Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Braves Make a Run

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TRIVIA QUESTION:  Who did the Atlanta Braves lose to in the National League Playoffs in 1969?
When Early Wynn retired as a member of the Chicago White Sox in 1964, Hoyt Wilhelm became the oldest White Sox player at age 41. Wilhelm joined the Sox in 1963.  

 If you can say anything about the Braves of the 1960's, it was the team was consistent. Only once from 1960-1968 did they fail to win 80-plus games, and that year (1967) they won 77. And they were almost always floating around the middle of the pack. From 1962 to 1968 they never finished higher than fifth. Then with the arrival of Divisional Play in 1969 they catapulted to the top and took the National League West (despite being in Atlanta), before losing in the divisional round. They jumped from 81-81 to win 93 games in 1969. It didn't last long. The decade of the 70's saw the Braves return to mediocrity finishing over .500 only twice and mostly mired in bottom half of the division.  
Why then did all of a sudden this team emerge to become something different? A key move may have been the arrival of Orlando Cepeda. Just two  years removed from his MVP season with the Cardinals, the former Giant slugger was traded to the Braves for future Hall of Famer, Joe Torre. Torre, with the Braves from the start, was a catcher with diminishing skills behind the plate which did impact his skills alongside the plate. 

The Braves needed a first baseman to replace Deron Johnson and Cepeda was available. It was a great trade for both teams. Torre went on to become a batting champion with the Cards and Cepeda slugged 22 homers in the Braves run to the Division title. Teaming with Henry Aaron who blasted 44 homers again and Rico Carty's .342 season, Atlanta would put some huge games together. Carty made the All-Star team despite not being on the ballot. Gillette, the sponsor, left him off and in a Gillette commercial a spokesman said "Congratulations Rico on getting all those write in votes," to which Carty responded "Thank you Gillette for making it all necessary."
Lum Harris managed a strong bench and worked his magic. He maneuvered the likes of Tony Gonzalez (.294), Bob Tillman (12 homers) and Tito Francona (.295), who along with starters Sonny Jackson, Felix Milan, Clete Boyer and Felipe Alou, gave the Braves a formidable offense. 

The club was third in the league in homers, hits and batting average while finishing fifth in runs scored. Of course weakened pitching due to expansion helped those numbers along but then, all the non-expansion teams had the same advantage. Perhaps one of the keys to the Braves success at the plate was their lack of strike outs. Not a man on the club struck out 100 times. Boyer led them with 87 in 144 games. Five of the starters K'd less than 40 times and Aaron only whiffed 47 times. The teams 665 K's was the lowest in the league. 

When it came to pitching, HOF knuckle-baller Phil Niekro spent the first of three seasons with knuckle-baller Hoyt Wilhelm, and he won 23 games with a 2.56 ERA. He completed 21 of his 35 starts. He even Saved one game. He tossed four Shutouts and "Finished" four games which means he relieved five times that season. 

Ron Reed won 18, Pat Jarvis and George Stone picked up 13 wins each. Aging Milt Pappas contributed six more and the emergence of Cecil Upshaw was key. The Braves' closer saved 27 games while pitching in 62 and posting a 2.91 ERA in 105 relief innings. Paul Doyle pitched in nearly 40 games with a 2.08 ERA and while Wilhelm at 46 was limited, he did contribute. In 12 innings his ERA was 0.73.

It was also a year future stars were getting their starts. A 20 year old Dusty Baker, 23 year old Ralph Garr and 22 year old Darrell Evans were playing a role in the teams success as well. 

You could say they owed their success to a hot start and a lack of a losing streak. They won 9 of their first 11 and by May 22nd, they were 25-11. At the All Star Break they were 56-42 but only up by a game. Their longest losing streak was five games and they clinched it by winning 10 straight before losing the last game of the regular season. By then it did not matter, they won the West by going 20-6 in September.

Another key was they were 40-14 against three teams in their division, Houston, Cincinnati and San Diego while they were even with both the Dodgers and Giants at 9-9.  They only teams they played under .500 were the Cubs and the Mets. It was an amazingly consistent year for the Atlanta Braves as they were never under .500 during the season.

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