This Day In Marlins History: Johnson's double leads to win in Game 3 of 1997 NLCS

Mike Zarrilli

On this day in team history, Florida catcher Charles Johnson laced a three-run double against Atlanta in Game 3 of the 1997 NLCS. That gave the Marlins their eventual winning margin, 5-2, as they took the game and the lead in the series, 2-1.

A catcher known for his defense came through with some dramatic offense. On this date, October 10, 2013, Charles Johnson hit a three-run double off John Smoltz in the sixth inning against Atlanta, leading to a 5-2 win for the Marlins in Game 3 of the 1997 NLCS.

In the second-ever postseason series that pitted two teams from the South (Atlanta's matchup in its preceding NLDS with Houston was the first), Florida managed to split the first two games of the NLCS in Atlanta. All the Marlins had to do now to continue their surprising run to the first World Series appearance in franchise history was hold serve at home. Given the strength of the Braves, it certainly wouldn't be easy. Atlanta, which took the NL East crown ahead of second-place and Wild Card-winner Florida, won more games than any team in baseball (101) in 1997. (The Marlins did win eight of 12 regular season matchups between the two teams, though.) As they were throughout the decade, the Braves were led that year by their trio of aces in Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, and in a season in which he recorded the best ERA of his career, Denny Neagle was effectively a fourth ace. Smoltz got the ball in Game 3, while Florida sent 23-year-old rookie Tony Saunders to the mound. Smoltz recorded a 3.02 ERA in 35 regular season starts and had a 2.20 ERA in 18 postseason starts before 1997; in his 1997 postseason debut, he threw a complete game, allowing one run and striking out 11, in Atlanta's clinching Game 3 win over the Astros. Saunders had never pitched in the postseason and recorded a 4.61 ERA in 21 regular season starts. It appeared, then, that Atlanta had the advantage.

Yet Saunders was able to go toe-to-toe with Smoltz for a while. No team scored in the first three innings. In the top of the 4th, Atlanta's Fred McGriff hit a sac fly with the bases loaded and no outs to score the game's first run. Despite loading the bases agin later in the inning, Saunders managed to escape with that being the only damage. And Florida quickly tied it up in the bottom of the inning when Gary Sheffield went deep on the first pitch he saw from Smoltz for his second home run of the postseason. (It ended up being Florida's only home run in the NLCS.) After letting the first three batters reach base in the 6th, Saunders' night was done. As Saunders did in the 4th, reliever Livan Hernandez got out of the jam with only one run scoring on Javy Lopez's sac fly, and once again, the Marlins wasted no time in tying the game in the bottom of the inning, this time on first baseman Darren Daulton's double with two men on. That brought catcher Charles Johnson to the plate after Devon White was intentionally walked to load the bases. Atlanta was essentially saying it would rather face Johnson than White, and it's hard to fault the Braves for that. Johnson was known for his defense--and he was spectacular at that facet of the game, in the midst, in fact, of one of the best stretches of defensive play ever for a catcher--and though he had his best offensive year of his career to date in 1997, he still wasn't exactly a huge threat.

But he made the Braves pay for their bit of strategy anyway. Johnson laced a 2-2 pitch to the gap in left-center for a three-run double, putting Florida up 5-2. The combination of Hernandez, Dennis Cook and Robb Nen allowed just one Atlanta baserunner in the game's final three innings. Thanks to solid pitching and Johnson's big hit, Florida walked off the field with a 2-1 lead in the NLCS.

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