Centerfielder Otis Nixon had just stolen consecutive victory No. 13 for the Atlanta Braves last Saturday night with The Greatest Catch Anyone Had Ever Seen. In the giddy Atlanta clubhouse, reliever Marvin Freeman summoned his Richard Nixon impression to re-create the play of the season—"I am a crook; I just robbed [Andy] Van Slyke"—then turned to the other Nixon and said, "You can renegotiate after that catch," before kissing him on the cheek. Freeman walked away shaking his head and mumbled to no one, "We might not lose another game this year."
The Braves did lose, 5-4 to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday, but the winning streak tied a franchise record and clearly established the Braves as the odds-on favorite to win the National League West. The Cincinnati Reds were only one game behind at week's end, but they were six games ahead when the Braves began their streak, on July 8.
We should have known something special was happening when the streak reached five, on July 12 in Chicago. The Cubs loaded the bases with none out in the ninth inning of a 4-4 tie, but they didn't score. In the 10th, Atlanta's Jeff Blauser hit a three-run homer to become only the fourth shortstop in history to hit three home runs in a game. "Most obscure player to hit three in one game?" Blauser asked with a smile.
If that's not evidence of living right, consider this: Brave outfielder Deion Sanders left a purse containing $100,000 worth of jewelry in a cab in Houston on July 17, and he got it all back. "My diamond Rolex, my diamond bracelet, some big rings, credit cards and two checkbooks," says Sanders. The next day the cabbie delivered the stash to the clubhouse. Sanders gave him $1,000.
Then there was the 9-7 victory in St. Louis on July 21, in which the Braves blew a 6-1 lead but won in 12 innings. And there was the Friday night opener of the series against the Pirates, a 4-3 win preserved in the ninth by a flawless double play executed by shortstop Rafael Belliard. All that good fortune was mere prelude to Saturday night's blessed event. The Braves' only hit of the game was an opposite-field homer in the second inning by Dave Justice. The score remained 1-0 into the ninth, when Alejandro Pena replaced Charlie Leibrandt. With one out Jay Bell singled. Van Slyke then crushed a drive to right center. Nixon never broke stride, stuck his left foot in the padding of the 10-foot-high wall, reached a foot above the top of the wall and caught the ball. "They said I went 15 feet high," Nixon said. "In that situation, I would have gone over or through the wall."
When Kent Mercker got the final out to protect the win, the Atlanta bench and bullpen raced not to the mound, but to centerfield to smother Nixon. Sanders tried to hoist him onto his shoulders. An hour after the game, Van Slyke was still in shock. "I didn't know he had caught it until I saw the ball being thrown in," he said. "I thought he was deking me, 44,000 fans and another 10 million viewers at home."
This was no deke. And the Braves aren't deking anyone, either. Since the 1991 All-Star break, the Braves have the best record in baseball: 112-66 (.629). Their franchise-record 18 shutouts thus far this season are more than any team had in all of 1990 or '91. The major league record for shutouts in a season is 32, by the 1906 Chicago White Sox and the 1907 and 1909 Chicago Cubs, during the dead ball era. The Braves are on a pace for 30. During the 37-11 stretch that began on May 27, Atlanta starters were 28-6 with a 2.07 ERA.
"It's so much fun to catch these guys," says catcher Greg Olson. Lately the catchers have had the most fun with John Smoltz, who through Sunday had thrown 27? consecutive scoreless innings. Smoltz is the same fellow who was 2-11 with a 5.16 ERA at the '91 All-Star break. Since then he's 24-8 with a 2.68 ERA.
The Braves struggled early this year because their bullpen was ineffective, and no one was hit harder than Pena, the closer whose brilliant work down the stretch last season helped Atlanta win the National League pennant. But Pena has regained his form, saving eight of the 13 wins in the streak. "My arm was too low, my ball had nothing," he says. "But we studied tapes, found little things that were wrong, and I'm throwing well again."
Alas, it was the bullpen that gave up the winning run on Sunday. After the Braves had fallen behind, 4-1 (the first time they had trailed by more than one run since the streak began), pinch hitter Lonnie Smith hit a three-run homer to tie the score in the eighth. Another miracle finish in the making? Not this time. Mark Wohlers gave up an RBI single to Orlando Merced in the ninth to snap the streak.