WS Game Five: Winning in a walk

Martin Maldonado

Maldonado, you’re no longer the weakest link. For now.

The good news is, the Braves can win in Houston. They proved it in Game Two. The bad news is, they’ll need to win there to win the World Series now.

The Astros didn’t let a little thing like a four-run hole after a single Game Five inning on a single swing drive them into an early season’s grave Sunday night.

Not with manager Dusty Baker flipping his lineup a little bit. Not with proving there are times a bases-loaded walk and a well-timed single in the middle of a game are more powerful than a grand slam out of the gates.

Not with the Astros’ heretofore, mostly dormant longtime core finding their bats. And, not with the Braves’ heretofore impenetrable bullpen proving they’re only human, after all, while their own usually tenacious bats mostly went askew following their early slicing, slashing, and thundering.

Their early, incendiary Game Five lead turned into a 9-5 loss to the Astros—but doesn’t have them up against the wall just yet.

“When we won [Game Four], it made it easier, I guess, coming into this one — but we knew it was going to be tough,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker postgame. “That’s just a lot of innings to cover (by relievers) against a club like this that swings a bat so well. The good news is we’ll take a day off and be in good shape.”

Meaning, including and especially, a rested bullpen as well as a re-grouping lineup. But it’s the opposite now of where they stood after Game Five of the National League Championship Series, after the Dodgers flattened them 11-2 in Los Angeles and despite still holding a 3-2 lead in the set.

Then, the Braves’ longtime first baseman and leader Freddie Freeman said they were still in good shape, they still led the set, and they liked their chances going back home to Atlanta. Now, Snitker’s putting the Brave face on and saying, “I’ll take it anywhere. If we win the World Series, it doesn’t matter where it is.”

Two years ago the Nationals proved that in abundance against the Astros. The Braves won’t be winning all needed Series games on the road, but with their Series lead now they need to win only once. It sounds simple when you say it. It’ll be anything but simple when they play it starting Tuesday night.

You can’t get any more profound a reminder of how tough a World Series can be than the Braves got when they only thought they had the Astros buried alive in the bottom of the first Sunday night.

They loaded the bases on Astros starter Framber Valdez with a leadoff base hit by Jorge Soler, a two-out single by Austin Riley, and a 3-1 walk to Eddie Rosario. Then Adam Duvall couldn’t wait to drive Valdez’s first service to him into the seats above the right field wall.

Hindsight’s almost as wonderful as foresight. Snitker has both in abundance. This time, though, hindsight was his BFF. “I’d rather we scored those runs in the seventh inning when you don’t have so much time to cover,” the manager said postgame. “We knew we had a long, long way to go in that game and anything could happen.”

Anything did happen, right away.

Heretofore slumber bat Alex Bregman hit with first and second and one out in the second and lined Braves opener Tucker Davidson’s the other way, all the way to the right center field wall, scoring Yuli Gurriel (one-out, one-hop single to center). Heretofore macaroni bat Martin Maldonado sent Kyle Tucker (full-count walk) home with a sacrifice fly cutting the Braves’ lead in half.

The Astros might have gotten one more run home but for the next batter—Valdez himself. Two swinging strikes around a ball in the dirt, then looking frozen at strike three on the inside forner after a ball just low. You still don’t want the designated hitter in the National League’s parks, old farts? Imagine if the Astros didn’t have to bat Valdez there. They might only have had a one-run deficit to end the frame.

No matter. Their unraveling of the Braves began the very next inning, when Dansby Swanson at shortstop misplayed Jose Altuve’s leadoff hopper, bumping the ball from his glove, recovering too late to throw the swift Mighty Mouse out at first. The rest of the Series will prove whether or not that’ll be this postseason’s most egregious Braves mistake of all.

Davidson walked Michael Brantley on a 3-1 count and Carlos Correa—another of the formerly dormant-at-the-plate Astro core—doubled Altuve home. A fly out later, Brantley scored on Gurriel’s ground out to short. Tie game. The tie lasted long enough for Freeman to lead the bottom of the third off with a mammoth full-count, tiebreaking blast half way up the right center field seats.

