The Braves were attempting to return to the World Series one year after their dramatic seven-game loss to the Minnesota Twins. Atlanta featured largely the same lineup that had won the 1991 pennant, but they still fell into a tie for last place, seven games behind the Giants, by the end of May. However, Atlanta went 19–6 in June and 16–9 in July and pulled away from the rest of the NL West by winning 15 of their first 18 games in August.
The Pirates were in the NLCS for the third year in a row after losing to the eventual World Series champion Cincinnati Reds in 1990 and the Braves in 1991. It was also the third of four straight NLCS appearances by either the Pirates or their in-state rivals, the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Pirates lost slugging right fielder Bobby Bonilla to free agency after the 1991 season, replacing him with speedster Alex Cole. Ace pitcher John Smiley was traded to the Minnesota Twins. Despite the departure of Smiley and Bonilla, Pittsburgh charged out to a seven-game lead by late June, suffered through an July 11–15 that allowed the Montreal Expos to tie them for the lead by the end of the month, then won eleven straight in early August before pulling away from the Expos in September to earn its third straight NL East title, becoming the first team to win three straight NL East titles since the Phillies from 1976 to 1978. Future home run champion Barry Bonds won his second MVP Award and led the Pirates with 34 home runs and 103 RBI.
Pressure beyond the moment made it imperative for the Pirates to break through and win the pennant in 1992. Financial demands had already resulted in losing Smiley and Bonilla, and the departure of pending free agents Bonds (left fielder) and Doug Drabek (starting pitcher) loomed. 1992 appeared to be the last chance for Pittsburgh to win with its current core of players.
Atlanta won the series, 4–3.
Tuesday, October 6, 1992 (8:42PM EDT) at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia
The first game of the NLCS pitted Atlanta's John Smoltz against Pittsburgh ace Doug Drabek. Smoltz was the winning pitcher in Game 7 of the previous NLCS, where the Braves shut out the Pirates 4-0. Drabek had won once and lost once in the 1991 NLCS.
The Braves scored all five of their runs in the first seven innings. In the second, Mark Lemke's single scored Sid Bream to put Atlanta on the board. They added two more in the fourth inning as Bream doubled to score David Justice and then scored on an error when Orlando Merced threw the ball away while attempting to field a bunt. Jeff Blauser's home run in the fifth made it 4-0, and Terry Pendleton drove in Otis Nixon in the seventh to complete the Braves' scoring.
The Pirates' José Lind was responsible for his team's only run as he homered in the eighth inning off of Smoltz. Lind's run, however, was the first the Pirates had scored against the Braves in 30 innings, going back to Lind's RBI single in Game 5 of the 1991 NLCS.
Smoltz went eight innings for the win, while Drabek suffered the loss and was pulled in the fifth inning.
Wednesday, October 7, 1992 (3:08PM EDT) at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia
Atlanta's Steve Avery, who defeated Pittsburgh twice in the 1991 NLCS without surrendering a run, started Game 2 in Atlanta while Danny Jackson, who was a late season acquisition from the Chicago Cubs, started for Pittsburgh.
The Braves scored early and often in Game 2. Jackson gave up a single to Brian Hunter, then walked Ron Gant. Damon Berryhill followed with a single to drive in Hunter, and Mark Lemke added one of his own to score Gant. Avery then flied out to center field to score Berryhill from third, and after Otis Nixon popped out Jeff Blauser followed with a triple, scoring Berryhill and chasing Jackson from the game. In the fifth, Gant faced Bob Walk with the bases loaded and two out. On the third pitch of the at-bat Gant hit a deep fly ball to left field that cleared the fence for a grand slam home run, his first career grand slam.
With Avery still pitching a shutout into the seventh, the Pirates struck. With Barry Bonds on base and one out, Lloyd McClendon doubled to score him. Don Slaught followed with a walk and Jose Lind hit a triple after that, scoring both runners ahead of him and making it an 8-3 game. With Cecil Espy batting, Avery then threw a wild pitch enabling Lind to score and cut the lead in half. After Espy singled, Marvin Freeman came in to relieve the tiring Avery and retired Orlando Merced to get the second out. Jay Bell followed with a single, but Mike Stanton forced Andy Van Slyke to ground out to end the inning.
The Braves put the game out of reach in the bottom of the seventh. With Gant on base and two outs, Stanton doubled him home. Denny Neagle then intentionally walked Nixon and unintentionally walked Blauser, then gave up a double to Terry Pendleton to score Stanton and Nixon. David Justice then singled, scoring Blauser and Pendleton and ending Neagle's afternoon. The Braves did not score again, and after Slaught scored on a passed ball in the eighth nothing further was done and the Braves took a 2-0 lead in the series with a 13-5 victory.
