Brief and Brilliant; Steve Avery’s time in Atlanta

Stephen Dunn | Getty Images

Stephen Dunn | Getty Images

His hat was pulled down low. His blue eyes were barely visible as he stared the batter down. Runners on first and third; he would pitch out of the stretch. He was barely clinging to a 1-0 lead in his first career postseason experience. He pulled back into a fluid, simple motion and hurled the ball towards the plate. It hit its mark; strike 1. He had the hitter where he wanted him on that chilly, windy night in Pittsburgh. He always said the cold didn’t bother him. He was from Michigan. He pitched in snow. He was ready for this weather. Ready for this scene. Ready to do his job. He looked in again at the batter, Andy Van Slyke. Unphased, he tossed the ball as confidently as he had all night. Van Slyke swung mightily and met the ball weakly. The All-Star Silver Slugger couldn’t do any more than push the ball softly to the shortstop. Steve Avery had dominated him just as he had dominated the rest of the Pittsburgh Pirates. He threw 8.1 innings of shutout ball that night and a few nights later he would come back and shut them out for 8 more innings. No Pirate would reach 2nd base. Avery was heralded by journalists and managers as one of the greatest pitchers in baseball at just 21 years old. Steve Avery had been a major leaguer for less than two years. His career had been brief to that point, but it was already brilliant.

It had only been three years since Avery was drafted out of high school. Under the tutelage of his dad—a former Tigers minor leaguer—Steve had gone from scrawny kickballer to a 6’4″,180 pound mass of focused baseball talent. In high school, Steve developed to the point that opposing teams were applauding their teammates for hitting foul balls off of him. In a district final, the young lefty took the mound and won both games of a double-header while also hitting 3 home runs. He was a blue chip prospect and destined for greatness. The Braves were committed to building a team through drafting great pitching. When they took Steve Avery in the third round of the 1988 draft, they expected him to be ready by the 1993 season. Avery would defy those expectations.

Avery spent just over a year on the farm. The competition was no match for his talent. As he burned through assignment after assignment, Braves managers and scouts were certain that his stuff was already major league ready. He was the best pitcher and best athlete on every team they moved him to. According to one coach, Steve could have been moved to any position in the field and been major league ready in less than 2 years. At just 20 years old, Avery was promoted to the majors.

Throughout his high school and minor league career, Avery was known for his focused, unflappable demeanor on the mound. He would often say that he was just laid back. Others saw a greater level of intensity; an icy focus that took over when he was holding the ball for his team. But for all his in-game discipline he was still just a kid. When he made it to Cincinnati to join the Atlanta Braves at their hotel, he was so excited that he left all of his luggage in the taxi. It was a rocky start that only got rockier when he pitched his first game. Lasting only until the third inning, Avery surrendered 8 earned runs.

Steve Avery

Topps 89 | The Baseball Card Cyber Museum

Avery was too talented for his welcome game defeat to keep him from pitching in the majors. The Braves were also too bad for it to matter whether he did well or not. Nine days after Avery’s debut, manager Russ Nixon was fired and then GM Bobby Cox stepped into the role. He let Avery pitch the rest of the year, confident that it was only a matter of time before his prospect became a star. In 1990, Avery pitched 99 innings over 21 appearances. He had a 5.64 ERA on a Braves team with the worst combined ERA in the NL. He wasn’t great yet and neither were the Braves.

Avery used 1990 and the ensuing offseason to work on his approach. His fastball had gotten him to the show, but to stick around, he needed to be more than a one-pitch starter. Leo Mazzone worked with Avery to develop confidence in his changeup and curveball. The left-hander made expert use of both throughout the 1991 season which saw the Braves famously go from worst to first. He pitched 210.1 innings in 35 games. Never missing his turn in the rotation, Avery was Atlanta’s second best starter behind the eventual National League Cy Young winner, Tom Glavine. Glavine had an unbelievable year in 1991, but Avery’s production was right up there with the slightly more experienced lefty. Avery compiled a 5.2 bWAR that year and helped his team get their first taste of postseason baseball in 9 years. Down the stretch, Avery tossed two beautiful games in a week’s time against the Los Angeles Dodgers. These were crucial division wins that kept the Braves in a very close pennant race. Taking on Dodgers hitters like Brett Butler, Darryl Strawberry, and Eddie Murray, Avery threw a complete game and allowed just 1 run on September 15. 5 days later he threw another complete game against them and got the shutout. The Braves went on to win the NL West thanks mostly to the work of Steve Avery, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. The “Young Guns,” as the trio came to be known, were headed to Pittsburgh to take on the “Killer B’s” for the National League title.

