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!!!

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 Two: Hunted, pecked, pricked, poked

Max Fried

Max Fried—getting stung repeatedly in the second hurt almost worse than if he’d been bludgeoned.

If you look purely at the line score of World Series Game Two, you’d think the Braves had their heads handed to them in the bottom of the second. But if you watched the game, you know the Astros dismantled them, almost too simply, and with some inadvertent help from the Braves themselves, to win 7-2 Wednesday night.

As a matter of fact, when the game began you could have been forgiven for thinking it might turn into a bit of a pitching duel despite the teams swapping a run each between the bottom of the first and the top of the second—one on a solo home run, one on a sacrifice fly.

Overall that’s about how the game shook out—if you didn’t include the Astros’ hunt-peck-prick-and-poke of four runs out of Braves starter Max Fried in the bottom of the second, after he fooled Carlos Correa into looking at a particularly nasty third-strike curve ball. Jose Altuve’s eighth-inning home run almost seemed a by-the-way insurance run.

“We didn’t want to go to Atlanta down by two,” Altuve said postgame. “So we left everything we had in there tonight. Obviously, very important win to tie the Series to keep going from there.”

“Obviously, I’m not happy about it.” said Fried. “Playoffs is a big momentum game. You’ve got to do everything you can to keep the crooked number off the scoreboard.”

It might actually have hurt less if he’d been bludgeoned than it did the way he was pecked in the second. And, if Astros starter Jose Urquidy hadn’t brought his A game to the mound, leaving the Braves mostly unable to hit him even if they’d swung warehouse gates.

Fooling Correa into the strikeout must have seemed aberrant even to a pitcher who struck out six in five innings’ work and walked only one batter. The second inning made Fried’s outing look far worse than it was in the long run, but a true shelling it wasn’t. It was like getting stung by angry hornets one after the other a few times before he finally slithered out of it.

It started with Kyle Tucker spanking a base hit up the middle and Yuli Gurriel punching one through the shift-opened right side for a base hit to follow up at once, sending Tucker to third. Fried jammed Jose Siri into a slow tumbling grounder to the far left side of the mound, but Tucker came home when they couldn’t get the swift Siri at first.

Then Martin Maldonado, a catcher so prized for his work behind the plate that Astro manager Dusty Baker bears with his pool noodle of a bat, punched one through the left side for a base hit. The problem now was the Braves’ usually sure-handed, sure-armed defense.

Left fielder Eddie Rosario came up with the ball and threw to third in a bid to stop Siri if they couldn’t stop Gurriel from scoring. Only third baseman Austin Riley came trotting down the line to serve as the cutoff man, and shortstop Dansby Swanson got caught unable to get to third covering in time because he was in short left. Rosario’s throw thus sailed wild and Siri sailed home with the fourth Astro run of the night. Ouch!

Maldonado went to second on that throw and took third when Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud let one escape with Altuve at the plate in an 0-2 count. Altuve flied out with Maldonado having to hold at third, but Michael Brantley pulled a base hit to right on which Maldonado could have walked home safely, making it 5-1.

Innings like that are as common to the Astros when they’re swinging right as you might think the big bombing innings would be. But they were the best in the game this year at avoiding strikeouts at the plate and hitting in most directions out to the field.

They may also have picked up on Fried tipping pitches. No, they’re not pulling another Astro Intelligence Agency trick or three. The rules since Astrogate’s explosion and aftermath include maximum replay room security. But the Astros were known without and before any Astrogate shenanigans for picking up even the tiniest tells from opposing pitchers and exploiting them mercilessly.

Fried’s habit of wiggling his glove fingers around the ball in his hand rapidly as he prepares to throw to the plate, like an amphetamine-driven lobster clawing its dinner down to manageable bites, may well have handed the Astros inadvertent but invaluable pitch  intelligence. After the second, Fried quit the glove snapping for the most part—and retired the next ten hitters he faced.

When Yordan Alvarez walked and Correa sent a base hit to left opening the bottom of the sixth, Braves manager Brian Snitker hooked Fried in favour of Dylan Lee. After Tucker forced Correa at second with Alvarez taking third, the Braves’ defense faltered into the sixth Astro run.

Gurriel grounded sharply to Swanson at shortstop. He threw to second baseman Ozzie Albies hoping to start an inning-ending double play. Albies lost the ball as he turned to throw on to first. Tucker was ruled safe until a review was called—did Albies have control of the ball to get the out while losing it as he drew the ball out of his glove to throw on?

