They did it with Jorge Soler, who became a Brave on July 30, staring down Luis Garcia, the Astros’ starting pitcher working on short rest. Garcia struck out Soler in the first inning with a cutter. When the two faced one another again, Garcia was near the end. Soler locked on to everything. He ripped a slider foul down the third-base line. He did the same with a four-seam fastball. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, Garcia’s 42nd and last of the night, there came another cutter.
Soler sent it screaming across the sky. It carried far beyond the Crawford Boxes in left field, landing on the train track that the Astros’ little choo-choo traverses. Exit velocity: 109.6 mph. Distance: 446 feet. Impact: incalculable.
“I was sitting on something offspeed,” Soler said, speaking through interpreter Franco Garcia. “I didn’t want what happened when I struck out the first time.”
The Braves led 3-0. Yeah, they’d led 4-0 in Game 5 on Adam Duvall’s grand slam. This was different. The Braves weren’t trying to make do with an “opener.” This time, the Astros had to deal with Fried, who after a dicey first inning morphed into Mad Max.
Fried was coming off two disappointing starts. This didn’t begin well, either. Jose Altuve beat out a grounder to shortstop. Michael Brantley reached on Fried’s error – he missed the first-base bag after gloving Freddie Freeman’s toss – and stepped on the pitcher’s ankle in the process. Charlie Morton had been lost to a broken leg in Game 1. Had the Braves lost Fried, too?
Fried performed some stretches. He did a few little jumps. He resumed work with two men on and nobody out. He struck out Carlos Correa on a slider, induced Yordan Alvarez to ground out and got Yuli Gurriel looking on a 95-mph fastball. As he walked toward the dugout, Fried – not a rah-rah guy – gave a shout.
The Astros managed leadoff singles in the third and fourth; they were overridden by double plays. Fried needed only 40 pitches to get through four innings. He had his lead. He wasn’t giving it back. He exited after six innings, his team leading by a touchdown. He threw 74 pitches, 50 for strikes.
“You saw the real Max Fried tonight,” Freeman said. “He had a chip on his shoulder after the last two outings.”
Of the 10 teams that qualified for the playoffs, the Braves had the 10th-best record. They crept into October because nobody else in the National League East could build a lead big enough to withstand the makeover the Braves gave themselves at the trade deadline, when general manager Alex Anthopoulos added four outfielders, each of whom made a difference.
Joc Pederson, wearer of pearls, hit the home run that won Game 3 of the Division Series. Eddie Rosario, MVP of the League Championship Series against the Dodgers, has rebranded himself as Super Rosario. Duvall had two homers and six RBIs in the World Series.
And Soler? He missed the NLCS after testing positive for COVID-19. He led off the Fall Classic with a home run. As a pinch-hitter, he won the stunning Game 4 with another. He returned to the city of NASA, and launched a moonshot. He’d started the season as a Royal. He ended it as World Series MVP.
As Freeman, the franchise cornerstone, said early Wednesday morning: “We hit every pothole you could possibly hit, but the car kept running all the way to the World Series.”
Game 6 got merrier as it went. Dansby Swanson hit another home run off poor Cristian Javier, who’d yielded the back-to-blasts from Swanson and Soler that made this Series the Braves’ to lose. Ozzie Albies, dropped from third in the order to seventh, reached base three times and scored twice. Freeman doubled off the wall in left-center to make it 6-0 in the fifth. Just for the heck of it, he homered in the seventh.
Anyone feeling the urge to mention 28-3 and lost leads in Houston drew no laughs. The Braves weren’t losing this. These Braves were not those Falcons.
Said Swanson: “I was here in Houston when the Falcons lost the Super Bowl. No better story could be written than us winning the World Series in Houston.”
Never has a team that didn’t climb over .500 until Aug. 5 made the postseason, let alone won it all. En route, the Braves beat the Brewers, who won 95 games; the Dodgers, who won 106, and now the Astros, who won 95. The Braves trailed only in the Division Series. They didn’t face an elimination game. They were 11-5 in the postseason, which is a winning percentage of .688, which over a 162-game season would mean 111 wins, which would be a stamp of greatness.
That’s what we saw this postseason. A team that spent four months failing to break .500; a team without Ronald Acuna, its most gifted player, and Mike Soroka, its most gifted pitcher; a team that might have been a deadline seller had its GM not been determined to wring everything possible from a season going nowhere … that modest bunch rose up and touched greatness when it mattered most, which is the reverse of recent Braves (and Atlanta) history.
Not that Anthopoulos saw this coming. Nobody saw this coming. He made his moves because the East was still winnable, and any team that reaches the playoffs has a theoretical chance to win the World Series. This team, of all teams, rendered the theoretical a reality. Of the 23 Atlanta-era Braves teams to play in postseason, this had the second-worst record. This team, of all teams, is a champion.
Said Freeman, who recorded the final out on Swanson’s throw: “I’m numb. I’m talking to you all about how it feel, but I’m really not feeling anything yet. ... You probably saw me put the ball in my back pocket right then.”
Said third baseman Austin Riley, speaking before Game 6: “We were searching. There’s no question about that. If you asked me, I was like, ‘A lot of things have to go right for (postseason success) to happen,’ and it has. We’ve made a lot of moves to make it happen. Going through those struggles is what made us bond together as a team. We’re super close. What’s gotten us here is just that bond we have as a team. We believe in each other. I think that goes a long way.”
Then: “You play in this game to be in the World Series, to win a World Series championship. The competitive mind-set of a baseball player is that you don’t ever doubt that. You always think there’s a chance. This game is crazy, and I think everyone sees a lot of crazy things can happen.”
A crazy thing just happened, though it doesn’t seem crazy if you’ve been watching. The 2021 Braves went from being nothing special to being the best team in this tournament by some distance. There was no reason for this to happen, no reason except a GM’s diligence and a 66-year-old manager’s steady hand and a bunch of guys who coalesced in a way that will forever defy belief. This franchise will win more titles. It will never win another this much fun.