2000 Atlanta Braves: A Division Title But A Step Back

The Braves were the National League’s Team of the 1990s. They won the NL East in every completed season from 1991-99, and would have at least made the playoffs in the strike-shortened year of 1994. They won five National League pennants and captured the World Series title in 1995. The 2000 Atlanta Braves continued in the winning tradition, racking up another NL East banner. But this ’00 team also marked a modest step back.

Chipper Jones was coming off an MVP year in 1999 and the future Hall of Fame third baseman had another big season in 2000. Chipper racked up a stat line of a .404 on-base percentage/.566 slugging percentage, hit 36 homers and drove in 111 runs. In centerfield, Andruw Jones (no relation, as a quick glance at a photograph will make evident) delivered a stat line of .366/.541, hit 36 homers of his own, drove in 104 runs and played outstanding defense.

Andres Galaragga was 39-years-old, but the first baseman known as “The Big Cat” could still hit, with a stat line of .369/.526, 28 homers and 100 RBIs. Key support pieces were catcher Javy Lopez and shortstop Rafael Furcal. Lopez popped 24 homers, while Furcal’s OBP was a stellar .394. These five players were enough to put the Atlanta offense on the map, but depth would be an issue in this 2000 season.

The Braves’ most significant offseason move had been a deal with the San Diego Padres. Atlanta shipped outfielder Ryan Klesko and second baseman Bret Boone to the Padres, as part of a deal which brought back another second baseman in Quilvio Veras, leftfielder Reggie Sanders and first baseman Wally Joyner.

The deal should have worked out better than it did. Veras had a .413 on-base percentage before he tore up his ACL in July. His absence hurt the lineup for the balance of the season. Sanders did not have a good year.

Atlanta still got part-time help from veteran names ranging from Bobby Bonilla, the 38-year-old Joyner and 36-year-old infielder Walt Weiss. All had OBPs on the plus side of .350. But overall, the depth issue and a general inability to take walks (11th in the 14-team National League) kept the Braves offense at sixth in the NL in runs scored.

Of course the heart and soul of Atlanta Braves baseball in this era was starting pitching. And even though Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine were each 34-years-old, the future Hall of Famers, were still going strong. Glavine won 21 games with a 3.40 ERA and was the runner-up in the Cy Young voting. Maddux was right behind, winning 19 games with a 3.00 ERA and finishing third in the Cy balloting.

Kevin Millwood and John Burkett filled out the 3-4 spots in the rotation and had ERAs in the high 4s—although it should be noted that with 2000 still being very much the heart of the Steroid Era in baseball, an ERA in the high 4s wasn’t all that bad.

Terry Mulholland’s ERA was up over 5, but his versatility in the rotation and the bullpen gave manager Bobby Cox some flexibility. Mike Remlinger and Kerry Ligtenberg were solid setup relievers, with ERAs in the mid-3s. And the outspoken John Rocker, always good for a media quote, saved 24 games with a 2.89 ERA as the closer.

The bottom line? Atlanta’s pitching was still the best in the National League for staff ERA.

After losing five of their first nine games, the Braves started to heat up. They took two of three from a bad Milwaukee Brewers team and then ripped off a 14-game winning streak. In mid-May, Atlanta swept San Francisco, who was on their way to the NL West title. By Memorial Day, the Braves were riding high at 33-16, the best record and baseball and a 5 ½ game lead on the New York Mets.

June was marked by a World Series rematch with the New York Yankees, whom the Braves had been swept by the previous October. Atlanta lost two of three to a Yankee team headed for a third straight championship. The Braves bounced back by taking a series from the contending Boston Red Sox, but then lost three of four at shaky Philadelphia. June as a whole was mediocre and the division lead over the Mets shrunk to a game and a half on July 6.

Atlanta responded by going 8-3 on a road trip that pushed the margin over the Mets back out to five games. New York came to Turner Field on July 21 for a key weekend series.

The Jones’ delivered in the Friday night opener, with two hits apiece in the 2-3 spots of the batting order. Brian Jordan, batting right behind them, cleaned up with three RBIs. Even though Mulholland struggled early, Atlanta got control of the game and won 6-3.

Bats went quiet the rest of the weekend. The Braves mustered just four singles in Saturday’s 4-0 loss and only one run on Sunday. But the Sunday afternoon finale was saved by Andy Ashby, a starting pitcher acquired just a week and a half earlier for the stretch drive. Ashby won a 1-0 pitcher’s duel and gave Atlanta the series.

But the dog days of August were not kind to the Braves. They lost a series to contending Arizona and another one to San Francisco. Atlanta dropped two of three to eventual NL Central champ St. Louis. The Braves lost three of four to a decent Cincinnati team.

By Labor Day, the Braves were sitting on a record of 80-57. Still impressive, but they had been basically treading water sine the hot start. The Mets were back to within a half-game. The Giants had nudged ahead to the best record in the National League. The Braves were five games ahead of the Diamondbacks, who were chasing the NL East runner-up for what was then a single wild-card berth.

In short, they were still in good shape to make the playoffs, but it wasn’t guaranteed and the trend line was anything but positive.

Atlanta responded well, starting on the Tuesday after Labor Day. An 8-4 stretch was keyed by taking five of six from Arizona, a sequence that all but assured the Braves (along with the Mets) of at least making the postseason. The lead in the NL East was moved back out to three games. On September 18, New York came back to Atlanta for another big series.

Chipper, Jordan and Galaragga had two hits apiece in Monday night’s opener, a 6-3 win. On Tuesday, the Braves unloaded for seven runs in the second inning, with five hits, three walks and an error. Lopez had 3 RBIs in the 12-4 rout. Even though the Braves dropped the finale 6-3, they were plus-four games with just a week and a half to play.

The lead was still five games with six to play, but Atlanta dropped a few games down the stretch and didn’t formally clinch until the final Friday of the season. The standing tells us that they only prevailed by a single game, but the finish to this race was more comfortable than that.

Where the Braves had lost ground was in the National League standings overall. They were 95-67. San Francisco had won 97 and took the top seed in the NL playoffs. St. Louis had also won 95 and that August series win over Atlanta gave the Cardinals the season series over the Braves 4-3. That meant the Braves-Cards Division Series matchup would open in St. Louis.

Whether it was the loss of homefield advantage, the general malaise of the second half, or just the vagaries of baseball in a short series, the Division Series did not go well for Atlanta. This was a round they had historically dominated since its inception, winning the NLDS each of the previous five years. But this time, the Cardinals swept the Braves out in three straight.

It marked a turning point in the great Atlanta Braves run. Now, “turning point” needs to kept in perspective. This season started a six-year stretch (2000-05) in which the Braves won the NL East every single year. That would be the glory days for most franchises.

But in the context of coming off the 1990s, this marked Atlanta’s loss of control over the National League. They only reached the NLCS one more time, in 2001, and did not reach the World Series again during the Cox era. The franchise would wait until their 2021 championship season to again return to the Fall Classic.