Avery was younger than everybody on the team, but he had matured quickly. Bobby Cox made special note of this to the press when Avery held his own against the reigning Cy Young winner, Doug Drabek. Avery not only pitched beautifully, but also made sure to let Bobby know that he was ready to come out after 8.1 innings. Avery simply observed to his manager that he wasn’t their best chance to win at that point. Avery had the professional poise and discipline at 21 that few players acquire over an entire career. With such maturity guiding his extraordinary talent, Avery led Atlanta to the World Series with a record-setting 16.3 innings of shutout baseball against a lineup that included names like Bonilla, Bonds, and Bell. The Braves lost the World Series to Minnesota in 7 games, and the team dropped both of the games Avery started. He pitched well in both, though compiling 13 IP, 5 ER, 8 K, and just 1 BB. With those two quality starts, Avery proved that the NLCS excellence was not just a miraculous fluke. The youngster’s talent was clear, and he had shown that he was ready to handle the biggest of stages.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Avery left his mental toughness and intensity on the field. In the clubhouse, he had gotten comfortable. It did not take long for Avery’s wit and confidence to lead guys like Deion Sanders, Otis Nixon, and Tom Glavine to view him as an peer and even a close friend. Fishing with Otis, golfing with Glavine, clothes shopping with Sanders, and sharing his rock and roll cassettes with anybody who would listen, Avery was coming into his own professionally and personally. It was all effortless for him. It was like it was meant to be. He was a star and it suited him just fine.

Avery was so comfortable, in fact, that he developed a routine of taking naps before most games—always before he pitched. Ted Turner first made this discovery for himself as he went to talk to Avery before the kid’s game 2 start. With so much invested in his team, Turner was apoplectic. Only Jane Fonda kept him from waking Steve up. She turned the scene around by blowing Avery a kiss and wishing him luck, drawing the playful ire of Otis Nixon and numerous others in the clubhouse.

After the ’91 playoffs Avery’s modest, relaxed nature would be tested by accolades and praise from all over baseball. Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone were unabashed in calling him the best young pitcher they had ever coached. Opposing managers said he was already as good as Steve Carlton ever was. Andy Van Slyke labeled him, “Poison Avery.” There were Cy Young predictions, Sports Illustrated features, TV specials, and dozens of newspaper mentions. Avery’s response to all of this varied between casual indifference, inviting reporters to meet his dog, and admitting that he wasn’t sure about the Carlton comparisons because he had never seen him pitch. Avery stayed down to earth while his status was rising like a rocket. He lived at home with his parents where he played video games and always carried a Super Soaker for whenever the neighborhood kids tried to get the jump on him. Fame had not been able to get to him any better than the National League hitters had. The 22 year old entered the 1992 season as a major part of a postseason team’s rotation.

He continued to be great that season. Avery had mastered a pinpoint fastball and confounded hitters with his changeup and curve; a breaking pitch which John Smoltz would later say was as good as Clayton Kershaw’s. He finished the year with just an 11-11 record, but that was largely owed to the fact that he was only given 25 runs of support over the course his 11 losses. He upped his innings total to 233.2 innings over the season, and once again helped his team secure a division title down the stretch. The Braves went to their second straight NLCS. Once again, they faced the Pirates, and once again, Avery started game 2. He shut out the Pirates for 6 more innings before surrendering 4 runs. His newfound struggles continued in game 5 where he lasted only a single out and gave up 4 earned runs. Poison Avery, it seemed, may have been mortal after all.

The lefty would not let his problematic starting performances keep him from helping his team, though. In a dramatic game 7, Avery would return to remind the Pirates who he was. The Braves offense had not shown up yet that evening, and the Pirates held a 2-0 lead in the 7th inning. Mike Stanton came on in relief for Atlanta and gave up a first pitch single to LaValliere. Stanton got Lind to lineout, and Drabek laid down a sac bunt to move LaValliere to second. Bobby Cox called for the intentional walk and then handed the ball to starting pitcher, Pete Smith. Smith walked Jay Bell on four straight pitches. The bases were now loaded with 2 outs. There was no guarantee the Braves offense would get going, but it was certain that the team could not afford to surrender any more of a lead. Cox went out to get Pete Smith. He looked to the bullpen and made the signal for the lefty. He called for Steve Avery.

