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.
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.
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.