Nobody took the Braves, perennial losers, seriously until the final few weeks, when they battled the Los Angeles Dodgers to the wire and won the National League West on the next-to-last day of the season.
Now, the American League-champion Minnesota Twins will face these underdogs after the Braves eliminated the Pittsburgh Pirates, 4-0, last night at Three Rivers Stadium in the deciding game of the NL Championship Series.
Atlanta became the third team in the 23-year history of the NL playoffs to win the series by taking the final two games on the road. It is the first pennant for the franchise since 1958, when the team was in Milwaukee.
This one was devoid of the tension and drama of the previous three games, all one-run decisions.
The Braves took charge in the first inning behind right-handed pitcher John Smoltz and rookie Brian Hunter's two-run homer, and never relented against the team that posted the top record )) in the major leagues (98-64).
"We thought if we could jump in right away, maybe we could put their heads down a little bit," said Hunter. "Then we could carry it over and they'd say, 'Here we go again.' "
John Smiley, a 20-game winner who was pounded for five runs in two innings of a 10-3 Pirates loss in Game 3, was the victim again last night, failing to last through the first inning.
"The two games I pitched blew my season out of the water," said Smiley. "I felt like I lost 20 games."
Pittsburgh answered with a rally in the bottom half, but it fizzled when Andy Van Slyke, Bobby Bonilla and Barry Bonds again could not follow two hits with any RBI power.
Van Slyke hit a drive to the wall in right field, but David Justice caught the ball, and the Killer B's made routine outs. The Pirates had three runners in scoring position the rest of the night.
"We were down 3-0, but we hadn't even batted yet," said Pirates manager Jim Leyland. "We still had nine opportunities ahead of us. The key was the ball Andy hit. He hit it hard, but it's an out."
Pittsburgh, which finished with 27 consecutive non-scoring innings at home, never had lost a postseason Game 7, winning five in the World Series, the last two over the Baltimore Orioles, in 1971 and 1979. But the Pirates scored only one run in the final three games, and only five at home (all in Game 1) in the entire series.
"We had a big edge coming home and only needing to win one of two," said Leyland. "You figure you ought to be able to do that. But we didn't get it done. I'm disappointed, but you tip your hat to the Atlanta Braves. What a great story. Last place to the pennant."
The Pirates' final threat was in the eighth inning against Smoltz, with runners at first and third with two out and Bonds at the plate.
But, typically of the series, Bonds flied out routinely, assuring that the NL West would capture its fourth straight pennant. Smoltz breezed through the ninth and finished with a six-hitter.
"To be honest, I didn't think we'd shut them down this completely," said Smoltz. "But I thought we could score more runs, too."
The right-hander said it was "huge" to get out of the first inning without allowing a run. "I didn't want the crowd to get back in it. But I wasn't expecting to get out of that with no runs scoring.
"I could have waited as long as it took. But you can't say enough about what this team has done when it comes to winning a big game."
Atlanta's fourth run, also driven home by Hunter, was almost inconsequential. It came in the fifth inning against Bob Walk, who joined with Roger Mason and Stan Belinda to keep the Braves from pulling out of sight.
But the way the Braves pitched, that didn't matter. The winning staff combined for a 1.57 ERA, the lowest in the NL playoffs since 1983, and pitched three shutouts.
They held the three Pirates outfielders, Van Slyke, Bonilla and Bonds, to a combined .200 average, one homer and three RBI. Bonds did not drive in a run.
"All through the years of baseball, good pitching has beaten good hitting," said Braves manager Bobby Cox. "They shut us down also. You wish for shutouts, and we got them. That's awfully hard to do against the Pittsburgh Pirates."
Now the World Series everyone wants to see unfolds starting tomorrow night. "I think it will be terrific," said Cox.
(Atlanta wins series, 4-3)
Game 1 -- Pittsburgh 5, Atlanta 1
Game 2 -- Atlanta 1, Pittsburgh 0
Game 3 -- Atlanta 10, Pittsburgh 3
Game 4 -- Pittsburgh 3, Atlanta 2
Game 5 -- Pittsburgh 1, Atlanta 0
Game 6 -- Atlanta 1, Pittsburgh 0
Yesterday -- Atlanta 4, Pittsburgh 0
Braves vs. Twins
Tomorrow -- Atlanta (Glavine 20-11) at Minnesota (Morris 18-12), 8:29 p.m.
Sunday -- Atlanta (Avery 18-8) at Minnesota (Tapani 16-9), 8:40 p.m.
Tuesday -- Minnesota (Erickson 20-8) at Atlanta (Smoltz 14-13), 8:29 p.m.
Wednesday -- Minnesota at Atlanta, 8:26 p.m.
Thursday -- Minnesota at Atlanta, 8:26 p.m.*
Oct. 26 -- Atlanta at Minnesota, 8:26 p.m.*
Oct. 27 -- Atlanta at Minnesota, 8:40 p.m.*
-- if necessary.