Several television replays showed Albies lost control of the ball after all, but not by as much as first surmised. The safe call held, and Alvarez scored, but Albies’s throw wasn’t in time to get Gurriel at first. Lee shook off a rather daring double steal to set up second and third by striking Siri out. Snitker brought in Jesse Chavez, and Chavez got Maldonado to fly out for the side.

The Braves got their second run in the top of the fifth when Freddie Freeman singled d’Arnaud home. Other than that, both bullpens kept each side behaving itself except for Altuve sending Drew Smyly’s first pitch of the bottom of the seventh into the Crawford Boxes, before the veteran reliever fell into and squirmed out of his own bases-loaded jam with no further damage.

Maybe the true shock of the evening was the Braves handing the ball to Kyle Wright for the bottom of the eighth. Wright’s a 26-year-old pitcher with a 6.56 fielding-independent pitching rate in four seasons. He had a 9.64 FIP and a 9.95 ERA in two brief starts on the regular season while up and down from the minors.

Throwing that against the Astros was something like offering to assure Hall of Famer Henry Aaron would face nothing but batting practise pitchers by decree, right? Wrong. Wright shocked the entire ballpark by striking the side out in order—including Maldonado and Altuve looking at third strikes after Siri opened with a three-pitch swinging strikeout.

“It was so encouraging to see Kyle tonight,” said Snitker postgame, even if he was thrown up as a sacrificial lamb in a lost game. “Just getting in there for that one inning and getting him out there and experiencing this atmosphere because he could play a huge part going forward. I thought he threw the ball extremely well.”

Wright lived on effective curve balls and sinkers Wednesday night. Snitker was inspired enough to ponder possibilities for Wright to spot start or even open a bullpen game during the Atlanta leg. With Charlie Morton gone thanks to that fibula fracture, Snitker needs to get even more creative with his pitching arrays now. Wright’s surprise may lift some of that burden a hair or two.

“He was locating,” said catcher d’Arnaud postgame. “His sinker was moving a lot. His curveball was moving a lot. He did a tremendous job. When I caught him in a rehab game for me, he looked exactly the same as he did that day. It was fun working with him, and it was great seeing him have the success today, especially in the World Series.”

With the tied Series moving to Atlanta for three possible games, thus switching the Braves to a home field advantage, it’s comforting to know that near the end of a night the Braves were pecked to death they might have found the Wright stuff, for however long.

The Phillies look a gift Brave in the mouth

Will Smith, Travis d'Arnaud

Will Smith and Travis d’Arnaud, after the Phillies somehow declined the gift Smith tried to give in the ninth Tuesday.

Until the top of the ninth Tuesday night the Phillies hadn’t scored a single run in their previous twenty innings. Then the Braves all but gifted the Phillies a run in that ninth. They’d even gifted the Phillies the potential go-ahead run and then the bases loaded with one out.

The problem was the Phillies picking the wrong way to say thank you. All that got them was elimination from the National League’s wild card race with a 2-1 loss. It’s win the NL East or wait till next year for them now.

But the ninth-inning high-wire routines of lefthanded relief pitcher Will Smith—with a rather remarkable ability to get himself into hot water—got a little too high on the wire Tuesday night.

It wasn’t so much that he and the Braves escaped as that the Phillies sent a helicopter overhead to lift him to safety when they should have left him and the Braves wiring mad. The Braves won’t always find the opposition that willing to bail them out.

Thanks in large part to their grand old man Charlie Morton’s seven-inning, ten-strikeout, shutout-ball gem, while managing to pry only two runs out of Phillies starter Zack Wheeler in seven otherwise-strong innings, the Braves may have been lucky to take a 2-0 lead into that ninth.

But with Smith having the opening advantage against lefthanded Bryce Harper, the major leagues’ OPS leader, Smith found himself in a wrestling match that ended with Harper wringing himself aboard with a leadoff walk. Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto now represented the potential game-tying run at the plate.

Realmuto hit one on a high line to right center that ninth-inning center field insertion Guillermo Heredia had to run down long to catch on a high backhand. That spot of Braves fortune lasted just long enough for Phillies pinch-hitter Matt Vierling to hit a high liner to left, where Braves left fielder Eddie Rosario ran over, extended his glove, and watched the ball carom off its fingertips, setting up second and third for the Phillies.

