Braves Get Huge Win, Suffer Huge Loss

With a 6-2 win over the Houston Astros in Game 1 of the 2021 World Series, the Atlanta Braves had their biggest win of the season. In the third inning of the same game, they suffered one of their biggest loses.

The game started with arguably the most exciting three-batter sequence this postseason, and that excitement, along with the increased adrenaline of the World Series being underway, masked what was causing the Braves’ early rally. On the third pitch of the game, Jorge Soler cranked an up-and-in sinker for a no-doubter home run into the Crawford Boxes to give the Braves a 1-0 lead. On the fifth pitch of the game, Jose Altuve made a tremendous defensive play to his right in order to rob Freddie Freeman of what looked like a sure single. The next batter, second baseman Ozzie Albies, beat out an infield single and stole a base to give everyone in the country free tacos — bad tacos, but free ones nonetheless.

Behind all of this, Framber Valdez couldn’t command his sinker, often missing locations in the zone, and couldn’t control his curveball, often missing the zone entirely. He threw 21 pitches in the first inning, only 11 of which went for strikes, and found himself behind in the count against three of the first four batters.

These kind of showings sometimes just happen with Valdez. Among pitchers who threw at least 130 innings this season, he was one of just six with a walk rate of 10% or higher. Still, we’re frequently victims of recency bias, and his last time out, Valdez delivered perhaps the most brilliant start of the playoffs with eight phenomenal innings against Boston in Game 5 of the ALCS. That’s the start everyone was talking about heading into the night, having conveniently forgotten that five days before he didn’t get through the third inning while walking three and throwing just 35 of his 64 pitches for strikes.

Now, there are games where it only takes the next batter for Valdez to find his ability to locate. But sometimes it takes the next inning, and sometimes, as was the case on Tuesday night, it just never happens. The Braves plated a run during a second inning that should have gone much worse for Houston, but a Joc Pederson baserunning miscue and a brutal three pitch at-bat by Austin Riley to end the frame limited the damage. Valdez was given another chance to find his mojo, but the third inning began with an Eddie Rosario single, followed by a screaming line drive home run from Adam Duvall against a rare and ill-conceived changeup. That gave Atlanta a 5-0 lead, and Valdez’s night was mercifully over after giving up an average exit velocity of nearly 100 mph. To say the Braves hit Valdez hard really doesn’t do it justice.

Despite the victory, and the importance of every win during a seven-game series, not all of the news was good for the Braves. In the bottom of the second, Yuli Gurriel hit a 102.4 mph line drive that caromed off of Charlie Morton’s leg to Freeman for an unusual 1-3 groundout.

At the time, it felt like it might have looked worse than it actually was, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Morton waived off the trainer before striking out Chas McCormick swinging and getting Martín Maldonado to line out. A half inning later (a half inning that saw five Atlanta hitters come to the plate), Morton struck out Altuve looking on a curveball. He seemed to land awkwardly on the pitch and left the game. X-rays would reveal that he pitched to those final three batters with a fractured right fibula as a result of the comebacker; his World Series is over. He pitched to three batters, retiring them all while touching 96 mph, with a broken leg.

It’s a brutal blow to the Braves, who, given their a sizable lead, were lined up to pull a healthy version of Morton early and have a well rested ace for his next start. Instead they’ll likely need to lean on Drew Smyly to return to the rotation, a significant drop-off and one that makes their Game 1 victory even more essential.

With a five-run lead and his ace on the mound, the game looked like it wouldn’t need much in the way of strategy from Braves manager Brian Snitker, but suddenly he needed 20 outs from his bullpen. In a postseason filled with unlikely heroes, A.J. Minter became the latest. Averaging less than an inning per outing during the regular season as a situational reliever, Minter tossed two innings (never more) just three times during the regular season. But he’s become a bit of bulk guy in the playoffs, and Snitker leaned on him for 2.2 innings, or 40 percent of those needed outs; he allowed just one run.

That set Atlanta up for the final four innings with the team’s usual sequence of relievers. Those relievers did what they had to do with a good-sized lead: throw strikes. Of the 101 pitches thrown by Braves pitchers following Morton’s premature departure, 70 were strikes. Collectively, the quartet of Minter, Luke Jackson, Tyler Matzek and Will Smith allowed seven hits over their 6.2 innings. But the damage of scattered hits is greatly mitigated when a pitcher doesn’t generate their own traffic with free passes, and Smith’s walk of Aledmys Díaz to lead off the ninth inning was the only base on balls allowed by the bullpen.