The 5-4 Braves lead lasted until the bases loaded and two out in the top of the fifth. Checking in at the plate: Maldonado, the Astros catcher still vying for the title of the single most automatic Astro out, after the Braves ordered Bregman walked on the house to load the pads in the first place.

What came next may yet prove one of the ten most powerful walks of all time. Maldonado looked at ball four inside from Braves relief star AJ Minter, sending Correa (leadoff one-hop base hit to center) strolling home with the re-tying run. Martin, you’re no longer the weakest link. For now.

Not only did Maldonado get daring enough to stand right on top of the plate during the entire plate appearance, the better to get an edge against Minter’s cutter, he even showed bunt as ball four sailed in. He didn’t do it for a laugh, either.

“He came back to the dugout yelling at me, ‘You like my Little League bunt?'” said Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron postgame. “He was prepared before he stepped up to the plate. He was ready for that at-bat. That made the difference.”

“I thought of it in the moment,” said a grinning Maldonado. “I wasn’t going to swing until 3-2. Maybe it would throw him off.”

Then Baker sent Marwin Gonzalez—returned to the Astros after a detour through Minnesota and Boston when the Red Sox released him in August—out to pinch hit for Jose Urquidy, whose shutout fourth set him up to get the Game Five “win.” Gonzalez dumped a floating quail into left center that hit the grass with room enough to send Gurriel and Bregman home with a 7-5 Astro lead.

Maldonado lined Tucker home with a base hit off another Braves pen man, Drew Smyly, in the seventh, and Correa—perhaps sensing Smyly was really taking one for the team now—singled Altuve home with the ninth and last run in the eighth.

Baker made a few pre-game moves to shake his lineup a bit, particularly moving the previously slumping Bregman down to bat seventh. The third baseman’s struggles at the plate this postseason became that alarming—to the manager and to Bregman himself.

“I’ve got a really weak top hand right now,” he said. “I’m releasing the bat behind me, which is causing a ton of problems.” He spent pre-game batting practise all but forcing himself into a two-handed swing finish. It helped when he knocked that second-inning RBI double. It damn near helped him hit one out his next time up.

“The second at-bat, I just missed what would have been a three-run homer, just barely missed under it,” Bregman said. “I’ve got to fix a weak top hand. Normally I hold (the bat) tight and squeeze it, kind of. I’m not able to do that right now.” Missing more than two months of the regular season didn’t exactly do him many favours, either.

For Minter’s part, he credited the Astros with finding their swings when they looked pinned otherwise. “I felt my stuff was just as sharp tonight as it was in other outings,” the lefthander said postgame, denying any fatigue factor from his previous prominent presence. “I felt like I was 1-2, 0-2 on every hitter. Those guys made quality swings on two strikes.

“I guess I could have made some better pitches with two strikes,” he continued, “but with Correa, I got him 0-2, left a cutter up, base hit. Got a good strikeout against Alvarez. And then Gurriel — cutter, backdoor cutter. He stuck his bat out there and had a good hit as well.”

Minter and the Braves now have down time enough to regroup and refresh. They still have the Series lead, even if the Astros and their fans might prefer to think the Braves have the Astros right where the Astros want the Braves.

The better news is, at least we’re rid of that infernal, obnoxious, demeaning Tomahawk Chop for the rest of the calendar year and—barring unforeseen wisdom from baseball’s governors—at least until next spring’s exhibition games begin.

Now, if only we could get rid of the Big Ben tolling, bonging chime that rings in both Truist Park and Minute Maid Park for the rest of this Series. Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls too early, too often, and it’s enough to drive a bat in the belfry bats.

Both parks’ public address people have a habit of sounding Big Ben before the home team has the win secured. It’s pretentious and presumptuous. Almost worse than the Truist Park organist’s too-insulting walk-up serenades to some Astro hitters. Good for perverse laughs among the home audience, good for Astro incentive at the plate. Brilliant.

Wise up, Braves and Astros. The Phillies’ people in Citzen’s Bank Park use Big Ben, too. But at least they have the brains to wait until the Phillies can take a win to the bank.

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