Now the Phillies had veteran Andrew McCutchen—a long way from his days as a center field gazelle and a 2015 NL Most Valuable Player for a better array of Pirates—coming to the plate. McCutchen isn’t the danger he was once seen to be anymore, but he’s a veteran who still knows what he’s doing at the plate, and the Braves had no intention of letting his righthanded bat lay them to waste.

So the Braves ordered McCutchen walked intentionally, putting the potential second go-ahead run aboard, even while it looked as though Smith fooled nobody at the plate. The problem was that putting McCutchen aboard also put the Phillies’ fate into two bats described best as balky.

Phillies shortstop Didi Gregorius continued playing through a bothersome elbow and a shrunken ability to handle pitching from the same side as which he swings, lefthanded. Third baseman Freddy Galvis, lately pressed into everyday service, simply keeps proving why the Phillies unloaded him in the first place four years ago—he’s not truly an everyday player, and though he switch-hits he’s not exactly a game-breaker at the plate.

The Braves now had only to pray that Smith could survive. The Phillies had only to pray that Gregorius and Galvis had a few more unexpected surprises in their bats. Every Braves fan in Atlanta’s Truist Park had to pray that Smith could put his own fire out with a real retardant, not with gasoline.

He served Gregorius a 1-1 offering, and Gregorius hit a high liner that looked for a few seconds as though it would find a way off the right field wall—but Braves right fielder Adam Duvall ambled back in front of the track to haul it in for the critical second out even as Harper was able to tag and score from third.

Now Smith went to work against Galvis. Two balls in the dirt, ball three high, a grounded foul for strike one, a called strike right down the pipe, and a hard line foul down the left field side out of play. Then, Smith threw Galvis a meatball so fat it could have been hit with a cardboard paper towel tube.

Galvis swung right through it. Strike three and the game.

The Cardinals won their seventeenth straight behind the aging arm of their own grand old man Adam Wainwright and a trio of home runs in a 6-2 win over the Brewers Tuesday night. The Phillies’ postseason hopes shrank to a hair in their none-too-formidable division.

“We have to win out,” said Phillies first baseman Brad Miller postgame. Easier said than done. They have to beat the Braves tonight and tomorrow and hope the Mess (er, Mets) beat the Braves over the coming weekend.

That’s what happens when you open a game the way the Phillies did, with back-to-back singles in the top of the first, but you can’t cash them in after a force out, a swinging strikeout, and an infield ground out—two days after the Phillies were shut out by the NL Central bottom-feeding Pirates, of all people.

That’s what happens when Morton—the last man standing on the mound when the Astros won their now-tainted 2017 World Series title—all but toyed with them the rest of the way, the 37-year-old righthander making the Phillies’ lefthanded lineup stack look silly in going 2-for-15 with a walk before his evening ended.

“The moment doesn’t get too big for him, I know that,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker about Old Man Morton, who kept the Phillies off-balance on a deftly blended diet of curve balls, changeups, and fastballs. “I think he does a really good job of just staying with the next pitch and doesn’t get caught up in the big picture. And it’s just about making the next pitch, which is really, really good. That was, gosh, seven really good innings.”

That’s what happens when Wheeler, the National League’s strikeout leader among pitchers entering Tuesday, could manhandle the more formidable portion of the Braves’ lineup but couldn’t quite contain their lower-leverage bottom of the order in the bottom of the third—a leadoff double (Travis d’Arnaud, hitting seventh), an immediate first-pitch single (Dansby Swanson, hitting eighth) put Braves on the corners with nobody out.

Morton then bunted a high chop off the plate that pushed Swanson to second on the out, but Jorge Soler, the Braves’ leadoff hitter in the lineup, ripped a hard single down the left field line to send both runners home easily enough, before Wheeler retired Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies on grounders to second baseman Jean Segura.

That was the game until that too-close ninth. But the game put the Phillies’ core flaws into stark light, too. Even before the Phillies and the Braves squared off, The Athletic‘s Matt Gelb isolated the point: “[T]hey have too many holes right now.”

Didi Gregorius is tough to play against lefties. Andrew McCutchen is tough to play against righties. They love what Brad Miller has done, but he won’t start against lefties. Matt Vierling has provided a surprise boost for the Phillies in September, but he hasn’t gained the full trust of [manager] Joe Girardi.

