Back for another fall season, the saga of the Atlanta Braves is the longest-running dramatic series in baseball. The Braves are the first team to reach a fourth straight postseason—a run so long it began in the days when baseball actually had a commissioner—without having yet won a world championship. Welcome to Bridesmaids Revisited.
This is the kind of team that roots for the Buffalo Bills. "I went to see them at the Super Bowl in Atlanta," says Brave pitcher Steve Avery. "I was pulling for the Bills real badly. I know exactly how they feel." (Next Sally Jessy: Jim Kelly, Tom Glavine and Susan Lucci share their pain.)
No team in baseball has won more games over the past five years than Atlanta (454-290). But the .610 regular-season powerhouse is a .455 pumpkin (15-18) in the postseason, having been beaten in the 1991 and "92 World Series and the "93 National League Championship Series. Then last year, when they were apparently playoff-bound again, the Braves were done in by the strike.
Unlike the Bills, the Braves haven't been buffaloed in the postseason. Atlanta's losses have been excruciatingly close. In its last 33 postseason games, before this week's division playoff series with the Colorado Rockies, Atlanta was 5-13 in one-run games, including 1-6 in extra innings, with nine defeats coming in the opponent's last at bat.
In the 1992 World Series, for example, the Braves were two outs away from taking a two-games-to-none lead over the Toronto Blue Jays when Atlanta reliever Jeff Reardon served up a two-run, game-winning home run to Ed Sprague. All told, the Braves' bullpen was 2-6 in Atlanta's three losing postseason series and also allowed the game-ending hit in a seventh defeat that was charged to Avery. In addition to relying on the fading Reardon, the Braves had a different reliever lead them in saves every year from 1991 through '94: Juan Berenguer, Alejandro Pena, Mike Stanton and Greg McMichael, respectively.
"This is the first time going into the postseason that we have what people call an established closer," says shortstop Jeff Blauser.
" Mark Wohlers," says righthander John Smoltz, "is the biggest difference why this is the best team we've had here."
Wohlers is a 25-year-old computer-packing closer who can put away the postgame spread with the same gusto with which he devours opposing hitters. After four years apprenticing as a setup man, with 15 postseason appearances, Wohlers stepped to the front of the conga line of Atlanta closers this year. With a boost to his confidence and some mechanical changes—he now begins his smooth delivery with his arms extended in front of him, like a bowler lining up a 7-10 split—Wohlers no longer suffers occasional lapses with his fastball. "There were times when it would drop to 88 miles per hour," Wohlers says. "Now I'm pretty much consistently around 94 to 96. The biggest difference is my confidence level, It was nonexistent until this year. It's been a 180-degree turnaround."
As perhaps the hardest-throwing pitcher in baseball, Wohlers has had his heater clocked at as high as 103 mph on the faster of the two commonly used radar guns. "You should see the scouts," says Jim Guadagno, who operates Atlanta's gun. "They're like kids with new toys when they see that 100 light up on their guns. Three digits! Nobody else in the league can do that."
Wohlers fanned 90 batters in 64% innings, a rate of 12.53 strikeouts per nine innings. That ratio has been exceeded by only one other reliever in a season in which he pitched at least 60 innings in a season: former Cincinnati Red righthander Rob Dibble, who has the three best such rates, topped by 14.08 in 1992. More important, with Wohlers having saved 25 games in 29 chances, close games don't appear as dangerous to Atlanta anymore. As proof, the Braves were second to the Cleveland Indians in these two categories: best record in one-run games (31-17) and most wins in the last at bat (25). Atlanta permitted just 30 ninth-inning runs all year.