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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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).
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.