The Phillies also lack the one thing that’s enabled the Braves to hang in and stand now on the threshold of wrapping an NL East that wasn’t exactly a division of baseball terrorists in the first place. Sure, the Mets spent 103 days leading the division—deceptively, as things turned out—but nobody in the NL East looked that much like a powerhouse.

What the Phillies lack that the Braves proved to have in abundance is depth. Their Harpers, Realmutos, and Wheelers all but willed them to stay in the race in the first place, but it may not have been enough. They just weren’t deep enough to hang in without major effort. A coming off-season overhaul may not shock anyone.

The Braves were deep enough in system and in the thought process of general manager Alex Anthopoulos that they withstood the full-season loss of their best young pitcher (Mike Soroka) and the rest-of-season loss of franchise center fielder Ronald Acuna, Jr. to serious injuries.

But they still have to find ways to neutralise that ninth-inning high-wire act.

Don’t let the 36 saves fool you. Smith’s 3.55 ERA and 4.28 fielding-independent pitching (FIP) should tell you the real story. So should 28 walks against 84 strikeouts in 66 innings’ work so far, not to mention 3.8 walks per nine innings. He seems too much to play with matches.

Snitker has two far-superior pen men to send forth when the game gets late and dicey, Luke Jackson (1.90 ERA) and Tyler Matzek (2.66 ERA). Between them, Jackson and Matzek pack a 3.34 FIP, a lot more comfortable than Smith’s. They should be considered more than in passing as viable ninth-inning options.

If these Braves want to get past postseason round one, they may want to consider how much less Jackson and Matzek like to tempt fate or challenge for baseball Darwin Awards. The last thing the Braves need now is to be the cobra with its own ninth-inning mongoose.

Go easy, Braves Republic

Dansby Swanson, unable to elude Superman in a single step. Swanson tried to correct a mistake on the spot and got tagged and bagged for his trouble.

No sport’s history is as thick and hydra-headed as baseball’s, and that includes its chapters on heart-crashing loss. Few sports fans are as addicted as baseball fans to the idea that the other guys can’t win so much as the teams to which they plight their troths can only choke.

It’s one thing to marry your rooting passion to teams that seem forever mired in mediocrity. It’s one thing to marry that passion to teams that struggled to make the journey, finally got their periodic pass to the October ball, and found the queen of the ball laughing in their faces when they asked her to dance.

But marrying your passion to teams who get to the top of Mount Nebo as regularly as the Atlanta Braves and the Los Angeles Dodgers and get kicked to the rocks below when they thought they’d cross to the Promised Land at last, just as regularly?

The Braves haven’t won the World Series since NASA lost contact with Pioneer 11. The Dodgers haven’t won it since the birth of Donald Trump’s fourth White House communications director (Hope Hicks). For a little perspective, the Milwaukee Brewers, the San Diego Padres, the Seattle Mariners, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Texas Rangers, and the Colorado Rockies have never yet reached the Promised Land.

The Braves have eighteen division titles since 1991, including that staggering (if you disallow the season disruption of the 1994 strike) fourteen straight, with five pennants and that one World Series win. The Dodgers have thirteen division titles since 1988, including the incumbent eight straight, with two pennants (back-to-back) and no World Series wins.

The demigods of the Elysian Fields being who they are, naturally the Braves and the Dodgers played for the pennant in this pandemically arrayed season almost straight out of Bizarro World.

Commissioner Rob Manfred’s pandemic-inspired short irregular season inspired his too-far-expanded postseason experiment that actually allowed two teams with irregular season losing records (the since-vanquished Brewers and the Houston Astros with identical 29-31 records) to enter in the first place. Perhaps with exemplary and extraterrestrial justice, the World Series will feature nobody whose butts weren’t parked in first place at irregular season’s end.

But I digress. Too many teams lose because someone does what he knows is wrong and nobody else has the presence or the authority to stop him. Too many more teams lose because someone doing the right thing has it blow up in his face courtesy of the unexpected countermove or glitch.

Too many fans, too, cling tighter if their teams’ histories feature too deep a canon of falling short when it was time to stand the tallest. It’s never the other guys who were just that much better, it’s their guys who can only and always dissemble. Even if they didn’t dissemble. Even if the parallel to the law that somebody has to lose is that everybody gets to play again tomorrow or next year.

Braves fans are starting the choke memes already, if they didn’t start them right after Dansby Swanson and Austin Riley ran them out of a possible game-out-of-reach rally in the top of the fourth inning in National League Championship Series Game Seven.

