Javy Lopez baseball card rookie 1993 Fleer Ultra #9 (Atlanta  Braves): Sports Collectibles

If you’re just catching up to the series, here are the first 3:

After a brutal exit in the NLDS against the San Francisco Giants in 2002, the Atlanta Braves wasted no time trying to make another run at a championship. Just a couple weeks after the dust settled on the 2002 season, general manager John Schuerholz traded Tim Spooneybarger and prospect Tim Baker to the Marlins for Mike Hampton. The newest Atlanta Brave struggled a lot in two seasons with the Colorado Rockies, but Schuerholz took a gamble that getting him out of the pitcher’s graveyard that is Coors Field would give a jolt to Atlanta’s starting rotation.

One month later Schuerholz upgraded the starting rotation again, striking a deal with the Giants to acquire Russ Ortiz. The Braves were already very familiar with Ortiz; he won two out of the three games for San Francisco against Atlanta in the 2002 NLDS, including the series-clincher in game five.

The ageless wonder Julio Franco and franchise legend Greg Maddux were both re-signed, and just like that the Braves were ready to go in search of their 12th consecutive division title.

The team got off to a slightly slow start with a 4-8 mark in the first dozen games, but it was only a matter of time before this squad got the wheels spinning. The Braves didn’t lose consecutive games for over five weeks, ripping off an incredible 27-5 stretch to vault into first place.

One of the keys to the spurt was long-time starter turned closer John Smoltz. He led baseball in saves in 2002 with 55, and he picked up right where he left off by setting the all-time record for saves before the All Star Break with 34. That number included 16 of the wins during the 27-5 stretch in April and May. By the time the break rolled around the Braves had an 8.5 game lead in the NL East, and sent seven players to the Midsummer Classic in Chicago.

In addition to Smoltz and Ortiz, the Braves were also represented by the double play duo of Marcus Giles and Rafael Furcal, outfielders Andruw Jones and Gary Sheffield and catcher Javy Lopez.

Sheffield in particular had a stellar season, knocking in 132 runs and hitting .330. Sheffield finished third in NL MVP voting, and was joined in the top five by Javy Lopez. Lopez slugged 43 home runs and drove in 109 runs, both career highs. His .328 batting average was also his career high-water mark among seasons where he qualified with enough at-bats. Andruw Jones also finished with MVP votes checking in at 13th after he hit .277 with 36 home runs and 116 RBIs. Chipper Jones was his steady self with a .305 average and 106 RBIs, and all of it led to a 907-run outburst, the highest-scoring lineup in the National League.

The strength of the team was definitely its lineup, but the rotation was steady enough to support it. Maddux, Ortiz and Hampton all finished with an ERA at 4.00 or lower, leading the Braves to a 4.10 team ERA. Smoltz finished the year with a microscopic 1.12 ERA, and the Braves rounded it out with a 101-61 record that topped the Senior Circuit.

And of course, the highlight of the season did not come through the bats or the pitching but on defense. With the Braves and Cardinals tied 1-1 in St. Louis in the 5th inning of their game on August 10th, St. Louis pitcher Woody Williams hit a line drive to shortstop with runners on second and first and nobody out. But Furcal snared the liner, stepped on second base to double off Mike Matheney and tagged out Orlando Palmeiro for just the 12th unassisted triple play in baseball history.

Unfortunately, the highlight of the year came in a regular season game for a reason. The offense that averaged 5.6 runs per game during the season only managed to push 15 runs across in five NLDS games against the Chicago Cubs, dropping the series in five games. In all three games the Braves lost, they failed to even pick up more than five hits.

A year of slugging an offensive dominance helped put another blue banner on the Turner Field wall, but a poorly-timed slump in early October prevented it from turning into a red one.