In 1992, after losing the National League Championship Series the previous two seasons, baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates were one out away from finally winning the NLCS and going to the World Series. Instead, the Atlanta Braves scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth for a 3-2 win, handing the Pirates what many consider the most painful loss in baseball (if not all of sports) history.
The reason the 1992 NLCS stands out is because everyone knew it was the very last chance the Pirates would have for years to come. And that’s turned out to be far more accurate than anyone could have imagined.
If you were a Braves fan in 1992, congratulations. But from the Pirates’ perspective, the 1992 NLCS was the most painful loss in baseball ever.
Most painful loss in sports history: Background
The Pirates had an NL East dynasty going in the early 1990s, with three straight division titles. Baseball all-stars like Andy Van Slyke, Bobby Bonilla and Barry Bonds and manager Jim Leyland made the team a force. But back-to-back losses in the National League Championship Series kept the Bucs from a shot at the World Series.
Most painful loss in sports history: The 1992 season
The 1992 season was the Pirates’ last shot at baseball glory. MVP Barry Bonds was in his last season before free agency, and it was a given that he wasn’t going to re-sign with Pittsburgh. Pitcher Doug Drabek, former Cy Young Award winner, was also a pending free agent, and though some held out hope he’d return, most realized he’d be gone as well.
Leyland did the best managerial job of his career in 1992. Only one Pirate (Bonds, with 34) hit more than 14 home runs. One two pitchers (Drabek and Randy Tomlin) won more than 10 games. Forgettable names like Orlando Merced and Alex Cole were fixtures in the starting lineup. But despite all of that, plus the loss of Bonilla to free agency after 1991 and the offseason trade of John Smiley, a 20-game winner, the Pirates were one of the best teams in baseball, finishing 96-66, nine games ahead of the Montreal Expos.
Leyland’s use of the bullpen was particularly masterful. Without an established closer, Leyland went with a closer-by-committee setup that worked brilliantly all season (until game 7 of the NLCS, anyway).
Most painful loss in sports history: 1992 NLCS recap
Drabek got pulled after less than five innings in both games 1 and 4, and the Braves opened a 3-1 Series lead. But the Bucs battled back to tie the series 3-3 thanks to a complete game from veteran Bob Walk and two from rookie knuckleball pitcher Tim Wakefield, who’d come out of nowhere to post an 8-1 regular season record that was crucial in the team’s success down the stretch.
Game 7 in Atlanta was the big moment. The Pirates crept to a 2-0 lead and Drabek made it stick, working out of several jams, including a bases-loaded, no-outs situation in the bottom of the 6th inning.
In the bottom of the ninth, Drabek couldn’t retire any of the first three batters (one reached on a critical error by Jose Lind) and was finally pulled for Stan Belinda, whose 18 saves had led the Pirates during the season. Two outs later, the Braves had cut the margin to 2-1 and had the bases loaded, but they were down to light-hitting pinch-hitter Francisco Cabrera.
As baseball fans remember, Cabrera lined a single to left and two runs scored, with slothful former Pirate Sid Bream beating Bonds’ throw to the plate for the winning run. The Braves celebrated while the Pirates were stunned.
Most painful loss in sports history: Summary
The city of Pittsburgh was in mourning for some time after the loss, and the team has never enjoyed success again. Not only have the Pirates not contended since 1992, they haven’t had so much as a .500 season – their streak of 18 (and counting) consecutive losing seasons is the longest in pro sports history.
Most painful loss in sports history: Sources