WS Game Six: Bang!! Zoom!!!

Jorge Soler

Jorge Soler’s detonation in the bottom of the third. (Fox Sports screen capture.)

Blowhard bus driver Ralph Kramden only threatened to bang-zoom his acid but loving wife Alice to the moon in the days of old. (She might have clobbered him if he’d really hauled off.) The Braves may not have threatened to do it to the Astros, exactly, but that’s what they did to win the World Series Tuesday night.

The way Braves starting pitcher Max Fried and relief aces Tyler Matzek and Will Smith worked the Astros over, the Braves needed only one bang-zoom, after all. Getting three and a half was beyond gravy. It was a six course meal crowned with a baked Alaska dessert.

Shutting out the team that led the entire Show with 5.3 regular season runs per game averaged, and the postseason with 6.7 runs per game averaged, also does that for you. However brilliant Fried, Matzek, and Smith were on the mound, though, it goes for naught if you can’t bring anyone home.

But when Jorge Soler hit that monstrous three-run homer in the bottom of the third, it let the air out of Minute Maid Park almost as fast as it took away what wind remained to the Astros. Now . . . everybody, breathe again.

The sun didn’t fall. The heavens didn’t go to hell. The great oceans didn’t dry up and blow away. The stars didn’t go out. When Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel grounded out to Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson, throwing right on the button to longtime Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, for game, set, and Series, Armageddon didn’t begin.

But a few things that helped sour the Series for people who don’t live in either Atlanta or Houston ended, too. For now, anyway.

No more race-demeaning Tomahawk Chopping in the Truist Park stands or by traveling Braves fans present in Minute Maid Park. No more of the more stubbornly obnoxious among Astro fans acting and carping (falsely, on both counts) that their heroes were “scapegoated” when Astrogate exploded almost two full years ago.

But, also, there’ll be no more treating the entire Astros roster as barely-repentant cheaters because of the remaining presence of four Astrogaters. (Pitcher Lance McCullers, Jr. missed the entire postseason with an arm injury.) Even the Truist Park crowds for Games Three through Five isolated the point: they saved the “Cheater! Cheater!” chants purely for any of the four.

So now we can review and re-enjoy Fried surviving a near-disastrous near-ankle injury on a play at first base in the first inning to pitch six shutout innings. We can review and re-wonder about Luis (Rock-a-Bye Salsa) Garcia starting on short rest for the Astros, a move risky enough for manager Dusty Baker. He got away with it for two innings. In the third, disaster.

Now, we can re-enjoy Ozzie Albies poking his first base hit since Game Two. We can re-enjoy Fox Sports cameras captured a couple in the stands wearing makeshift World Series trophies for headdresses while Eddie Rosario waited out a five-pitch walk. We can re-enjoy Soler—the American League’s home run king in 2019, but somewhat lost this season, until two weeks before the Royals traded him to the Braves at this year’s deadline—hitting back-to-back, full-count liners foul out of play, before Garcia decided to sneak a cutter past him.

Dansby Swanson

Swanson reaching the Crawford Boxes in the fifth. (Fox Sports screen capture.)

And, we can re-enjoy Soler swinging as though trying to bring a great oak down but settling for bringing Garcia down instead, with the Minute Maid retractable roof open, and the ball flying over the left field seats, over the train tracks, out of the building, and rolling to the street off an awning outside.

Bang!! Zoom!!!

“I got to [full count],” Soler said postgame, “and I didn’t want the same thing to happen as the first inning at-bat, where I struck out on the off-speed pitch. So I was just kind of getting prepared for that.” That was like the Navy saying it didn’t want a Pearl Harbour rerun and was just kind of getting prepared for the Battle of Midway.

“He’s been swinging the bat so good,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker. “This whole World Series. Even just the walks he was taking were really big.”

Fried looked at last as though he had under complete control his familiar, nervous-looking glove-snapping around his hand on the ball when he takes his sign before delivering. He’d shaken off that first-inning play covering at first and getting thatclose to turning his right ankle, his landing ankle, to crumbs when Michael Brantley stepped on it crossing the pad on a ground ball.

A television replay closeup showed that not only had Fried’s foot missed touching the pad, Brantley never touched it either, even as Fried got the gloved ball on it as he fell backward. The Braves chose not to challenge the safe call. Fried picked himself up, dusted himself off, walked back to the mound, and sandwiched Jose Altuve’s runner-advancing ground out between two toasted strikeouts.

After swapping two scoreless innings to Astro reliever Cristian Javier’s one—they both  ended with slick double plays including the one he launched himself to end the bottom of the third—Fried had a breather and Javier went out for a second inning’s work. His first was three-and-three in the top of the fourth. He wouldn’t be that fortunate in the top of the fifth.

