PITTSBURGH -- A year ago this time, they were watching all these wondrous October theatrics on their friendly neighborhood screens, trying to forget those 97 games they had lost.
Today, through the miracle of the burgeoning tomahawk industry (not to mention a couple of guys named Avery and Smoltz), the Atlanta Braves are heading for the great Midwest to join the Minnesota Twins in baseball's first all-last-to-first World Series.
To get there, the Braves had to beat the Pirates two games in a row in Pittsburgh. But that turned out to be no problem for a team that never stopped winning big games in the last two months.
So in the seventh game last night, John Smoltz picked up where series Most Valuable Player Steve Avery had left off the night before. And the Braves blew out the Pirates, 4-0, in the disappointing anticlimax to a still-unforgettable playoff series.
"It was almost like it was fate," Braves catcher Greg Olson said. "I think it was fate that the Minnesota Twins won, and they were in last place a year ago, and then we won, and we were in last place a year ago. And now we're going to meet in the World Series.
"I think it's great for baseball. A lot of teams will be going to spring training now thinking they have a chance to win, thanks to us."
Of course, if those teams have to survive a playoff series like the one the Braves just went through, they might not have enough strength to make it through the year. It was a magnificent, gut-wrenching, pressure-packed series. But unlike the first six rTC games, Game 7 was a clunker.
There was no ninth-inning drama this time. No raging controversies. No winning runs thrown out at the plate.
There was only a three-run Braves uprising in the first inning off Pirates starter John Smiley, the one starter in this entire series who didn't remind anyone of Walter Johnson or Lefty Grove.
And after that, there was Smoltz. He gave up two hits to the first two batters. And then he gave up exactly four more hits the rest of the night.
He threw the Braves' third shutout of this series -- the most by one team in one playoff round. And as the Pirates head home for the winter, they will never forget that they came home for the sixth and seventh games needing to win just once. And instead, they never even scored once. In two games.
"We played 162 games this year, and I don't ever remember getting shut out back-to-back," said Pirates centerfielder Andy Van Slyke. "We've got too much talent in our lineup for that to happen. But it happened."
They did have one final shot last night that was almost a microcosm of the series: Eighth inning. Two on. Two out. Barry "MVP" Bonds at the plate in what almost certainly was his final at-bat here in the Bonds-Bonilla Age.
But Smoltz threw him just one pitch. Bonds lofted it to left for the third out. And his grim final totals read: 0-for-16 in the series with runners on base, and .148 altogether.
He, Bobby Bonilla and Van Slyke hit a combined .200 (15-for-75), with three RBIs. And nothing sums up the Pirates' futility -- or the Braves' pitching domination -- better than that.
You would have thought 10 days ago that if the Braves had shut those guys down like that, they might have swept this thing. Instead, they had to sweat out one of the most memorable playoff series ever just to have a chance to win it in seven games.
"Man, it's been intense all the way," third baseman Terry Pendleton said. "We had some intense games in '85 and '87 with the Cardinals, against the Dodgers and Giants. But nothing like this, not with all these one-run games."
Last night, though, they made sure in a hurry that this would not be another one-run, down-to-the-wire nail-biter. It took them exactly 23 pitches to blow this game open, on a walk, a single, a sacrifice fly and Brian Hunter's two-out, two-run homer that sailed around the leftfield foul pole.
So just like that, it was a 3-0 game. And Smiley was making the second-earliest exit of his entire career -- all 119 starts of it. His playoff legacy will go like this: In the two innings he pitched in this series, the Braves scored eight runs. In the other six innings, the Braves scored 11 runs. Not a record this particular 20-game winner will want to savor.
"I let my team down again," Smiley said afterward. "I have to live with it."
Only once all night did the Pirates really ever look as if they had a chance to get him off the hook. That came in the first inning, when Smoltz gave up singles to the first two hitters, and Van Slyke then mashed a 2-1 fastball deep into the autumn night.
"I thought it was gone," Olson said. "I think everyone in the park thought it was gone."
Maybe in July. But on this night, rightfielder David Justice ran it down at the fence. And that was as close as this game ever came to matching the drama of the six fabulous games that preceded it.