The 1991 National League Championship Series was played between the Atlanta Braves (94–68) and the Pittsburgh Pirates (98–64), with the Braves coming out on top in the Series 4–3. It was considered one of the best-pitched seven-game series of the modern era, featuring three 1–0 finishes and four shutouts. The Braves went on to lose in the World Series to the Minnesota Twins in seven games.
The Pirates had the best record in the National League in 1991, and were the first NL East team to win consecutive division championships since the Philadelphia Phillies, their in-state rivals, during their run of three straight NL East championships, from 1976–1978 (in fact, the Pirates won the 1991 NL East title in a game against their rivals). and were expected to win this Series and advance to the World Series. However, the Braves, who went from last place in the National League West in 1990 to first place in the division in 1991, were able to pull off the upset in their memorable run to the World Series versus the Minnesota Twins.
Atlanta won the series, 4–3.
Wednesday, October 9, 1991 (8:41PM EDT) at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh
The Pirates proved they would be tough to eliminate early when they stifled the Braves offense behind 1990 Cy Young Award winner Doug Drabek and won the first game 5–1. Pittsburgh center fielder Andy Van Slyke had a home run and a double off Braves starter and 1991 Cy Young Award winner Tom Glavine. David Justice hit a solo home run in the ninth inning off reliever Bob Walk for the Braves' only run.
An injury to Pirates starter Doug Drabek was to have major ramifications for the Series. Drabek slid into third and injured himself in the sixth inning, leaving the game with what appeared to be a pulled hamstring. The injury cost Drabek an early start in either Game 4 or 5, and it ensured he would not be available for a third start in Game 7 if the Series went that far, as it ultimately did.
Thursday, October 10, 1991 (8:39PM EDT) at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh
In Game 2, both teams were kept in check by the outstanding pitching performances of Zane Smith for Pittsburgh and Steve Avery for Atlanta. However, Avery and the Braves would come out on top 1–0, after Mark Lemke picked up a double and the only RBI of the game in the sixth inning. David Justice scored from second when Lemke's seemingly routine grounder got past Pirate third baseman Steve Buechele, allowing Justice to score. Alejandro Peña got the save and the combined shutout was complete. The series was now tied 1–1.
The win snapped a 10-game postseason losing streak for the Braves franchise that began with Game 5 of the 1958 World Series, when the team was still in Milwaukee.
Saturday, October 12, 1991 (3:00PM EDT) at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta
With the Series tied at one game apiece, John Smoltz faced off against the Pirates' twenty-game winner, John Smiley. Orlando Merced hit Smoltz's first pitch over the right field wall for a home run and a 1–0 lead. But the Braves rallied with four runs in the bottom of the first, topped off by Greg Olson's two-run homer to left. Smiley was gone by the third inning with the Braves leading, 6–1. In the seventh, with the score 7–3, Alejandro Peña struck out Jay Bell with the bases loaded to end the Pirates' last threat. Ultimately, the Braves won 10–3 with home runs from Ron Gant, Greg Olson, and Sid Bream.
Sunday, October 13, 1991 (8:38PM EDT) at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta
The lone extra-inning game of the Series came in Atlanta before 51,109 fans. The score was tied 2–2 after nine innings. The scoring in the first nine innings was over after the fifth inning. The Pirates had gotten their runs on a Don Slaught single and a Jay Bell single along with a Braves error. The Braves earned their two runs in the first inning on three straight singles and an error.
The Pirates tied the series with a run in the top of the tenth when Mike LaValliere singled in Andy Van Slyke, who had stolen second after being walked by Kent Mercker. The Braves batted out in the bottom of the tenth.
Monday, October 14, 1991 (3:08PM EDT) at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta
Zane Smith had his second excellent game of the Series, but this time he won, beating Tom Glavine and the Braves 1–0 in almost a mirror image of Smith's start in Game 2. However, in Game 2, Smith had given up the one run and lost.
Controversy surrounded this game when David Justice appeared to score on a single to left, but he seemed to miss third base and was called out on an appeal. Replays were inconclusive, but Justice did stumble over third base, and the umpires called him out, preserving Smith's shutout.
The lone run in this game came when José Lind hit a simple RBI single in the fifth.
Wednesday, October 16, 1991 (8:39PM EDT) at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh hosted one of the best pitcher's duels of all-time on October 16, 1991, between Steve Avery and Doug Drabek. In the end, identical to Avery's last start, a combination of Avery and Alejandro Peña shut out the Pirates for all nine innings. The Pirates only got four hits. However, this time the Braves didn't score a run all the way through eight innings. Drabek matched Avery, pitch for pitch. But in the ninth inning, with the score tied 0–0, Olson raked a double down the left field line that scored Gant and took the lead off a weary Drabek. He had pitched a complete game, but was the loser after the Pirates couldn't get Gary Varsho home from third in the bottom of the ninth. The Braves had not scored a run since the first inning of Game 4, a futility streak that reached 26 2⁄3 innings before Gant scored the winning run.
Thursday, October 17, 1991 (8:39PM EDT) at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh
The Braves scored three runs in the first inning, partly on a Brian Hunter two-run home run, and never looked back. Twenty-game winner John Smiley made the start, fared poorly, was yanked after two-thirds of an inning and lost to John Smoltz, who shut out the Pirates. Although Bob Walk was masterful in middle relief, it was too little, too late, even though he pulled his groin trying to help his cause attempting to stretch a single into a double in the bottom of the seventh. The Braves won 4–0 and nabbed the pennant. After Atlanta had gone 26 2⁄3 innings without scoring, the Pirates themselves went the final 22 1⁄3 innings without scoring. That streak would reach 30 innings before José Lind snapped it with a home run in the eighth inning of Game 1 in the 1992 NLCS.
Avery won the Series MVP award. Pitching 16.1 innings, the Braves starter did not allow a run, giving up nine hits and walking four while striking out seventeen. Avery said, "It's been the best time of my life."
The Braves scored fourteen runs in the games Smiley pitched (Games 3 and 7), including nine off Smiley, but only five runs in the other five games combined. Smiley had been the Pirates' biggest winner in 1991, notching twenty victories for the only time in his career.
The Atlanta Braves' World Series appearance was their first since 1958, and their first since moving to Atlanta in 1966. The Braves lost a memorable and dramatic seven-game series to the Minnesota Twins.
1991 NLCS (4–3): Atlanta Braves over Pittsburgh Pirates