Not with Albies leading off with a walk, then taking second on a wild pitch. Not with a strikeout on Travis d’Arnaud proving the mere setup for Dansby Swanson smashing a down-the-pipe fastball into the Crawford Boxes. And, not with Freeman following a two-out walk to Soler by sending him all the way home with a double off the absolute rearmost center field wall.

Bang!! Zoom!!!

Two innings and three Astros relievers later, Freeman decided the Braves needed a little extra insurance, with the Astros down by a mere six. How to get it with two outs was the question. The answer proved simple enough. He caught hold of Ryne Stanek’s slightly dangling slider and drove it over the center field wall a little left of the Phillips 66 sign.

Bang!! Zoom!!!

“He’s been through good times. He’s been through the worst of times and now through the best of times,” said Swanson postgame of Freeman, the longtime Braves franchise face, who’s made no secret of his desire to stay with the team despite his free agency to come this winter. “Nobody deserves it on our team more than him. He stuck it out and really believed in the vision and mission that this place had. I’m just thankful for him to be on our team.”

Fried, Matzek (the seventh and eighth), and Smith (the ninth), kept the Astros so far in check there may have been suspicions that they’d been kidnapped and replaced with android replicas whose designers forgot to include batting eyes and arm strength.

As favoured sentimentally as his post-Astrogate Astros were disfavoured almost universally, Baker still doesn’t have that elusive World Series ring. Snitker, a Braves lifer who’s a mere six years Baker’s junior, has his first in five full seasons manning the Braves’ bridge.

Two old-school baseball men—who’ve learned and worked by the precept that analytics gives you what you need to know going in, but the moment in front of you and slightly ahead of you tells you what you should or shouldn’t do with that information—matched wits all Series long.

Freddie Freeman

Freeman, still the franchise face, going over the center field wall in the seventh. (Fox Sports screen capture.)

It took stout pitching and a little new old-fashioned long-range bombing to put the Braves over the top and to bury a collection of Astros with too little left in the tank,finally, to repel the invaders.

“First off, you’ve got to give a ton of credit to [the Braves],” said still-struggling Astros third baseman Alex Bregman postgame. “They were unbelievable. They pitched really well. They swung the bats, played good defense. We normally do hit a little bit more for power, and we didn’t. But you learn and move on. You use it as fuel during the off-season to get better and learn from it.”

What the Braves learned this season and taught or re-taught everyone else is that it’s possible to ride the arguable bumpiest road to the postseason and still come away from the ride hoisting the World Series trophy. “We hit every pothole, every bump you could possibly hit this year,” said the otherwise jubilant Freeman postgame, “and somehow the car still made it onto the other side.”

Potholes? Bumps? The Braves came out of a few nasty pileups. They lost franchise face heir apparent Ronald Acuna, Jr. to a season-ending knee injury in the outfield in early July. They entered the season without pitcher Mike Soroka, thanks to his re-injuring the Achilles tendon he’d barely finished rehabbing in the first place. They lost bombardier Marcell Ozuna to domestic violence charges and administrative leave.

The eventual rulers of the none-too-powerful National League East didn’t even have a winning record overall until 6 August. They broke the record for the latest season arrival above .500 they themselves held . . . since their 1914 “Miracle” ancestors arrived only on 3 August that year.

General manager Alex Anthopolous—who had to miss the Game Six and championship fun after being hit by COVID-19—swung four trade-deadline deals to land Soler, Rosario, Adam Duvall, and Joc Pederson. They went 36-14 in their final 55 regular season games. They still looked like postseason underdogs. Until.

They overthrew the NL Central-champion Brewers three straight after losing Game One of their division series. After getting blown out in National League Championship Series Game Five, they overthrew the wild card-winning Dodgers—owners of baseball’s second-best regular-season record with 106 wins—with their lights-out bullpen tandem Matzek and AJ Minter to win the pennant.

Then they lost starting pitcher Charlie Morton to a line drive off his leg in World Series Game One. And defied everyone who said losing the likeable, respected veteran for the rest of the set meant temporal and spiritual disaster for the upstarts.

When they finally reached the Promised Land, the Braves also defied several other factors. They became the first team ever to show a League Championship Series MVP and a World Series MVP who weren’t even with the team in the regular season’s first half. Their four outfield imports hit more postseason home runs together (twelve) than the rest of the team combined (eleven).

Bang!! Zoom!!!

Max Fried

Fried shook off a potentially shattering ankle injury in the first to shatter the Astros’ formidable offense.

When Sock-a-Bye Soler took Rock-a-Bye Samba downtown Tuesday night, only five men before him had ever hit three go-ahead home runs in a single World Series: Babe Ruth (1926), Lou Gehrig (1928), Gene Tenace (1972), Curtis Granderson (2015), and George Springer (2017). Soler joins Gehrig, Tenace, and Springer for doing it for World Series winners.

