October 16, 1991: Avery, Braves edge Pirates 1-0, force Game 7 in NLCS

This article was written by John Fredland

With the Atlanta Braves’ unprecedented playoff run one defeat from expiration, 21-year-old left-hander Steve Avery’s second dominant start of the 1991 National League Championship Series kept the Pittsburgh Pirates scoreless through eight innings of Game Six on October 16 at Three Rivers Stadium. Clutch play by Ron Gant, Greg Olson, and Alejandro Peña then secured Atlanta’s 1-0 win, setting up the Braves to clinch the pennant the following night.

After winning the NL West in 1982, Atlanta declined sharply, bottoming out at 54-106 in 1988.1 Two more last-place seasons followed,2 but savvy observers saw signs of better days, especially in young starting pitchers Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Avery. 3

Bobby Cox – Atlanta’s manager from 1978 to 1981, then Toronto Blue Jays manager for four seasons before returning to the Braves as general manager in 1985 – moved back into Atlanta’s dugout in June 1990.4 Gant, with 32 homers and 34 steals in 1990, and David Justice, ’90 NL Rookie of the Year, were emerging offensive threats; for 1991, new general manager John Schuerholz added several veterans, including third baseman Terry Pendleton.5

At the All-Star break in 1991, the Braves seemed bound for mild if unspectacular improvement; their 39-40 record lagged the Los Angeles Dodgers by 9½ games. But Atlanta surged after the break, reaching a first-place tie on August 27,6 then claiming the division on the season’s next-to-last day. It was the first time an NL team had finished first after a last-place campaign.7

Waiting for the Braves in the NLCS were the Pirates.8 Like Atlanta, Pittsburgh was a turnaround story, rising from the NL’s worst record in 1985 and 1986 to back-to-back NL East titles in 1990 and 1991.9

Pittsburgh’s Doug Drabek outdueled Glavine in the series opener on October 9 at Three Rivers Stadium,10 but Avery shut down the Pirates a night later. Mark Lemke’s bad-hop double past third baseman Steve Buechele drove in Justice in the sixth inning, and Avery, with ninth-inning relief from Peña, made it stand up for a series-tying 1-0 win.11

Play moved to Atlanta, and the Braves coasted to a 10-3 victory on October 11.12 Now trailing, the Pirates – losers of all six regular-season games in Atlanta in 1991 – conjured up two heart-stopping one-run wins within 24 hours, clinching their 10-inning Game Four win at 12:24 A.M.,13 pulling out a 1-0 victory the following afternoon, and holding the Braves scoreless for 18 straight innings.14

The Pirates needed just one win at home for their first pennant since 1979, but a rematch with Avery loomed. Even before his Game Two shutout, Avery had demonstrated his wherewithal in his first full major-league season with a 5-0 record and a 2.14 ERA after August 30, including back-to-back complete-game wins against the Dodgers in September.15

Drabek had blanked the Braves through six innings in the series opener but injured his hamstring running the bases.16 Pirates manager Jim Leyland scratched the 29-year-old right-hander from a scheduled Game Five start;17 the training staff toiled to get Drabek ready for Game Six and keep him pitching during the cold night.18

Atlanta threatened to take an early lead. Lonnie Smith smashed Drabek’s second pitch of the game off a diving Buechele and hustled to second when the ball rolled into foul territory. Jeff Treadway’s groundout advanced Smith to third, but Drabek retired Pendleton and Justice to keep him there. The scoreless streak was 19 innings.

Avery picked up where he left off in Game Two, striking out Gary Redus, Jay Bell, and Andy Van Slyke swinging in the first and catching Bonds and Buechele looking in the second.

“[Avery] probably threw a little harder in [Game Two],” Bell said afterward.19 “But he was outstanding, just outstanding. His command of his pitches, the way he moved the ball in and out. You couldn’t read any pattern against him.”20

Both teams tried to press the issue in the third. Smith, who followed Avery’s one-out single by hitting into a force, attempted to steal second but overslid the bag and was tagged for the third out. Then Pittsburgh’s Don Slaught tried to stretch his single to left into a double, but Smith threw him out at second.

Drabek and Avery continued to trade zeros. After Atlanta stranded runners on second in the fourth and sixth innings, the Braves pushed even closer in the seventh when Gant ripped a single off Buechele’s glove, stole second, and took third on Sid Bream’s groundout.