Avery kept his winning streak in postseason play intact, having yet to lose in five postseason starts. Jackson took the loss after giving up the first four Atlanta runs.
Friday, October 9, 1992 (8:39PM EDT) at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
As play moved to Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Atlanta turned to 20-game winner Tom Glavine to try to give them a 3-0 series lead. Pittsburgh countered with rookie Tim Wakefield, a knuckleballer who had made thirteen starts during the season.
The first run of the game came in the top of the fourth as Sid Bream homered to give the Braves an early 1-0 lead. In the bottom of the next inning, Don Slaught hit a home run of his own to tie the score. The Pirates added a run in the sixth to take the lead as Andy Van Slyke scored on a Jeff King double. Ron Gant hit a home run in the top of the seventh to tie the game, but the Pirates scored what proved to be the winning run in the bottom of the seventh as Van Slyke doubled to score Gary Redus.
Wakefield pitched a complete game and earned a victory. Glavine took the loss after pitching seven innings.
Saturday, October 10, 1992 (8:39PM EDT) at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Game 4 saw a rematch of the Game 1 starters, as Doug Drabek faced John Smoltz for the second time.
As they had in Game 1, Atlanta scored early against Drabek. With two runners on and two out in the second, Smoltz drove in the first run by singling to center and scoring Ron Gant. Otis Nixon followed by singling himself, scoring Mark Lemke. Pittsburgh responded in their half by scoring twice, as a single by Alex Cole with one out scored Mike LaValliere. On the same play, Jose Lind scored as Jeff Blauser made a throwing error at shortstop. Orlando Merced drove in a run in the third by doubling home Jeff King.
In the top of the fifth, the Braves scored again as David Justice singled with two runners on, scoring Nixon. Randy Tomlin came in to face pinch-hitter Brian Hunter, and he promptly grounded to third. King, however, decided to throw home to try to get Blauser at the plate and made an error allowing a second run to score. Atlanta scored twice more the next inning as Nixon drove in Smoltz with a two out double and scored himself when Blauser singled off of Danny Cox. Andy Van Slyke drove in Cole with a double in the seventh but the Pirates got no closer and Jeff Reardon shut them down in the ninth inning to earn his first save of the postseason.
Smoltz, in addition to scoring a run and driving in a run, stole a base and got his second win of the series. Drabek took his second loss, having failed to get out of the fifth inning for a second time in as many starts. The Braves now had a 3-1 series lead and needed only one more win to advance to their second consecutive World Series.
Sunday, October 11, 1992 (8:44PM EDT) at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Looking to clinch the series, the Braves trotted out Steve Avery for the second time in the series. The Pirates decided not to go back to Danny Jackson after his performance in Game 2 and instead called on Bob Walk, who also saw action in Game 2 and gave up the grand slam to Ron Gant that broke the game open, to make his first start of the series
This time, the Pirates solved Avery after failing to do so in any of his three previous starts against them in the LCS. Gary Redus led off the home first with a double, scoring on a single by Jay Bell. Avery then induced a groundout off the bat of Andy Van Slyke, which turned out to be the only out he recorded. Barry Bonds, Jeff King, and Lloyd McClendon all doubled following the first out, and three more runs scored before Avery was pulled. McClendon scored Bonds on a sacrifice fly in the third, Redus doubled in Don Slaught in the sixth, and Slaught drove in King in the seventh with a single to make it 7-0. The Braves' only run came in the eighth, as Lonnie Smith led off the inning with a triple and scored on a groundout. Smith's triple was one of only three hits Walk allowed in a complete game, the second for the Pirates in the series.
As it took the Pirates until 2013 to reach the playoffs again, Game 5 of the NLCS was the last postseason game ever played in Three Rivers Stadium.
Tuesday, October 13, 1992 (8:44PM EDT) at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia
Game 6 saw the series return to Atlanta, with Tom Glavine taking on Tim Wakefield in a Game 3 rematch.
Once again, as in Game 5, the Pirates scored early and often. After retiring the Pirates in order in the first, Glavine collapsed in the second. Barry Bonds led off the inning with a solo home run, and after singles by Jeff King and Lloyd McClendon, Don Slaught drove them both in with a double. An error by Jeff Blauser allowed Slaught to score, and after Wakefield reached on a sacrifice bunt attempt Gary Redus hit his fourth double of the series to drive in Jose Lind. Jay Bell then homered to score Redus and Wakefield. Glavine was pulled after this, having faced eight batters in the second without an out.