Only one other man ever got close to where Soler’s blast ended up. That was before the Astros became the team to be named later in the league swap that made a National League team out of the Brewers and sent the Astros to the American League.

The only thing keeping then-Cardinals superman Albert Pujols’s ninth-inning three-run homer from landing in Soler territory in 2005 NLCS Game Five was the closed roof. If the Minute Maid roof was open then, Pujols’s rip off then-Astros closer Brad Lidge might have bounded off the same awning—if not flown right to the street.

Somewhere in their Elysian Fields stomping grounds, the Braves’ late Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Phil Niekro, and Warren Spahn smiled down upon these rascally Braves while applauding madly.

The Astros went from steamrolling the White Sox and the Red Sox out of the postseason into spending most of this World Series being about as offensive as an ice cream sandwich. Except for stinging the possibly pitch-tipping Fried in Game Two, and overthrowing a first-inning battering in Game Five, the Astro offense either slept or turned up when it didn’t or couldn’t do them many favours.

“We just kind of ran out of gas pitching-wise,” Baker said postgame. “Our guys, nobody complained, nobody alibied. And I’m not going to alibi. We got outplayed. What can you do, except go home, take a shower, figure out how you’re going to come back and win it next year. Look, last year we got one game short of the World Series, and this year we were two games short of the championship.”

Baker was right about their spent pitching. Missing future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander to Tommy John surgery recuperation hurt. Being without their best 2021 starter, Lance McCullers, Jr., hurt. Baker bringing his should-have-been Game Six starter Jose Urquidy in for an inning of Game Five relief probably hurt. Veteran Zack Greinke starting to show his age at last hurt.

If you ask Minter, he’ll tell you the Braves transformed themselves from a small legion of also-rans into the guys who put the big boys into their places by hook, crook, and anything else they could think of so long as failure was no longer a dismaying, disgusting option.

“We are a bunch of misfits this year,” Minter said postgame. “I mean, we’re a group of failures. And that’s what makes this team special, because we know what it feels like to fail. We know what it feels like to lose, and we weren’t willing to accept failure this year. So we pulled it together somehow—and now we’re World Series champions. It’s cool, man.”

The Astros, of course, see themselves as anything but misfits. They were very gracious in World Series defeat. (“They deserve what they have,” said Altuve postgame.) But they see themselves now the way the Yankees did in the ancient, mid-20th Century. Shortstop Carlos Correa—one of their team leaders, one of the remaining Astrogate Five, and a possible departure in free agency this winter—said it right out postgame:

“Second place is not good enough for us. I know it’s not good enough for you guys. But it speaks volumes of how good our organization is, how talented our clubhouse is. Five ALCS in a row. Three World Series in five years. I don’t know what else you want to ask from a great ball club.”

Some might want to ask that they win a World Series without the taint of something like Astrogate.

They may yet win one, even next year, since the pitching remains deep even with Greinke and Verlander likely out of the picture and their youth includes a pair of solid stars in Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez. Even if Alvarez was a one-man wrecking crew in the ALCS brought low in the World Series. Even if Altuve (32), Gurriel (37), and Michael Brantley (34) can’t keep Father Time from coming too much longer.

“People expect greatness when you talk about the Houston Astros,” said Correa, who still seems at once embarrassed by Astrogate yet unable to resist playing the rogue. “They expect us to make the playoffs every year. They expect us to be in the World Series every year.”

But now the guys nobody really expected at mid-season to be in the World Series have won it. With a pitcher defying those critics who thought he wasn’t really ready for center stage just yet. With three big swings having nothing to do with illegally stolen signs sent to the batter’s box by trash can transmission.

Bang!! Zoom!!!

Baker Agonistes

Dusty Baker

Even people who still despise the Astros can’t bring themselves to wish ill upon post-Astrogate manager Dusty Baker.

Tuesday night won’t be virgin territory for the Astros. Two years ago, they came home to play out a World Series in the hole 3-2, too. That was then: They lost twice to the Nationals, who’d beaten them in Games One and Two in Houston as well.

This is now: Having the home field advantage hasn’t exactly helped the Astros yet. They split Games One and Two in Minute Maid Park. Then, they lost two of three to the Braves in Atlanta. They may have put a sanguine public face on approaching Game Six, but second baseman Jose Altuve isn’t exactly ready to pull the champagne corks just yet.

“I don’t feel like going home is any guarantee,” he told ESPN’s Jeff Passan. “We’ve got to go out there and fight. It’s not like, OK, we go home, we got them. No. We’re playing a really, really good team. Those guys take really good at-bats, they know how to pitch, they can do everything. And we got to go out there and fight.”

