Atlanta Out-bullpens Houston To Take a 3-1 Series Lead

Sometimes, you have to let Dylan Lee pitch. Lee wasn’t supposed to be part of Atlanta’s plans for the playoffs. He wasn’t supposed to be part of Atlanta’s plans for the year, period: the Marlins released him just before the start of this season, and the Braves picked him up and stashed him in Triple-A for depth. He was added to the NLCS roster to replace Huascar Ynoa (Lee was on the NLDS roster but didn’t pitch), then tabbed to start tonight’s game as an opener.

Sometimes, you have to give Kyle Wright bulk innings. After Lee let three of the first four Astros reach base, Wright came into the game, no doubt earlier than Brian Snitker had intended. He wriggled out of the jam with only a single run in, getting Carlos Correa on a grounder before striking Kyle Tucker out to end the threat.

Like Lee, Wright wasn’t part of Atlanta’s playoff plans. He wasn’t on the NLDS or NLCS roster, and he threw only six innings in the big leagues this year. With Ynoa out, the Braves wanted someone to get them bulk innings, and Wright made 24 starts in the minors this season; he figured to be a mop-up guy who could handle bulk innings in case of emergency.

Like Lee, Wright struggled to tame a deep Houston lineup. He’s a sinker-first, sinker-second pitcher, and the Astros eat minor league sinker-ballers for lunch. The Astros swung at 17 sinkers; they missed exactly once. Of the 22 Astros he faced, eight reached base. Jose Altuve socked a home run. Houston had at least two runners on base in four of the first five innings.

That sounds dire, but relax, Atlanta fans: it’s all a setup to talk about how well Lee and (mainly) Wright did. The Astros were comfortably the best hitting team in baseball this year. They excelled against every pitch type, but fastballs most of all. The Braves used two afterthoughts, two guys they repeatedly left off their major league roster throughout the season, and fought the Astros to more than a standstill. Two runs in five innings? That would be one of the worst offenses in baseball, and the worst offenses in baseball have to face major league pitchers, not two guys the Braves called up from Gwinnett.

For most of the game, the Braves offense looked like it might waste the golden opportunity Lee and Wright gave them. Zack Greinke, who drew the start for Houston, was in fine form. Greinke isn’t the pitcher he was at his peak, but his guile was on display tonight. He mixed 90 mph fastballs with 88 mph changeups in classic Greinke fashion, and sprinkled in a curveball that averaged 70 mph. That curveball was absolutely magnificent — he threw seven, and got a double play, a flyout, a foul, and four strikes for his trouble.

Oh yeah — Greinke can hit, too. In the second, he laced a single into center, 104 mph off the bat. In the third, he came up with the bases loaded and nearly broke the game wide open; he hit a 100 mph grounder right back up the middle and was out by a step at first base. Greinke is the sport’s preeminent pitcher-hitter (non-Ohtani division), and he showed it tonight.

In the top of the fifth, Wright’s pitching and Greinke’s hitting were due to collide again. With runners on first and third and two out, Wright intentionally walked Yuli Gurriel to bring Greinke (the first pitcher to bat anywhere higher than ninth in the World Series since Babe Ruth) to the plate. Only one problem — Dusty Baker preferred a real hitter, so he pulled Greinke from the game after only 14 batters and 58 pitches. Marwin Gonzalez took the at-bat instead, and lofted a lazy fly ball into left to end the inning. Baker has used a short leash on all of his pitchers this postseason, and fine, Gonzalez is probably a better hitter than Greinke — but the at-bat marked a turning point in the game.

The Braves couldn’t get anything going against Greinke. They managed only four singles, never truly threatening. After a clean inning by Ryne Stanek, Atlanta found purchase. Eddie Rosario doubled off of Brooks Raley before Austin Riley drove him in. Just like that, half of Houston’s work was undone.

That run was just an appetizer. Raley couldn’t finish the inning, which meant Phil Maton had to clean up. It took him 17 pitches, which meant Baker couldn’t attempt to extend him for another inning. That brought Cristian Javier into the game to start the seventh, with the bottom of Atlanta’s order due up.

Javier lives and dies with fly balls. His high-four-seam approach produces plenty of whiffs and pop ups, but he’s always pitching on a razor’s edge. Leave a high fastball a little low, or don’t give it enough spin, and it’s a middle-middle cookie. Likewise, he has occasional bouts of wildness, which means he’s sometimes throwing in-zone breaking balls to get back into counts. Miss with one of those — well, you get the idea. Javier was solid this year, with a 3.55 ERA and 30.7% strikeout rate over 100 innings — and he also gave up nearly 1.5 home runs per nine innings. If you beat him, you’re doing it with walks and the long ball.

Tonight, the Braves had Javier’s number. Dansby Swanson was behind 0-2 when Javier tried to throw a high fastball by him. He left it belt high, and though Swanson was late on it, he still muscled it over the right field wall. One pitch, and the Houston lead was completely undone. Swanson has looked so bad at the plate these playoffs that he’s down to hitting eighth in the order (his two most common spots this season were fifth and sixth), but you’re only as hot or cold as your last swing, and when it mattered most, Swanson got hot.

The Braves weren’t done. The next batter was Jorge Soler, a pinch hitter. Javier fell behind in the count 2-1, and tried to do what he often does — sneak a slider in for a strike. He left it right over the middle of the plate, and Soler obliterated it. He hit it with such ferocious topspin that it looked like Yordan Alvarez might have a play at the wall, but no such luck: Soler’s 107 mph missile put Atlanta ahead for good.

When the Braves first scored in the sixth inning to make it 2-1, Brian Snitker sensed opportunity. For the first six innings, he’d managed for tomorrow. Lee and Wright handled the first five innings. Chris Martin, who had previously thrown only two innings all playoffs, got the sixth. When the game tightened, though, Snitker smelled blood. He went to the top of the bullpen: Tyler Matzek threw a scoreless seventh, then Luke Jackson and Will Smith followed.

The teeth of Atlanta’s bullpen shut Houston down. In three innings, they allowed only one hit, a two-out single by Tucker. It wasn’t always pretty — Jackson gave up a fly ball against Altuve that nearly left the park before Rosario made a beautiful running catch at the wall — but Houston’s batters looked bereft of inspiration, simply hoping to run into something.

Those three relievers deserve plaudits, of course. It’s hard to shut down the Houston offense, so deep that its sixth- and seventh-place hitters had an aggregate 140 wRC+ in the regular season. But the star of the show was undoubtedly Wright, who danced through raindrops all night long and barely got wet. Despite a constant stream of baserunners, he seemed to come up with a big out whenever he needed it. When he gave up a home run, no one was on base, naturally enough. It wasn’t pretty — he got only six swinging strikes all night, and only struck out three Astros — but baseball is scored in runs, not aesthetics.

For Atlanta, this was a pivotal game in the series. Losing Charlie Morton was a huge blow, but the Braves essentially constructed a Morton performance out of whole cloth tonight. Six innings, two runs? If Morton had managed that, he’d add to his postseason legend, and Wright (with “help” from Lee and backup from Martin) basically matched those results. The Braves will bullpen another game tomorrow, but tonight’s success means that even if the experiment doesn’t work again, they’ll head back to Houston with their best two starters going and a 3-2 lead. And hey, it could easily work again!

The Astros had their chances. On a different night, Greinke’s grounder in the third inning might find a hole, or any of a number of Astros might have pulverized a pitch over the wall with runners on base and turned the contest into a laugher. Sometimes you don’t, though, even when the opposing pitchers aren’t All-Stars. That’s just baseball, and the Wright-led Braves were better than the Astros tonight.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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