Avery took the mound as a reliever for the first time in his major league career. It had only been a year since his two historic postseason starts against Pittsburgh. Now he was coming off of two starts in which he knew he had let his team down. This was his chance to help his team win again. He just needed to get one Pirate hitter out. That hitter was Andy Van Slyke. Van Slyke stood in the box and looked at the kid he called Poison. Avery was focused. The lefty had a job to do. He tested Van Slyke with a ball out of the zone. The hitter didn’t budge. Avery was undeterred. The pressure would not get to him. The next three pitches hit their marks, and Van Slyke swung and missed at one and fouled off the other two. Avery led the count 1-2. He looked in and nodded at Berryhill’s call for the fastball. The pitch came in and Van Slyke hit it hard. The ball carried high and deep to centerfield as everybody in Atlanta held their breath. Just at the track, the ball fell to earth and into the glove of Otis Nixon. Avery had gotten the Braves out of danger. He went on to pitch the 8th inning and give the Braves offense more time to put together something magical; which, of course, they did. Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS is rightly remembered for Francisco Cabrera’s hit and Sid Bream’s slide in the 9th. It’s a seminal moment in Braves playoffs history. In all likelihood it would not have mattered, though, if Steve Avery had not saved the game a couple innings earlier. He was a key part of a great team victory, and the Braves were the NLCS champions yet again.

After the celebrations, the Braves went on to face Toronto in the World Series. Avery pitched 2 games against the Blue Jays. Neither was spectacular, but both were enough to keep his team in it; which was all that mattered to him. He was a singular talent; a once in a generation athlete, but he just wanted to do his job and have fun with his fellow players. After 3 years in the league, it felt to most in the game like he was already bound for greatness. Few would have believed that the best and the worst of his career were just around the corner.

Ronald C. Modra | Sports Imagery | Getty Images

Ronald C. Modra | Sports Imagery | Getty Images

During the 1993 offseason, Cy Young winner Greg Maddux turned down the Yankees and took $6 million less to play with the Atlanta Braves. Glavine, Smoltz, and Avery played a major role in that decision. Maddux saw the already outstanding rotation as his best chance to win a World Series and knew he had to join them. The four meshed instantly and along with Pete Smith were heralded as one of the greatest starting rotations of all time. The season that followed would confirm this claim as fact. None of the big four missed a single turn in the rotation. The top 4 starters combined for a 3.08 ERA over 972.4 innings pitched. They had 18 complete games between them with each one throwing at least one CGSO. Led by the storied rotation, the Braves would lose more than 2 games in a row only 4 times all season.

Steve Avery’s control was as good as it would ever get. The lefty walked just 43 batters in 1993. Noted walk hater, Greg Maddux walked 52. Maddux, however, was the only pitcher on the team to best Steve Avery’s 2.94 ERA. These statistical comparisons would have undoubtedly been brought up between the pitchers. They were a notoriously competitive group–Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, and Avery–spending their off-days making wild bets on the finest golf courses in the country or on the makeshift putt-putt course Avery had constructed in the Fulton County Stadium Clubhouse. After one would pitch a shutout, it was made abundantly clear that the next starter was expected to continue the scoreless streak or be shamed. This competitiveness pushed each man to a great season. Maddux won another Cy Young with Glavine finishing third in the voting. Avery and Smoltz each threw in the All Star game. The Braves would win 104 games and battle their way through a legendary chase against the Giants to make their third-straight playoffs. Avery stood among those 3 future hall of famers as an equal. He was not the fourth man, he was as good as or better than Maddux, Smoltz, and Glavine on any given day.

Avery suffered his first injury shortly before the postseason began. In a September 12 game against the Padres, Avery left early due to pain in his shoulder. He made his next start in the rotation; 7 shutout innings against the Mets, but exhibited some signs of minor struggle in his final three starts of the regular season. Avery seemingly overcame his shoulder pain against the Phillies in the NLCS. As the game 1 and game 5 starter, Avery gave the Braves 13 solid innings and put them in a good position to win each time. Unfortunately, the Braves would go home without a World Series or even NLCS trophy that season. The Phillies took them in 6 games. Fans, management, and players were hopeful for 1994, though. Thanks to Uncle Ted’s deep pockets, the rotation was still going to be in Atlanta for years to come. Going into the ’93 season, Avery was the only one of the four without a high-dollar, long-term deal. He would finally get one in 1994. The new contract was about the only thing that would come easy for the affable lefty from Michigan in the next year.

Mitchell Layton | Getty Images

Mitchell Layton | Getty Images

The 1994 season did not begin well for Avery. He lasted only 4.1 innings in his first start and finished April with a 5.43 ERA. He had other things on his mind. Steve and his wife Heather had their first son, Evan, in April, 1994. Evan was born 3 months premature and had a multitude of life-threatening complications. Avery’s off-days, formerly spent playing golf and honing his craft with the other starters, were now spent travelling back and forth to be with his family in Detroit. He had occasional flashes of his inherent brilliance, but often showed a lack of stamina and control. Avery began to exhibit mechanics issues that had many speculating he was concealing an injury. Avery denied these suggestions, but was openly happy once the ’94 season was ended early due to the strike. He had lost some zip on his fastball and no longer changed speeds with any confidence. His natural poise was replaced by a noticeable frustration which confounded even Leo Mazzone. Avery was still a serviceable starter, but it was obvious he was struggling. He was not developing on the excellence of the previous two years.