The Astros lost that 2019 Series a fortnight before the Astrogate whistle was blown at last. They’ve played since with the justly-earned reputation for having been baseball’s most egregious and extreme electronic cheaters, and they haven’t always helped their own cause trying to move past it since.

One minute, they’ve embraced the villain role. The next, they’ve seemed as close to contrite as you’d expect of any team who first thought their well-exposed competitive amorality wasn’t as big a deal as everyone else made it.

Altuve’s sober realism about returning the Series home to one side, Passan has it right when he observes that embracing the bad-guys role goes only so far: “[W]hile some may see the Astros’ use of others’ loathing as backward—the reaction to your misdeed becoming a source of fuel is rather twisted—what’s the alternative?”

One alternative would be winning a World Series to climax a postseason in which the Astros really have played it straight, no chaser. So far. Disdain and contempt will remain attached to them until the last Astrogate team member no longer wears an Astros uniform. That a genuinely great team went rogue above and beyond is nobody’s fault but theirs.

The Truist Park crowds in Atlanta serenaded Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Carlos Correa with singsong chants of “Cheater! Cheater!” every time those three checked in at the plate. (It’s to wonder why the fourth member of the remaining Astrogate infield, first baseman Yuli Gurriel, escaped the serenades.) Those crowds didn’t hammer the entire team over the transgressions of the few remaining. To their eternal credit.

Nobody’s suspected or come up with any evidence that the Astros have been up to no good this fall. They blew the White Sox out of a division series after getting blown out in Game Three. They overthrew the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series after a 13-3 blowout put the Red Sox up 2-1 in the set. They answered Braves center fielder Adam Duvall’s nuke of a first-inning grand slam to beat the Braves 9-5 in Game Five Sunday night and force the World Series back to Minute Maid Park. Straight, no chaser.

But they enter Game Six with a couple of red flags flying regardless. Just what was manager Dusty Baker thinking when he sent Jose Urquidy out to pitch the Game Five fourth, when he had enough capable and available bullpen arms and really needed Urquidy to start Game Six?

Did Baker thus force himself to roll the wrong dice starting Luis Garcia on short rest against a fully-rested Max Fried, whom the Astros pecked apart early but without quite nuking him in Game Two?

Did Baker—who steadied the Astrogate-broiled clubhouse when coming aboard in its immediate wake; whose long and winning resume, historic shortfalls, and personal respect made him the sentimental favourite to win it all at last—really sacrifice a season to send set back to Houston?

Was Baker being canny in Game Five? Too clever by half? Does he know something about Rock-a-Bye-Samba Garcia that nobody else knows yet? Or, will Game Six end up another entry in Baker’s too long, too sad, often rotten-luck roll of postseason fate?

His critics often say he should have known better. His admirers say he’s been as much a victim of surrealistic dumb luck as anything else. Baker is either a big-hearted overthinker or the one-man resurrection of every hard luck team that ever reached the mountaintop and tripped to the rocks on the Jordan’s banks.

The man who’s managed more winning games than any skipper who’s never won a World Series is either Gene Mauch redux; or, he’s a one-man 1908 Giants, 1960 Yankees, 1969 Cubs, 1978 and 1986 Red Sox, 1987 Blue Jays, 2006-07 Mets, and almost every St. Louis Brown or Washington Senator, ever.

2002 World Series, Game Six: Baker lifted his Giants starter Russ Ortiz after the Anaheim Angels (as they were known then) swatted a pair of singles to open the bottom of the seventh with the Giants leading 5-0. With all good intention and heart, Baker handed Ortiz the “game ball” before turning it over to Felix Rodriguez. The Angels weren’t exactly indifferent to that.

Bing! Scott Spiezio hit a prompt three-run homer. The Angels finished handing the Giants’ pen their heads on plates to win at the eleventh hour, then won Game Seven decisively.

2003 National League Championship Series Game Six: Baker’s Cubs stood five outs from the World Series in the top of the eighth. He left a gassed starter Mark Prior in to take it on the chin and off a shortstop’s double play error, opening up what proved an eight-run Marlins eighth.

Then, in Game Seven, Baker inexplicably let Kerry Wood live long enough to surrender seven runs as the Marlins went to the World Series they’d win in six.

Baker’s often been accused of managing certain postseason games as though he’s just taking regular-season target practise against his league’s also-rans. But it wasn’t exactly his fault that his 2017 Nationals lost NLDS Game Five after swapping wins the first four games with the Cubs, either.

He didn’t ask Max Scherzer in relief to surrender a two-run double before Matt Wieters turned a passed ball into a ghastly run-scoring throwing error up the first base line. He didn’t ask Max the Knife to hit a batter with the bases loaded to finish that four-run Cubs seventh, leading to the 9-8 Cubs win.