But Olson, jammed, grounded softly to a drawn-in Bell at short while Gant broke for the plate. Bell’s side-arm throw home beat Gant, who slid headfirst into catcher Slaught’s tag. Atlanta’s scoreless-inning streak was 25.21

Pittsburgh managed even less success against Avery. Through seven innings, no Pirate had reached second base. With double-play grounders in the sixth and seventh, Avery had faced just one batter more than the minimum.

In the eighth, the Braves were again in scoring position with less than two outs when Smith legged out a one-out double. Drabek, however, held firm; Barry Bonds slapped his glove on his leg before catching Pendleton’s fly ball to left for the final out.

Carrying a two-hitter, 15⅓-inning scoreless streak, and nearly triple-digit pitch count into the eighth, Avery finally showed strain. Bonds led off with a fly ball to left, but it hung up in the chilly air and Lonnie Smith hauled it in, just short of the warning track.

Buechele lined a single to right. Leyland called for the hit-and-run, but Gant caught Slaught’s fly ball to center as Buechele returned to first. Jose Lind battled through a 10-pitch at-bat, working the count full before grounding out on Avery’s 116th pitch of the night. Avery had an NLCS record for consecutive scoreless innings.

Drabek retired Justice to open the ninth, but Gant watched a low full-count pitch for ball four. All eyes were on the basepaths as Bream took a ball; Gant remained on first as the Pirates pitched out. He ran on the next pitch but retraced his steps on Bream’s routine fly to left.

Gant took off for second on the first pitch to Olson, beating Slaught’s throw for his NLCS-record sixth steal of the series.

“I had a green light,” Gant said.22 “Anytime I get a chance to take a bag, especially in that situation, I’m going to do it.”23

After getting jammed in the seventh, Olson looked for a fastball.24 Drabek’s 125th offering of the game was down and in, and Olson smashed it down the third-base line, past Buechele’s outstretched glove and into the corner. Gant, the first Brave to reach home in almost 27 innings, scored easily for a 1-0 lead.25

“I’d gotten him with the sinker all night,” said Drabek, who relied on his curve and sinking fastball with the injury precluding his four-seam fastball.26 “I guess that one was not inside enough.”27

“[Drabek has] more courage than any pitcher I’ve ever seen,” Gant said.28 “He’s out there on a bad leg, and he still has great stuff.”29

Needing three more outs, Cox called on Peña, an August trade acquisition who had saved both of the Braves’ previous NLCS wins.30 Gary Varsho, batting for Drabek, hit a sinking liner toward center. Gant dropped to his knees for the ball, but it struck the heel of his glove and fell for a single.

Pinch-hitter Orlando Merced sacrificed Varsho to second. The tying run was in scoring position, with a potent group of Pirates – Bell, then Van Slyke, Bonds, and Bobby Bonilla – due.

The first pitch to Bell was a high fastball, which he lined to right – but directly at Justice, too shallow for Varsho to advance.

Van Slyke batted with two outs. Peña attacked the lefty swinger with fastball after fastball. One skipped past Olson; Varsho took third.

As police on horseback assembled, poised to contain a celebration, Van Slyke kept fouling off Peña’s pitches, twice pulling them for extra-base distance but landing them outside the foul line.

On the eighth pitch, Olson called for a changeup.31 Peña’s delivery floated in, finally settling into the catcher’s mitt.

Umpire Bruce Froemming punched through the air for strike three. The stadium’s buzz of anticipation erupted in a cry of distress, then went quiet. The series was tied.

“You see 95 [miles per hour] … and he floats a butterfly up there, there’s nothing you can do,” Van Slyke said. “It was a great pitch. The changeup was the last thing I expected to see.”32

Gant, Olson, and Peña’s heroics had tipped the series’ third 1-0 decision in Atlanta’s favor, but Avery was the man of the hour.

“I thought Steve was just as dominant, if not more dominant, tonight than he was last time here,” Olson said. “The kid’s only 21 but he’s cool, calm, and collected.”33

“I’ve seen a lot of pitchers – [Bob] Gibson, [Sandy] Koufax – and if Avery’s not up there with them now, he soon will be,” Pirates pitching coach Ray Miller said.34

A night later, Atlanta scored three runs in the first and cruised to a 4-0 win behind Smoltz, earning a spot in the World Series.35 Avery was named NLCS Most Valuable Player.