With game-story duty tonight, I kept score in a half-full scorebook I purchased a decade ago. It keeps me more engaged with the game and creates a well-organized timeline of the action to refer to throughout the evening. Tonight’s game brought back memories of the first game I can recall keeping score during. Thirty-nine years ago, Milwaukee trounced the Cardinals 10-0 in Game 1 of that World Series. Mike Caldwell spun a three-hit gem. Paul Molitor and Robin Yount combined to go 9-for-12 in the first two spots of the Brewers lineup. The Brewers would go on to lose the World Series, proving that while Game 1 is important, it’s far from everything. The Braves outplayed the Astros in nearly every aspect on Tuesday night, but there’s still plenty of baseball to be played, and Atlanta is suddenly without their postseason ace. It’s the start to the series that they needed, even more so following Morton’s diagnosis, but this one is far from over.





Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

64 Comments
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nktokyo
11 months ago

Ooof, that makes it harder. Morton is a stud. Terrible move by the Rays to not re-up him last year.

dukewinslowmember
11 months ago
Reply to  nktokyo

Curious if they try to get Fried 3 starts. He’s going tonight and I imagine game 5.

D-Wizmember
11 months ago
Reply to  dukewinslow

I imagine he’ll be available in a hypothetical Game 7, but starting Games 2-5-7 (and pitching at all deep into the game) is a tall order.

dukewinslowmember
11 months ago
Reply to  D-Wiz

Yeah. I imagine a long leash tonight, and very short one game 5

JohnThackermember
11 months ago
Reply to  D-Wiz

Funny thing, that has happened once in Braves’ history, and not by Warren Spahn. In 1957, Spahn pitched games 1 and 4, and Lew Burdette pitched (complete games) in 2, 5, and 7, winning MVP.

Why wasn’t it Spahn in Game 7? Spahn came down with the 1957 pandemic Asian flu, one of the more deadly outbreaks (that the PRC, then not a WHO member, didn’t tell other countries about.)

JohnThackermember
11 months ago
Reply to  dukewinslow

If they don’t plan to get him 3 starts (or have him available for game 7 at least), then pitching him 2-6 makes more sense than Game 5, doesn’t it? Games 2 and then 5 would still be short rest, since it’s a 2-3-2 travel schedule.

Better Fried on normal rest in Game 6 than short rest in Game 5, if he’s not getting 3 starts. You’re using the bullpen in other games anyway.

Unless the strategy is

First, we’ll use Max,
Then an off day,
Then we’ll use Ian,
Followed by rain.
Back will come Max
Followed by Ian
And followed,
We Hope,
By two days of rain

(Had to swap lines 2 and 3 due to the travel schedule.)

MichaelProcton
11 months ago
Reply to  dukewinslow

I think they’ve still got to feel good about things knowing they’re up 1-0 and can start Fried and Anderson (both of whom are better than any starter Houston has) in four of the six remaining on normal rest.

TKDCmember
11 months ago
Reply to  dukewinslow

Absolutely not. That sort of “imaginative” pitcher usage may be why the Braves are here instead of the Dodgers. There is no reason to emulate abject failure.

sadtrombonemember
11 months ago
Reply to  TKDC

I want to upvote this a million times. Almost every single team in this playoffs has gotten way too cute with pitching starters on short rest, pulling them early, and testing their bullpen. As far as I can tell, the Braves have been the least clever in this way, and it’s paid off for them. (the Astros have gotten cute but it’s because all their starters got hurt, so I think it’s a little different for them)

hughduffy
11 months ago
Reply to  TKDC

With Fried and Anderson starting Games 2 and 3, and potentially games 6 and 7, that leaves two bullpen games in Games 4 and 5.
Easiest way out for the Braves? Sweep it in 4, problem solved.
Game 4 was probably going to be Chavez to Smyly to others to begin with.
At this point, Game 5 will probably have Kyle Wright and whomever the Braves call up in place of Charlie. Webb, Muller, Davidson, Toussaint, and Strider are among the options. That said, back to back bullpen games will be rough.
You only hit the panic button for Game 5 if it is an elimination game. Maybe not even then. Fried on short rest may not be better than a bullpen game.

Ivan_Grushenkomember
11 months ago
Reply to  hughduffy

Back to back bullpen might be rough but it’s still probably better than sticking 70% of Fried and Anderson out there. If they’re still in the game after 5 innings of Chavez and Wright/Smyly the pen gives them a good chance. The other option is punting a game with Wright and Smyly and low leverage relievers, and going all out with 2ish innings apiece with the top 4 relievers and Chavez in the other game.

JohnThackermember
11 months ago
Reply to  hughduffy

And Fried on short rest in Game 5 means Anderson on short rest in Game 6… unless you make Game 6 be the bullpen game that 5 would have been anyway. And if you pitch Anderson in short rest then, since we’re already talking elimination Game 5, you’re left with a bullpen Game 7.

Since you’re getting that bullpen game anyway, might as well make it Game 5 and have Fried and Anderson on normal rest.

Dmjn53
11 months ago
Reply to  TKDC

The Dodgers pitching wasn’t an abject failure, they gave up exactly 4.0 runs per game in the NLCS