That doesn’t exactly keep the second guessers in line, of course. I’ve second-guessed Baker often enough in the past, and I know it wasn’t his fault that that inning swallowed him alive—and cost him his job. He’s taken five different teams to postseasons; he’s been fired after 90+ win teams he managed ended postseasons in agony.

There are reasons teams have turned to him over the years, especially the one that wandered into scandal all by itself and needed an untainted human to take their game bridge, while they remade/remodeled the front office almost completely, and figure out how to steer them past it without being buried by it.

It hasn’t been perfect by any means. Baker didn’t look great at this season’s beginning, when road fans now allowed back to the ballparks after the 2020 pan-damn-ic absences trolled his Astros to make up for lost outrage time, and Baker played the whatabout card in return. He was better than that, he knew better than that, and we knew better than that.

The Astros needed heart, dignity, class, and soul to lead them out of their self-inflicted disgrace. That’s why they turned to Baker last year. But one of his 2003 Cubs, Doug Glanville, outfielder turned instructive and respected ESPN writer, has isolated perhaps the best reason Baker now has one more chance to land that ever-elusive claim to the Promised Land.

“Dusty always had time to talk to players to bring them together,” Glanville began, in a piece he published the day before World Series Game Five.

It was a priority that he not only get the biographical notes of your life, but he wanted to put himself in your shoes. Listen to your music, read about your perspective and embrace your culture. Not just as a company-wide initiative but as an evolution of life. He lets you change him, openly trying to grow. And he pushes you to do the same.

These were life lessons, not just baseball lessons. He wanted to take the gift of a lifetime of playing baseball and share it to make us all better. It went way beyond learning how to hit a curve ball or figuring out when Greg Maddux was going to throw his back-up slider. This was real life, and teammates were family. Every day was a celebration, a chance to get together over something joyous. And he was the Godfather, inheriting sons with the humility to know he can learn from them just as much as he can impart his own wisdom.

Does this make a manager better at running a bullpen or using his bench? I can’t say. But 18 years after I played for him, I still apply the lessons I learned from him as a father and a husband.

The Astros could force this World Series to a seventh game. They’d still have to win that. And Altuve is right when he suggests these Braves are no pushovers, no matter how Game Five shook out.

You may think still that an Astro loss would be nothing less than extraterrestrial justice. But you may think as well what a shame it would be that Baker has to be on the bridge incurring it if it happens. And you’d be right.

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.

WS Game Four: Here’s the catch . . .

Eddie Rosario

Eddie Rosario made the catch of the Series, stealing a likely Jose Altuve triple Saturday night in the eighth . . . (Fox Sports screen capture)

It’s not that the odds improved for the Braves after a 3-2 World Series Game Four win that turned imaginations inside out and back again. Against an opponent as formidable as the Astros, even a three games to one Series lead isn’t safe until they nail the final Game Five out for dead last certain.

But nobody seems all that willing to suggest it’s impossible now. Every time you think the Braves have shot themselves in the foot this Series, it turns out that all they did was shoot their feet with water pistols.

Every time you think these Braves might have stumbled their way into leaving the Astros room for mischief, these Astros continue to seize the opportunities to miss opportunities.

Everytime you think these Astros are about to puncture, stab, or shoot the Braves’ swelling, surreal fortune, these Braves find the appropriate armour or the freshly secured bullet-proof vest.

Forced to a bullpen game and sending a rookie who’s never started or opened one in his major league life out to get one out but leave with the bases loaded in the top of the first? Leave it to these Braves to call in fast relief and get it with a run-scoring ground out and a big swinging strikeout.

Let the Astros take a 2-0 lead when Jose Altuve, their little big man, sends his 23rd career postseason home run over the center field fence in the top of the fourth? Just let Austin Riley line a two-out RBI single to left in the bottom of the sixth, and wait for pinch-hitting Jorge Soler and incumbent shortstop Dansby Swanson to hit back-to-back solo bombs in the bottom of the seventh.

Then let Eddie Rosario, heretofore known for a live bat and a modest defensive jacket, make the play of the game and maybe the entire Series in the top of the eighth.

Let Rosario go from freezing with Swanson as they converged on a Game Three pop to shallow left, the better to avoid plowing each other after a missed call for the ball, to running down and then stealing with a backhand catch an otherwise certain triple by Altuve that might have pumped fresh adrenaline into the otherwise aimless Astro offense.

Even Rosario seemed a little more than just shocked that he’d stolen the drive. “I feel right now I am Super Rosario,” he said postgame. “I don’t see the ball. I throw the glove and catch the ball. Everybody’s happy. I’m happy. It’s unbelievable what I did tonight. Wow, what a catch.”

This was little Al Gionfriddo running down and stealing an extra-base hit from Joe DiMaggio in Game Six, 1947 Series. (You’ve probably heard broadcast legend Red Barber hollering, Back goes Gionfriddo, back, back, back, back, back, back, he—makes a one-handed catch against the bullpen!)

