay for about six bucks. My copy is still glossy, but I'm sure those aren't quite as nice. I open it every couple of years to get the feeling again.

I will be using the following sources:
my own personal memories of the time
"Miracle Season" by I J Rosenberg
Newspapers Culled from Online
Video I have of the post-season that year (I have every single pitch, though admittedly I think they're all on You Tube now)
The old newspaper "Tomahawk" (it later became "Chop Talk"), I have several issues
 

selmaborntidefan

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I have edited the OP and will be adding preseason information, including the tragic death of John Mullen just days before the first pitch. How it must suck to be found dead in a hotel room at spring training when you've given your life to the team since they were in Boston.

Mullen is the guy who signed Hank Aaron and who held the GM job in Atlanta right before Bobby Cox came back in 1985.
 

ReturnToGlory

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After the 1991 season, my aunt framed the front page of the AJC the day after we beat the Pirates to clinch the World Series berth. Today, that fell off the wall in my home office and broke. I've taken that with me wherever I've gone the past 30 years.
 

bvandegraff

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I watched the first half of the ‘91 World Series during a trip to Japan, where the games came on in the morning (the Japanese announcers were fun to listen to, especially the way they pronounced “Homer Hanky”). In the evenings I watched the Japan Series between the Seibu Lions and the Hiroshima Carp (love that mascot). I was back in the States fighting jet lag for the last few games. Watching the games over there was fun and made the whole thing even more surreal than it already was with the Braves in it.
 

selmaborntidefan

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April 13, 1991
Game Three:
Atlanta Braves 7
Cincinnati Reds 5
1-2


It's just one game, but it may be important because it's the kind of game the Braves have perfected losing for years: jump on a superior team early and fast for a few runs, go flat the rest of the ballgame, and lose it in the closing frames. For once, the Braves held on for dear life and got one from the defending world champions and on the road in a day game no less with a sophomore starter hoping to make his mark.

Cincinnati's Jack Armstrong started 8-1 last year and then was selected as the starting pitcher of the All-Star Game, but he finished 4-8, and by the time he went to the dugout the first time, his team was in a 4-0 hole thanks to Armstrong's inability to find the strike zone without giving up something big. After retiring Deion Sanders on a pop to Barry Larkin, Armstrong walked both Jeff Treadway and Ron Gant, surrendered a double to David Justice, and then watched Sid Bream nail a three-run blast for a home run that had the Braves off to the races with a 4-0 lead. After giving up a leadoff double to Bill Doran, Braves starter Steve Avery settled down and got the next three batters out. The 20-year old (who turns 21 tomorrow) then helped himself with a single, a steal of second that stunned everyone, and a dash home on a single by Treadway that put him up 5-0 at the end of two innings. Armstrong went to the showers and his replacement, Chris Hammond, got his team further in the pit by surrendering a single to Justice and then sending the big guy to second on an errant pickoff throw. Justice scored on Mike Heath's two-out single, and the Braves were a touchdown in front, 6-0.

But the Reds didn't just lay down and die, either. Avery was not as effective his second time through the lineup as Barry Larkin ended the shutout with a home run, Eric Davis doubled and then scored on a Glen Braggs single, and Braggs himself scored on single by Todd Benzinger, last seen catching the final out of the 1990 World Series. Justice threw Benzinger out as he ran to second to ensure Braggs scored, but the Reds good inning cut the score to 6-3. Not wanting his young hurler to be the one to blow a 6-0 cushion, Bobby Cox yanked Avery and sent out middle reliever Mike Stanton to hold the lead. After getting two outs, Stanton gave up a single to Herm Winningham and walked Bill Doran, and Cox sent Doug Sisk in with Barry Larkin at the plate as the tying run. Sisk retired Larkin to prevent the comeback.


Terry Pendleton's second home run in as many games made it 7-3 Atlanta, so Cox went with his new free agent acquisition and closer Juan Berenguer, who promptly gave up a single to Chris Sabo and a two-run jack to Glenn Braggs that brought the Reds to within two runs. But that's as close as the Reds got, and credit Berenguer with the save. The Reds had the tying run at the plate no fewer than 3 times in the final 2 innings, but they never scored. A 6-0 lead turned into a 7-5 narrow escape is certainly better than many other potential outcomes for the Braves.

In other baseball news, the White Sox released Steve Lyons today while the Houston Astros put 1986 Cy Young winner Mike Scott on the disabled list with a bad shoulder.