With Help From Some Unlikely Hitters, Astros Force Game 6 After 9-5 Win

“Fortune favors the brave(s).”

Matt Damon uses something like this phrase to punctuate an ill-conceived cryptocurrency commercial that has been running during the World Series, the copy for which includes more polysyllabic words (that aren’t “Domino’s” or “America”) than most ads. To this point, the commercial had provided an eerie narration of the Series itself. Atlanta had been the team improvising (Dylan Lee opening Game 4) and experimenting (Ozzie Albies hitting right-on-right), sometimes out of necessity (Game 5 starter Tucker Davidson), and it was Atlanta that entered Sunday night with a commanding 3-1 series lead before leaping out to a 4-0 lead in Game 5. But with their backs against the wall, the iron-jawed Astros withstood a first-inning grand slam and battled back to win 9-5, sending the series back to Houston.

The game began with tremendous good fortune for Atlanta. In the first, Albies was treated to a shift-aided, room service double play ball off the bat of Carlos Correa that erased a Michael Brantley walk and ushered Davidson past what was likely a jittery inning of work. In the bottom half of the frame, the topspin of a chopper off the bat of Jorge Soler made the ball’s hop shallow, allowing it to slip underneath the glove of Alex Bregman, who expected the hop to be bigger. That gave the Braves a meaningful extra out to work with, and instead of an Albies groundout ending the would-be five-pitch inning for Houston starter Framber Valdez, Austin Riley and Eddie Rosario were able to prolong the first with a single and walk before Adam Duvall delivered a huge blow in the form of a wall-scraping, opposite-field grand slam.

But Houston dug their heels in and Davidson’s cracks began to show in the second. A Yuli Gurriel leadoff single drastically altered Davidson’s approach to pitching. Only three of his next 21 pitches were fastballs; one of them became a Bregman RBI double. Bregman, who had been 1-for-the-World Series, walked up to the cold-blooded Braves organist playing Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” then smacked a double into the opposite field gap to plate Gurriel from first and push Kyle Tucker, who had walked, to third base. That set the table for a Martín Maldonado sacrifice fly, halving Atlanta’s lead.

In the third, a sequence mirroring Atlanta’s big first inning (defensive misplay, walk, double) unfolded for the Astros. An error by Bregman’s draft classmate Dansby Swanson provided Houston’s offense with the extra oxygen, and a Correa double plated a run on its own and put Astros baserunners in scoring position for a manufactured run, this one via a Gurriel groundout. Houston had absorbed the initial blow of Duvall’s slam and tied the game.

Jesse Chavez, who replaced Davidson during the third inning, has been who Braves manager Brian Snitker has called upon to warm up early in games when the team’s starter struggles. In most instances, Chavez hasn’t actually been needed. Here however, Snitker went to him, and even though it was only the third inning (Chavez would accrue five outs), it felt a little conservative to have Chavez face Correa, Yordan Alvarez, and Tucker with Atlanta’s precious early lead hanging in the balance, rather than one of the lefties (A.J. Minter or Tyler Matzek) Snitker has been turning to for important mid-game moments.

To cap off a dramatic couple of innings, Freddie Freeman hit an epic 460 foot solo shot to lead off the bottom of the third, pushing Atlanta ahead 5-4. This prompted activity in the Astros’ bullpen. Yimi García would come on to finish the third for the Astros — Houston got just 2.2 innings from Framber Valdez, who has gone fewer than three innings in three of his postseason starts — and they’d successfully bridge five relievers (Yimi, José Urquidy, two innings of Phil Maton, Ryan Stanek, and two innings of Kendall Graveman) across 6.1 innings of shutout ball to put an end to the Braves’ scoring. Atlanta’s bullpen would not be so lucky.

An otherwise uneventful fourth inning was marked by a Zack Greinke pinch-hit single. Had he been the final pitcher of the series to hit, it would have been a strong end to an era of baseball that this author happened to enjoy, and will mourn the loss of if and when a universal DH is implemented in the next CBA. The hitting pitcher created the opportunity to appreciate an unlikely triumph or feat of strength, and to marvel at an individual’s overall athleticism and hand-eye coordination in a way that is unique to baseball. I found it worthwhile to sit through watching the lousy hitting pitchers if it meant enjoying the ones who were good, and consider the folks excited for the end of this distinctive feature of National League baseball incapable of properly appreciating our game’s athletic nuances. (Of course, in the ninth, Graveman stood like a mannequin and fought his inner child as he watched six pitches whizz past him in a World Series game, and I felt like an idiot.)

One of the natural alternatives to Chavez in the third was bulldog lefty Minter, who came in in relief of Chavez to end the fourth and had been nearly untouchable throughout the postseason. Snitker stuck with him to start the fifth, when he’d face Correa and the rest of the middle of Houston’s lineup. A pair of singles (Correa, Gurriel), with both runners advancing on a fielder’s choice, was followed by a two-out intentional walk of Bregman to get to Maldonado, who began to play mind games with Minter. As noted by the broadcast, the big-bodied catcher deviated from his usual spot in the batter’s box and crowded the plate. He took pitches, showing zero visible intention of swinging, until he saw his first strike. After running a 3-1 count, he squared to bunt in very dramatic fashion and a seemingly surprised Minter yanked the 3-1 pitch into the right-handed batter’s box, walking in a run. Then Marwin Gonzalez, who hadn’t recorded an RBI since September 20, wrote the epilogue to his Astros career with a pinch-hit, two-RBI single. Houston had taken a 7-5 lead and didn’t look back.

Still, the Astros chipped away, adding insurance runs in the seventh and eighth. One of those came courtesy of another Maldonado RBI, his third of the day. He and Correa, who went 3-for-5 with a double and made several great defensive plays, were the most important individual Astros. Even with the off day Monday, Houston was likely able to compromise a little bit of Atlanta’s Game 6 bullpen in the process, as lefty Drew Smyly threw three relief innings for the Braves. Meanwhile, the Astros’ late insurance runs helped preserve and refresh some of their bullpen components, though Maton will now be coming off having thrown three innings in two days.

After the game, Dusty Baker confirmed that Luis Garcia, who started Game 3 on October 29, will start Game 6 for Houston. The Astros will face lefty Max Fried, a player they had in their mix for the 2012 draft’s first pick until, due to bonus pool considerations, they shifted their attention to Carlos Correa.

Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

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2 years ago

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