This was Willie Mays running down and stealing Vic Wertz’s long drive to dead center 460something feet from the plate, over the shoulders, in the ancient Polo Grounds in the 1954 Series. This was Sandy Amoros running Yogi Berra’s opposite field drive down for the one-handed extended basket catch in Game Seven of the 1955 Series.

This was Mickey Mantle running down and backhanding Gil Hodges’ drive to save Don Larsen’s perfect game in Game Five, 1956 Series. This was Tommie Agee and Ron Swoboda coming from Nowhere Lands to dive and catch Paul Blair’s bases-loaded liner to bail Nolan Ryan out (Game Three) and to dive and catch Brooks Robinson’s liner to right (Game Four) in the 1969 Series.

This was Dwight Evans one-handing Joe Morgan’s should-have-been home run over the right field fence in Fenway Park in Game Six, 1975 Series. This was Kirby Puckett stealing an extra-base hit from Ron Gant up against the Plexiglass in Game Six, 1991 Series.

This was Devon White crashing the center field fence to steal an extra-base hit from David Justice, Game Three, 1992 Series. (And damn near start a triple play.) This was Gary Sheffield stopping Jim Thome from an extra-base hit with a running leap against the right field fence, Game Three, 1997 Series.

Dansby Swanson

. . . after Dansby Swanson went long in the seventh . . . (Fox Sports screen capture)

At least Rosario didn’t steal the triple from Altuve with men on base. From Game Two through the end of Game Four the Astros have been 0-for-17 with men in scoring position and left eleven men on Saturday night. Including the three left stranded on the pond when Kyle Wright—relieving extremely shaky opener Dylan Lee—struck Kyle Tucker out to end the top of the first.

“We usually pick those runners up,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker postgame. “We left quite a few runners on base.”

“They’re not giving us a lot of pitches to hit,” said Altuve. “We’re trying hard as hitters. We’ve got a good lineup, we know, but sometimes you have to give credit to the other team as well.”

And what’s become of Yordan and Eddie Tonight? The show of shows that was supposed to put on a two-way exhibition of rips and bombs all Series long? Only half the main attraction has shown up so far. The only reason Alvarez has a .412 Series on-base percentage is five walks over his seventeen plate appearances married to his 1-for-11/.091 Series batting average. Rosario hasn’t hit one out yet, but he’s got a .313/.353/.438 slash line going 5-for-16 in the set.

The former League Championship Series threshing machines are liable to be remembered as one Series bust and another Series presence who turned up showing the most surreal leather of the set Saturday night. But Rosario’s NLCS demolition just might have been one-upped by Soler and Swanson in the eighth.

They called Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle the M&M Boys in 1961? Meet the Braves’ S&S Boys. They showed up against Cristian Javier, the Astros reliever who’d faced 37 previous men this postseason without surrendering a single run.

But with one out in the seventh, he fed Swanson a fat fastball on 0-2 and watched it fly over the right field wall to tie the game. Then, with Soler pinch hitting for Braves reliever Tyler Matzek, Javier fed Soler a 2-1 slider with just as much fat on it, and Soler lined it over the left field fence.

Swanson’s bomb was the Braves’ first go-ahead World Series launch in the seventh or later since Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews in the 1957 Series. Swanson and Soler were the first batters in the numbers eight and nine lineup slots at the moment to hit back-to-back homers in World Series history.

Jorge Soler

. . . and pinch-swinger Jorge Soler went long immediately after. (Fox Sports screen capture.)

Soler became not just the first Brave ever to hit one out as a World Series pinch hitter that late in the game, he became only third player anywhere to do it—after Dusty Rhodes (1954 Series), Kirk Gibson (1988 Series), and Ed Sprague (1992 Series). The S&S Boys are also just the third tandem to leave the yard back-to-back to tie and lead in a World Series since (wait for it) Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig (1928), and Pedro Guerrero and Steve Yeager (1981).

“Baseball’s been around a long time,” Swanson said postgame. Thank you, Captain Obvious. “And for this to be the third time is pretty special. I feel like, when you’re in that moment, and you’re in between the lines, your only thought is on winning. So it’s kind of hard to wrap your mind around what just happened. Maybe if you would ask me in spring training next year, I might be able to give you a little bit of a better answer.”

Among the sad parts for the Astros Saturday night was starting pitcher Zack Greinke, who spent much of the regular season battling nagging neck issues. The good news was, Greinke—whom age and injury has turned from a power pitcher to a mind-over-matter pitcher—pitching four shutout innings, scattering four hits. The bad news was Greinke at the plate in the National League park without the designated hitter just yet.