The article was fact-checked by Laura Peebles and copy-edited by Len Levin. SABR member Jacob Pomrenke provided insightful comments on an earlier version of this article.



In addition to the sources listed in the Notes below, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org for pertinent information, including the box score and play-by-play. He also reviewed game coverage in the Atlanta Constitution, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Pittsburgh Press newspapers; and a recording of the game’s television broadcast on YouTube.






1 Darryl Maxie, “Braves’ Fall Began With Pennant Disappointment in 1983,” Atlanta Constitution, October 5, 1988: 3E.

2 Joe Strauss, “Cox: ‘This Team Can Go to the Top: After a Promising Spring Training, Atlanta’s Lack of Offense, Brutal Defense Leaves ’89 Team in Cellar,” Atlanta Journal and Constitution, October 1, 1989: B-28; Joe Strauss, “Five-Year Plan Crumbles in Bizarre Season: Poor Pitching, Fielding Main Culprits in Collapse,” Atlanta Journal and Constitution, October 7, 1990: F-3.

3 Mike Kopf, “Braves New World,” Bill James: The Baseball Book 1990, (New York: Villard, 1990), 73; Joe Strauss, “The ‘Great’ Glavine: Rushed to the Majors as the Braves Rebuilt, Tom Glavine, Ex-Hockey Player, Hung Tough and Survived,” Atlanta Constitution, April 18, 1989: 1F; Joe Strauss, “An All-Star, and Still Growing: Though Braves’ John Smoltz Has Matured, He’s Still a Kid at 22,” Atlanta Constitution, July 11, 1989: F1; I.J. Rosenberg, “Glavine, Avery Falling Into Place,” Atlanta Constitution, April 26, 1991: H7.

4 Joe Strauss, “Cox Is Braves Skipper Again: Manager Nixon Fired After Team’s 25-40 Start,” Atlanta Constitution, June 23, 1990: A1.

5 Joe Strauss, “Pendleton Highest-Paid Brave Ever: Third Baseman to Get $10.2 Million for 4 Years,” Atlanta Constitution, December 4, 1990: F1.

6 I.J. Rosenberg, “It’s a Brave New World: Atlanta Takes Share of First as Leibrandt Mows Down Montreal, 3-2,” Atlanta Constitution, August 28, 1991: G1.

7 Jack Warner, “It’s Atlanta: City Goes Crazy Over Miracle Team,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 6, 1991: A1.

8 Bob Hertzel, “How the East Was Won: Pirates Turn Stormy Start Into Second Straight Title,” Pittsburgh Press, September 23, 1991: A1.

9 Gene Collier, “Team of the Moment, for the People,” Pittsburgh Press, October 3, 1990: E1. Oddsmakers favored the Pirates to reach the World Series. On the morning of Game One, Pittsburgh was a 6½-7½ favorite to win the NLCS. “The Latest Line,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 9, 1991: 28.

10 Bob Hertzel, “Pirates’ Game 1 Victory Relays a Message: Big Throw Cuts Down Braves,” Pittsburgh Press, October 10, 1991: D1; I.J. Rosenberg, “Braves Go Quietly 5-1: Drabek, Walk Give Pittsburgh Opening Victory,” Atlanta Constitution, October 10, 1991: G1.

11 Bob Hertzel, “Pirates Limping on Hop: Braves Bounce Into NLCS Tie,” Pittsburgh Pres, October 11, 1991: C1; I.J. Rosenberg, “It’s All Even, Steven!: After 26 Years, Atlanta Finally Wins a Postseason Game as Avery Quiets Pirates 1-0,” Atlanta Constitution, October 11, 1991: E1.

12 Bob Hertzel, “Braves’ 10-3 Win Reddens Pirates: Even Belliard Gets In on Act,” Pittsburgh Press, October 13, 1991: D1; I.J. Rosenberg, “Braves Rock the House 10-3!: Three Homers and Four Doubles Ignite Atlanta; Pirates Trail Series 2-1,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, October 13, 1991: F1.

