Blasts by Swanson and Soler put the Braves on the cusp of a title

Braves pinch hitter Jorge Soler, facing, celebrates his solo home run with teammates in the dugout to put the Braves up 3-2 against the Houston Astros during the seventh inning of game 4 in the World Series at Truist Park, Saturday October 30, 2021, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton /

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Braves pinch hitter Jorge Soler, facing, celebrates his solo home run with teammates in the dugout to put the Braves up 3-2 against the Houston Astros during the seventh inning of game 4 in the World Series at Truist Park, Saturday October 30, 2021, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton /

The bullpen game hadn’t blown up in the Braves’ faces, but they were down 2-0 after five innings and, for the first time in October, looking as if they’d run out of ideas. Over the 28 innings spanning the fourth inning of Game 1 and the fifth inning of this Game 4, they’d scored five runs – two of those on Travis d’Arnaud homers. Eddie Rosario was still hitting, but that was about it.

The Astros led 2-0 midway through the sixth inning Saturday night. They were 12 outs from tying the World Series and guaranteeing it wouldn’t end in Truist Park. But if there’s anything we’ve learned about the Braves under Brian Snitker, it’s that they, in their manager’s words, play “a tough 27″ – 27 being the number of outs in a regulation game.

They looked helpless, until they didn’t. They scored in the sixth – Rosario doubled; Austin Riley drove him home – and in the seventh they loosed the late-inning lightning we saw in the Braves of the ‘90s and have come to expect from Snitker’s crew. (”Never Quit With Snit” is boilerplate heading on their daily press notes, collating the number of comeback wins.)

Add this to the list. Put it at the top. With two swings, Dansby Swanson, who hadn’t had a homer in postseason, and Jorge Soler, who led off the Series with a drive that made the score 1-0 Braves three pitches in, turned Game 4 around and put this team in position to win it all Sunday night at Truist Park.

Cristian Javier threw two sliders to Swanson, both for strikes. Swanson fouled off the next pitch, also a slider. Javier’s next delivery was a 95-mph fastball. If there’s one thing we know about Swanson, it’s that the man with all the hair can turn on a heater. He drove this 0-2 pitch to right. It cleared the bricks below the Chop House. The game was tied.

“He always loves the big moments,” Snitker said. “He has since he got here.”

Four pitches later, it was tied no more. Javier fell behind Soler 2-1. The next pitch was a slider. “It hung a little bit,” said Soler, who went down and got it, as they say. It cleared the left-field fence and the upraised glove of the 6-foot-5 Yordan Alvarez, barely. These Braves have wrought wonder upon wonder this golden month, but the suddenness of these homers left Truist Park patrons almost breathless.

Said Swanson: “We grinded all night, and it finally came to fruition.”

Yes, it had happened. Yes, the Braves had taken the lead in a game they would win 3-2. And – this above all – they can be world champions by midnight on Halloween.

The Braves had opted for an “opener,” meaning a starter who isn’t a starter. Snitker’s choice was Dylan Lee, cut by the Miami Marlins. Counting these playoffs, he’d worked 4-2/3 big-league innings. All have come in October. He became the first pitcher to make his first career start in the World Series. He’s surely the first World Series starter to see his bullpen begin to ready itself after three pitches.

Jose Altuve grounded Lee’s first pitch toward Swanson, who had to move far to snag it. Altuve beat the throw. Lee’s next two pitches, to Michael Brantley, were balls. It wouldn’t really get worse – Lee walked Brantley, struck out Alex Bregman and walked Yordan Alvarez – before Snitker, a man of mercy, called a halt.

“I was shocked,” Lee said, speaking of being deployed as a starter. “I know I’m a reliever now.”

Lee left after 15 pitches – 10 balls, five strikes – and departed on the brink, it appeared, of tears. Snitker had tried to ease Lee’s load by waiting he arrived at the ballpark Saturday to inform him he’d be starting Game 4 of the 2021 World Series. In the end, his 15-pitch stint did no great harm: Altuve scored on a Carlos Correa groundout after Kyle Wright entered. That was the extent of the damage. Still, the Braves trailed in a Series that hadn’t seen a lead change. (It has now.)

Wright, the former Round 1 draftee who won the clinching game against Miami in the 2020 Division Series, had worked two big-league games this season. He had, however, slipped onto the World Series roster. In the losing Game 2, he struck out the side in the eighth. He was the guy the Braves had targeted for the heavy work in Game 4, and he did his job. He went 4-2/3 innings, allowing only one run – an Altuve homer in the fourth. Wright – and Lee, in a way – kept the Braves in it.

“I’m so proud of Kyle,” Snitker said. “He probably doesn’t know what he did for us tonight.”

Game 4 also was a bullpen game for the Astros, sort of. Zack Greinke is bound for the Hall of Fame. He’s also a 38-year-old pitcher on whom Houston wasn’t sure it could rely. But he’d worked 3,209 career innings, and he tacked on four scoreless ones this night. The Braves put men aboard, but twice they hit into double plays. The game wasn’t nearly over, though it was trending in the wrong direction.

Then Swanson and Soler put it right, and the first-string bullpen – Luke Jackson in the eighth, Will Smith the ninth – kept it there. Oh, and Rosario made another outrageous play, tracking down Altuve’s drive off Jackson to end the eighth. “It’s unbelievable what I was doing tonight,” Rosario said afterward, laughing as he spoke. “Wow, what a catch!”

Said Soler, watching from from the dugout: “We all looked at each other in amazement.”

Said Rosario: “It just happened. That’s it. I threw my glove at it.”

Said Snitker: “I’m not even going to look at it again. That’s not something we put in our instructional videos.”

These Incredibles are 27 outs from being world champs, though all who know Atlanta’s sports history are aware that even the surest thing is never sure. “I think they’ll handle it fine,” said Snitker, speaking of the weight on this team to bring this city a title.

Yes, we’re forever forlorn Atlanta, but these Braves have, for a while now, seemed different. They’re looser. They play hard for each other. And here they stand, having won the most dramatic game of a white-knuckle postseason.

One win to go. One lousy win.