Oh, sure, he lined a neat single into center field with one out in the top of the second. But fate decreed Greinke to bat with the bases loaded and two out in the top of the third. Mr. Boswell, call your retirement office yet again: The bases got loaded in the first place by walking Yuli Gurriel on the house so Wright could pitch to Greinke.

Greinke didn’t strike out. Of course, Baker was in no mood to pinch hit for Greinke that early in the game, never mind that it was a World Series entry and never mind that the Astros have found runs harder to find than the Hope Diamond since Game Two. But Greinke did ground out to Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies to strand the Astro ducks on the pond.

“Greinke swung the bat well,” said Baker postgame. “He got the pitch that he was looking for, and we really needed to stretch Greinke out some because we’ve been going to that bullpen like super early every day. You can second-guess all you want to . . . that was my decision. We had left some runners out there prior to that.”

And, after that. They had two on in the fifth including Tucker on third following a throwing error as he stole second . . . and Marwin Gonzalez pinch hitting for Greinke flied out to left. They had Michael Brantley aboard with a two-out single in the sixth . . . and Alex Bregman forced him out at second. They had Tucker aboard with a two-out single in the seventh . . . and Gurriel flied out to left.

Not quite as egregious as stranding the bases loaded in the first and the third, but close enough when they happened with the Astros ahead by a run and in dire need of insurance. Now they’re in a place they’ve seen before. Last year, they were down 3-0 to the Rays in the ALCS but forced the set to seven before succumbing. They may or may not have one more similar push in them now.

“You lean on that, and you lean on the other series that they’ve come back on,” said Baker, who’s still trying to land his first World Series ring in 24 years worth of major league managing. “You really don’t have any choice but that.”

Altuve thinks the Astros’ best survival chance is the old, reliable one-at-a-time stance. “If we win [Game Five], then try to win Game Six and see what happens,” said Mighty Mouse. “But we’ve got to focus on one game, and that game is [Sunday night].”

The Braves entered the Series as decisive underdogs. They’re on the threshold of overthrowing the overdogs. At home. Where they remain undefeated this entire postseason.

All they have to do is find a few more pocketfuls of miracles while keeping Astro lumber in its slumber during another by-necessity bullpen game. Maybe one more extra base hit-defying catch? Maybe another pair of late home runs from unlikely tandems?

In baseball, anything can happen—and usually does. These Braves would love to remain evidence for that truth Sunday night. With World Series rings the verdict.

WS Game Three: No history, just a Braves win

Ian Anderson

Ian Anderson—If you can’t do both, what’s your real choice . . . trying to make history, or trying to take a World Series advantage?

Let’s see. Yes, on a cool, mostly misty, on-and-off light rainy night in Truist Park, Ian Anderson took a no-hit bid through five innings of World Series Game Five.

He faced eighteen batters and threw eleven first pitch strikes. He also threw about as many balls as strikes; 39 strikes out of 76 pitches, meaning one more strike than ball Saturday night. While he was at it, he and his batters wrestled to seven full counts.

You still want to yell at Braves manager Brian Snitker for hooking Anderson after a measly five innings? You might actually have ended up yelling at Snitker for leaving Anderson in an inning too long if he waited until Anderson took that kind of balance into the sixth.

You might be flooding social media with demands for Snitker’s summary execution on the spot, instead of celebrating the Braves taking a 2-1 Series lead with a 2-0 combined two-hit shutout during which four innings separated the Braves’ only runs.

You might forget how much you were touched by that sweet pre-game ceremony doing the late Hall of Famer Henry Aaron honour, especially knowing that Astros manager Dusty Baker was mentored and befriended by Aaron when he first arose as a Braves outfielder over four cups of coffee before slotting in full in 1972.

You might forget what sad fun it was to hear the Truist Park audience serenading Astros second baseman Jose Altuve and third baseman Alex Bregman with chants of “cheater! cheater!” when they batted in the top of the first.

Fun because at least the crowd saved it strictly for two of the five remaining Astrogate team members. Sad because nobody’s really processed yet what Andy Martino isolated in Cheated: The Inside Story of the Astros Scandal and a Colorful History of Sign Stealing: Altuve actually spurned the illegally-stolen signs and even demanded whomever transmitted them with the trash can bangs to knock it the hell off when he was batting.

You might forget Anderson and Astros starter Luis Garcia having a fine pitching duel between them, until Braves third baseman Austin Riley—with Eddie Rosario (one-out walk) and Freddie Freeman (base hit lined over unoccupied shortstop defying a defensive overshift) aboard—ripped one inside the third base line, past a diving Bregman, and down the line further for an RBI double in the bottom of the third.

You might forget the Truist Park organist having a little cheerful troll when Garcia batted with one out in the top of the third . . . giving him “Rock-a-Bye Baby” for walkup music—a neat little salute to Garcia’s baby-rocking arms motion before he goes into that little back-and-forth salsa step to deliver to the plate. Garcia’s tiny little grin over the serenade? Priceless.