13 Bob Hertzel, “Pirates Rely on Gloves to Stay in Fight: Atlanta Falters in Pinch,” Pittsburgh Press, October 14, 1991: C1; I.J. Rosenberg, “Braves’ Extra Effort Falls Short: Pirates Tie Series With 3-2 Victory on LaValliere’s Pinch Hit in 10th,” Atlanta Constitution, October 14, 1991: B1.

14 Bob Hertzel, “Chop Pooey: Pirates Laugh Last in Bizarre Game and Take 3-2 Command of Series,” Pittsburgh Press, October 15, 1991: C4; I.J. Rosenberg, “Braves Do the Suicide Stumble: Botched Bunt, Shaky Baserunning Produce Bizarre 1-0 Loss to Pirates,” Atlanta Constitution, October 15, 1991: E1.

15 I.J. Rosenberg, “Braves Slam L.A. 9-1: Bream, Avery Overpower Dodgers; West Lead Now 1½,” Atlanta Constitution, September 16, 1991: D1; I.J. Rosenberg, “Avery and Gant Beat L.A. 3-0,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, September 21, 1991: D1.

16 Steve Halvonik, “Drabek Outlook Is Good,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 10, 1991: 21.

17 Bob Hertzel, “Extra Rest for Drabek,” Pittsburgh Press, October 14, 1991: C1.

18 Bob Hertzel, “It Comes Down to One Game,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 17, 1991: D1.

19 Ron Cook, “Pitching Gives Braves Edge in Winner-Take-All Game 7,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 17, 1991: 15.

20 Cook, “Pitching Gives Braves Edge in Winner-Take-All Game 7.”

21 At 25 scoreless innings, it was a new NCLS record. St. Louis Cardinals pitchers had 22 scoreless innings in a row against the San Francisco Giants in 1987. Paul Meyer, “Braves Force Seventh Game: Avery Holds off Bucs Again, 1-0,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 17, 1991: 15.

22 Thomas Stinson, “After 26 Scoreless Innings, Gant Finds Way Home,” Atlanta Constitution, October 17, 1991: G4.

23 Stinson, “After 26 Scoreless Innings, Gant Finds Way Home.”

24 Bill Modoono, “Olson on Cloud Nine After Game-Winning Double,” Pittsburgh Press, October 17, 1991: D-5.

25 Drabek finished at 136 pitches.

26 Hertzel, “It Comes Down to One Game.”

27 Hertzel, “It Comes Down to One Game.”

28 Gene Collier, “Seventh-Game Decision an NLCS Rarity,” Pittsburgh Press, October 17, 1991: D4.

29 Collier, “Seventh-Game Decision an NLCS Rarity.”

30 Initially, Atlanta’s closer in 1991 was Juan Berenguer, who posted a 2.24 ERA in 49 relief appearances and limited opponents to a .189 batting average. In August, however, he suffered a stress fracture of his right arm while playing with his children and missed the rest of the regular season and all of the postseason. I.J. Rosenberg, “Clubhouse Confidential,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 20, 1991: F5. The Braves then obtained Peña, a 32-year-old veteran of three postseason teams in Los Angeles, in a three-player deal with the New York Mets on August 28; including this game, he was successful in all 14 regular season and NLCS save opportunities with the Braves. In the World Series, however, he blew a save in Atlanta’s Game Three loss and took the loss in Game Seven. Joe Strauss, “Braves Trade for Mets Reliever Pena,” Atlanta Constitution, August 29, 1991: F6.

31 Joe Strauss, “Pena Changeup Leaves Van Slyke out in the Cold,” Atlanta Constitution, October 17, 1991: G4.

32 Hertzel, “It Comes Down to One Game.”

33 Hertzel, “It Comes Down to One Game.”

34 Darryl Maxie, “Avery Told Cox He Was Ready for Hook,” Atlanta Constitution, October 17, 1991: G4.

35 As it happened, the Minnesota Twins, who won the American League West after finishing last in 1990, making them in the first AL team to finish in first after a last-place season, defeated the Braves in a seven-game World Series.

Additional Stats

Atlanta Braves 1
Pittsburgh Pirates 0
Game 6, NLCS

Three Rivers Stadium
Pittsburgh, PA


Box Score + PBP:

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