Evan Avery pulled through healthily after months of battling, and Steve got some much needed rest. All in the Braves organization were beyond happy for Steve’s family and hoped that he would be able to return to form the next year. Avery had peaked in 1993, however. The struggles of 1994 marked the beginning of his descent.

Avery pitched poorly throughout 1995, and the sporadic exhibitions of greatness that had shown up in 1994 were seen even more rarely. Plagued by further mechanics issues and loss of confidence, Avery turned to just trying to throw the ball harder. It did not work, and he ended up playing quietly through a number of arm issues. He worked hard trying to recapture the fire with which he had burst into the league only 5 years before. By season’s end, Avery was viewed as an unreliable option by fans and pundits alike. The Braves won the division again, regardless. They were headed back to the postseason and it was widely agreed that a 3 man rotation of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz would be the best option to take them to a championship. Popular wisdom won out initially, and Avery only played in the NLDS as a relief pitcher. He gave up a run, securing just 2 outs in a game the Braves would eventually win over the Rockies. The Braves top 3 starters made sure the team advanced to the NLCS where Bobby Cox made a very unpopular decision. The manager gave the ball to Steve Avery for game 4 against the Reds.

Many were unhappy but were willing to forgive the managerial indiscretion since the Braves were up 3 games to 0 already. Avery took the mound against Pete Schourek in front of a capacity crowd at Fulton County Stadium. He was back in the postseason where he had made his name. He gripped the ball and settled back into his simple, fluid motion all night long. Avery, the unreliable option, pitched 6 shutout innings, struck out 6 Reds, and completed the NLCS sweep of Cincinnati. They were bound for the World Series once again. And, at least for the moment, Steve Avery was back with them after 2 years of struggles.

Avery had done his job, and all assumed he would return to the bullpen. The Indians were too good to throw the struggling lefty out there when Greg Maddux on short rest was an option. The Braves took two of the first three games, and up came the fourth spot in the rotation. Bobby Cox did not hesitate. He had selected Avery out of high school in 1988. He had become Avery’s manager within days of the youngster’s major league debut. He knew him, and on that October night at Jacobs Field, Bobby Cox gave the ball to Steve Avery. In return, Avery gave his beloved manager 6 more innings of 1 run baseball. After the Braves won the game 5-2, Cox searched out Avery and simply told him, “Thanks. Good job.” It was brief and understated, but both men knew how much it meant to the pitcher. Avery’s decline had been apparent all year. At just 25 years old he had dealt with questions about what was wrong with him and why he was no longer the, “Real Steve Avery.” After a season of ineffectiveness, he was given the affirmation he had been missing in those simple words from Bobby Cox. He didn’t know if he would ever rebound, but for that moment, he had done his job well.

DOUG COLLIER | AFP | Getty Images

DOUG COLLIER | AFP | Getty Images

The Braves won the World Series three days later. Avery got his ring after 5 seasons in the league. Despite regular season struggles, he had played a role in his team earning the 1995 championship. With some of his spark back, Avery started out the 1996 season strong, but soon injury and ineffectiveness would return. He lost even more velocity on his fastball and control of his other pitches became unreliable again. He was replaced in the rotation by Denny Neagle and after the season was let go by the Braves. Avery would spend time with the Red Sox, Reds, Tigers, and a number of minor league clubs, including some in the Braves farm system. However, he would never return to greatness nor wear an Atlanta uniform again. After less than 6 seasons, his time in Atlanta had come to an end.

Avery began to come into his prime at 21 years old and that prime ended when he was only 24. The dreams and expectations that many had for him faded away while the champagne was still drying from his 1991 performance against Pittsburgh. Yet the heartbreak of his early decline could never take that performance or any others away from him. He will forever be the pitcher who shut out a team of great hitters for 16+ innings in his first 2 postseason appearances. His eventual struggles are made all the more upsetting because of how fun he was to watch on and off the field from that 1991 season through his 1993 peak. There will always be an element of tragedy to the story of Steve Avery in Atlanta. It should not be the defining element, though. He was a shining star in the early years of Atlanta’s rise to perennial excellence. He was–for a time–as good as those members of the Braves pantheon; Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz. He reached those heights in just a few short years. His time in Atlanta was brief, and it was brilliant.

Sources: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Archives, The New York Times Archives, Sports Illustrated, Baseball-Reference.com, MLB.com, ESPN.com, Getty Images, The Baseball Card Cyber Museum

Brad is a person who has seen every episode of every Star Trek series. He holds a couple of degrees in religion/theology and at various points in his life has considered becoming a professional chef, filmmaker, MMA fighter, outlaw country star, and lab doctor. Instead Brad now spends much of his time making Big Grocery look good on the internet and doing alcohol. He also sometimes writes things.

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