You might forget that the would-be no-no got broken up in the top of the eighth, with Tyler Matzek on the bump for the Braves, when Rosario scampering in from deep left field positioning and Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson scampering out managed to let pinch hitter Aledmys Diaz’s somewhat shallow pop fly hit the wet grass with a thunk! Most likely, because Swanson didn’t want to plow Rosario even if either one could have caught the ball clean, and Rosario didn’t want to plow Swanson thinking the shortstop couldn’t hear him call for it. Oops.

You might forget Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud with one out in the bottom of the eighth, turning on Astro reliever Kendall Graveman’s unsinking sinker and sinking it over the center field fence.

You might also forget the Astros living up exactly to one of now-retired Thomas Boswell’s best arguments on behalf of the universal designated hitter, with the Braves at the plate with two out in the bottom of the second, and the DH still unavailable to either side in the National League ballpark.

D’Arnaud smashed Garcia’s full-count fastball high off the right field wall for a double. With Anderson on deck, the Astros handed Swanson an intentional walk and—what do you know—struck Anderson out to end the inning. Now, what was that Boswell wrote in February 2019?

It’s fun to see Max Scherzer slap a single to right field and run it out as if he thinks he’s Ty Cobb. But I’ll sacrifice that pleasure to get rid of the thousands of rallies I’ve seen killed when an inning ends with one pitcher working around a competent No. 8 hitter so he can then strike out the other pitcher. When you get in a jam in the AL, you must pitch your way out of it, not ‘pitch around’ your way out of it.

Travis d'Arnaud

Travis d’Arnaud taking Astros reliever Kendall Graveman over the center field fence in the eighth Friday night.

Swanson’s not exactly tearing it up at the plate in the Series; his .417 Series on-base percentage is the product of three walks to go with his two hits in twelve plate appearances. Would someone care to explain why the Astros pitched around a comparative spaghetti bat with four strikeouts in the Series to get to that dangerous, .054-hitting pitcher looming in the on-deck circle?

You want to yell at either Game Three manager, you might want to bark at Baker. Garcia probably had a great shot at getting rid of Swanson and assuring himself of an easy inning-opening out if Anderson and his pool-noodle bat were due to lead off the bottom of the third.

See the fun you’d have forgotten about if you’d decided putting Snitker on trial for hooking Anderson after five no-hit innings that rank as some of the sloppiest no-hit innings you might ever have seen? That’s assuming you were actually watching the game and paying close attention to the pitches instead of thinking “no-hitter!” without taking your eye and mind deep.

“He walked down and said, ‘That’s it. Heck of a job’,” Anderson said postgame about his removal. “You feel a little bit of, I had more to give, but it’s something that you understand and move forward . . . I knew he wasn’t going to budge. We’re very fortunate to have him, and the way he treats us is phenomenal. He’ll shake your hand after every outing, good or bad, and that goes a long way.”

It’s not as though Snitker made the move purely driven by those pesky (to you) analytics, either. “He was throwing a lot of pitches in the top half of that lineup,” the manager said post-game. “I thought the fourth inning he really had to work hard to get through that. He had a really good fifth inning. And then I told him because he was like, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure?’ But I was just like, ‘Ian, I’m going with my gut right here. Just my eyes, my gut’.”

Oho, but what about those upcoming bullpen games necessitated by the broken leg taking Charlie Morton down when he might have been available to start Game Four or Five without it?

“I just thought at that point in time, in a game of this magnitude and all, that [Anderson] had done his job,” Snitker said. “And we had a bullpen that all the guys we use had two days off, and they were only going to pitch an inning apiece, and that made them available for the next two games after if it went south.”

Four innings of shutout, three-strikeout, no-walk, two-hit relief by Matzek, AJ Minter and Luke Jackson preceding him, and Will Smith following with a three-lineout ninth shaking Bregman’s leadoff single to one side, kept things from going south.

So now Snitker has to crank the mental gears up a little further until he can have Max Fried back for Game Five? He’s probably had to crank them up further for more ticklish situations than this. Like his outfielder Joc Pederson, Snitker prefers to cast pearls before swine—or anyplace else he can think to cast them.

Go ahead. Rant your heads off about hooking Anderson with a freaking no-hitter going after (despite) five sloppy innings’ work. We’d all have loved to see it continue. We’d all have loved to see the Braves finish the combined no-no. Nobody would reject a clean shot at further history made—it would have been the third no-no in postseason history and the first such combined no-no at once.

Anderson made his history as it was. He was the first rook to throw five no-hit World Series innings in 99 years. He can dine out on that for the rest of his life.

But isn’t a Series advantage the better option?