Well, maybe they waited until Mookie Betts fleeced Freddie Freeman with a staggering, solo home run-stealing catch that would have fattened a Braves lead back to two runs in the top of the fifth Sunday night. Maybe they waited until pinch hitter Enrique Hernandez tied the game at three with a leadoff solo home run in the bottom of the sixth.

Maybe they waited until Cody Bellinger broke the tie with a solo bomb in the bottom of the seventh and Julio Urias finished what he started, three innings’ shutout relief.

Maybe.

Swanson didn’t cut his Braves off at their own pass by going rogue, exactly. He tried turning a mistake into a virtue and learned the hard way that the other guys administer justice but not mercy.

When Nick Markakis grounded one sharply to Justin Turner right of the third base line, Swanson probably should have stood fast forcing Turner to take the sure out at first keeping two runners in scoring position. But he ran on contact.

Swanson tried for the textbook play when Turner threw home right on the button, getting himself into the rundown starting maybe fifteen feet from the plate, the better to leave Austin Riley—whose RBI single busted the tie to set up first and second, which became second and third on a wild pitch—room to take third and keep at least one insurance run ninety feet from the plate with two on and one out for on-deck batter Cristian Pache.

What Swanson didn’t expect was Riley at second hesitating before breaking for third. Maybe Riley saw no chance to advance at first no matter how well Swanson handled things on the rundown track. When Riley broke for third at last, Turner tagged Swanson with a Superman-like dive and threw from his knees to shortstop (and eventual NLCS MVP) Corey Seager hustling to cover third just before the dive.

Riley dropped into his slide the split second Turner threw. He was D.O.A. It turned out that so were the Braves from there, but they still had five innings to atone. They didn’t bargain on the Dodgers’ relief pitching keeping them to one measly walk the rest of the night.

Neither did they bargain on the Dodgers’ Game Six starter Walker Buehler flicking away the bases loaded and nobody out in the second inning by striking out the next two batters before inducing an inning-ending ground out. Never mind Betts robbing Marcell Ozuna with that likewise back-to-the-wall-scaling, extra base hit-stealing catch in the fifth.

Neither did they bargain on their pitching staff that became a shutout machine in the earlier postseason rounds suddenly proving human, after all. Or, on the Dodgers shaking off manager Dave Roberts’ day-late/dollar-short lift of Clayton Kershaw with Game Four tied at one to win three straight elimination games for the pennant.

It would have been mad fun to see the Braves tangle with the Rays in the World Series. The Scrum of the Southeast. But there wouldn’t necessarily have been a guarantee for the Braves. Not against a team that got out-hit by both the Empire Emeritus and the Houston hulks and still found ways to beat them both. Not against a team that hit .171 with men in scoring position all postseason long—and still won the American League pennant.

But I have a personal message for Braves Republic. Go easy on the choke label. The cumulative differences between the Braves and the Dodgers are half a pencil thin. The Dodgers only out-hit the Braves by nine points and only out-pitched the Braves by 1.26 in the ERA column. Makes perfect sense when you remind yourselves as the broadcasters did too often: including the NLCS, the Dodgers scored exactly one more run than the Braves all year.

Timing often has the bigger hand, unfortunately. That and, as good as you are, the other guys proving to be just that little bit better. It’s not as though the Braves were taken down by a fluke team. They didn’t fall to the 1944 St. Louis Browns, the 1945 and 2006 Detroit Tigers, the 1959 Chicago White Sox, or even the 2002 Anaheim Angels. It’s also not as though the Dodgers had to beat a bunch of pushovers to win the National League pennant.

Think about this, too, Braves Republic. What you have now is a team with at least one potential future Hall of Famer on the assumption that a 30-year-old Freeman isn’t on the threshold of his decline phase, and a lot of good-to-great-looking youth on the mound, at the plate, in the field. You have a steady manager and a smart enough front office.

What those fourteen-straight Braves division winners had was as many as four Hall of Famers at once—three top-of-the-line pitchers (Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz) and the arguable number five third baseman of all time (Chipper Jones)—and still had only one World Series ring to show for it.

Even as this year’s Braves go home from this season that will be remembered as Alfred Hitchcock Presents The Inner Sanctum of the Outer Limits of the Twilight Zone, well, Lucy, who got more splainin’ to do?