With the Pirates' lead at 8-1 in the fifth, Lind doubled to score Slaught and McClendon, scored himself on a single by Redus, who scored on a single by Andy Van Slyke. McClendon's home run in the sixth ended the Pittsburgh scoring. David Justice hit two home runs in the late innings but they were meaningless as the Pirates tied the series.
Wakefield again went the distance for his second win. Glavine's eight run, one-inning outing garnered him his second loss.
Wednesday, October 14, 1992 (8:30PM EDT) at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia
The deciding game of the NLCS featured the third matchup of the series between John Smoltz and Doug Drabek. Smoltz was an MVP candidate for the series, having started and won both of his games. Drabek had struggled in his two starts, failing to make it past the fifth inning in either matchup. However, the Pirates were carrying momentum from their previous two wins, having knocked out Steve Avery in the first inning and Tom Glavine in the second on their way to outscoring the Braves 20-5, and looked to become the first team to win the NLCS after trailing 3-1. The game that followed was regarded as one of the greatest ever, as years later MLB Network ranked it the fourth best game of all-time.
The Pirates scored first as Alex Cole led off with a walk, advanced to third on a double by Andy Van Slyke, and scored on a sacrifice fly by Orlando Merced. The Pirates would add a run in the sixth as Jay Bell scored on a single by Van Slyke, and the lead held up as Drabek pitched his best game of the series in holding the Braves scoreless. The closest the Braves got to breaking through was in the sixth inning, when Drabek allowed three consecutive singles to Mark Lemke, Jeff Treadway, and Otis Nixon to load the bases. Jeff Blauser, however, lined into an unassisted double play and Terry Pendleton lined out to Barry Bonds in left to end the threat.
An incident involving the umpires early in the game set a different tone that would come into play later on. In the second inning, home plate umpire John McSherry became ill and complained of nausea and dizziness. After being checked out by the stadium medical staff, McSherry left the field and first base umpire Randy Marsh was summoned over from his position to take over behind the plate. This caused a difference in ball and strike calls as Marsh's strike zone, though consistent, was much tighter than McSherry's was. It was also the first public sign of what would later prove to be fatal cardiac issues for the veteran umpire; in 1996, on Opening Day in Cincinnati, McSherry went into cardiac arrest and died on the field at Riverfront Stadium while behind the plate.
Entering the bottom of the ninth, Drabek had only allowed five hits in eight shutout innings and the Pirates were three outs away from advancing to their first World Series since 1979. If the lead held, Braves manager Bobby Cox would have become the first manager in the era of seven-game LCS play to have blown two 3-1 series leads and lost; Cox previously had seen this happen in 1985, when his Toronto Blue Jays lost to the eventual world champion Kansas City Royals after being one victory away from going to the World Series.
Pirates manager Jim Leyland sent Drabek out for the ninth to complete the shutout, with the middle of the Braves' order due up. The first batter, Terry Pendleton, doubled. David Justice followed by hitting a sharp grounder to José Lind, who was eventually awarded a Gold Glove at second base for the season. Lind, however, misplayed the ball and runners were at the corners with nobody out. Drabek then walked Sid Bream on four pitches, some of which were close but were called balls due to Marsh's tight strike zone, which moved the tying run into scoring position and loaded the bases.
With their victory now in potential jeopardy, Leyland pulled Drabek from the game and brought in his closer Stan Belinda to pitch to Ron Gant. Gant hit a deep fly ball that was caught by Bonds, enabling Pendleton to score and put the Braves on the board. Damon Berryhill was the next batter and worked a 3-1 count out of Belinda, then walked on the fifth pitch of the at bat, which Marsh called a ball that appeared to be a strike.
With the bases once again loaded, the Braves sent up Brian Hunter to pinch hit for second baseman Rafael Belliard. Belinda was able to get Hunter to pop out, which brought the Braves down to their final out and put the Pirates one step closer to erasing the 3-1 deficit and advancing to their first World Series since their 1979 championship. Francisco Cabrera, a seldom-used utility player who had spent most of 1992 in the minor leagues, was sent to the plate to pinch hit for pitcher Jeff Reardon.
On the third pitch, with Belinda behind 2-0, Cabrera ripped a foul line drive to left field. After the play, Van Slyke and Bonds got into a brief argument as Van Slyke signaled to the left fielder to move in so he could cut off a potential single and keep the runners from scoring; Bonds gave Van Slyke the finger and refused to move. Sure enough, Cabrera again lined a pitch to left that dropped in front of Bonds for a hit. Justice scored from third easily, which tied the game. Bonds came up with the ball but was out of position and had to throw across his body, and seeing this third base coach Jimy Williams sent Bream, who was one of the slowest baserunners in the league, to the plate. Bonds' throw was offline, which forced catcher Mike LaValliere to move to his right to field the ball just before Bream got to the plate. The extra motion allowed Bream to slide in ahead of LaValliere's tag, and the Braves won 3-2.
The victory was picked up by Jeff Reardon, who pitched the ninth inning. The loss was charged to Drabek, who was responsible for all three runners that scored in the bottom of the ninth when he left the game. Smoltz, with his two victories, was named the series MVP.
Andy Van Slyke sat motionless in centerfield for several minutes after the game ended, while the Braves celebrated at home plate.
In the celebration at home plate after Sid Bream's pennant-winning slide, Braves pitcher Kent Mercker was hurt and unable to pitch in the World Series.
Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS marked the first time in MLB history that a team which was one out away from losing in a winner-take-all game of a playoff series instead won on the last pitch. To date, Francisco Cabrera is the only player in MLB history to win a postseason series with a hit during an at bat in which he could have lost the series with an out. All other series walk-off hits occurred either with the score tied (as with Bill Mazeroski's 1960 World Series winning home run) or in non-decisive games.
The March 1993 issue of Baseball Digest pronounced it the greatest baseball comeback ever, as did John Smoltz immediately after the game. A 2006 study by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pronounced Cabrera's game-winning single the eighth-"clutchest" hit in MLB history. ESPN called the Pirates' defeat the eighth most painful in baseball history. Don Ohlmeyer, the former head of NBC Sports and President of NBC West Coast, supposedly called the event "one of the most exciting baseball moments he had ever seen," albeit regretting the time of day it took place.
Game 7 was the last postseason game for the Pirates until 2013, when the team faced and defeated the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Wild Card Game. The Pirates also went twenty-one years without a winning season after 1992. Game 7 was the last Pirates game for Bonds and Drabek who left via free agency, signing with the Giants and Astros, respectively.
Until 2008, the Braves were the last team in Major League Baseball to win a seventh game after blowing a 3–1 series lead. That year, the Tampa Bay Rays won Game 7 of the ALCS after blowing a 3–1 lead to the Boston Red Sox.
1992 NLCS (4–3): Atlanta Braves over Pittsburgh Pirates
The Braves lost the 1992 World Series to the Toronto Blue Jays in six games. 1992 was the second of five National League pennants for the Braves from 1991 to 1999. After making their second consecutive NLCS in 1992, the Braves made seven of the next nine that followed. In 1993, the Braves again came back from a second half deficit to win their division, but were upset by the Philadelphia Phillies in the LCS. Atlanta won their first and only World Series under Bobby Cox in 1995. They lost the 1996 and 1999 World Series to the New York Yankees. In 1997, the Braves fell to Leyland's Marlins in the NLCS and in 1998, they were defeated by the San Diego Padres. Their most recent NLCS appearance came in 2001, when they were defeated by the eventual world champion Arizona Diamondbacks.
Francisco Cabrera went 0–1 in the 1992 Series. He played only one more season in the big leagues, accruing 91 plate appearances for the 1993 Braves. He later managed the St. Louis Cardinals' Dominican League affiliate. Cox eventually retired as Braves manager following the 2010 season, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2014. He was joined by his ace from this series, Tom Glavine, who was elected as a player that same year and won 305 games in his career.
"The Slide" also proved to be the end of the Pirates' mini-dynasty of losing three straight NLCS. The Pirates never recovered from their loss to the Braves. The 1993 Pirates went 75–87. The Pirates would not have another winning season until 2013; their streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons through 2012 remains an all-time record for major North American professional sports.
Barry Bonds and Doug Drabek played their last games for the team, as both departed in free agency that offseason. Bonds went to the San Francisco Giants, where he played for the remainder of his career and eventually set baseball's all-time single season and career home run record with 762. Bonds became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2013, but has yet to be elected due in part to concerns about his use of performance-enhancing drugs. Drabek signed with the Houston Astros and stayed there for four seasons, but did not maintain the consistency that he had in Pittsburgh and eventually retired in 1998. Manager Jim Leyland stayed with the Pirates through the 1996 season, with his team losing 80 or more games three of those four years. He moved on to the Florida Marlins, where his team beat Cox's Braves in the NLCS and went on to win the World Series in 1997. Leyland moved on to manage the Detroit Tigers to two World Series losses in 2006 and 2012 (including 3 straight ALCS appearances from 2011–13) before retiring following the 2013 season.