Yes, again. Within sight of a title, an Atlanta team blows a lead

Braves manager Brian Snitker calls the bullpen before the start of the ninth inning against the Houston Astros in game 5 of the World Series at Truist Park, Sunday, October 31, 2021, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com
Caption
Braves manager Brian Snitker calls the bullpen before the start of the ninth inning against the Houston Astros in game 5 of the World Series at Truist Park, Sunday, October 31, 2021, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

They tricked us. On Halloween, the Braves seized a four-run lead on Adam Duvall’s first-inning grand slam. In grand Atlanta style, they threw it back. Before you could say “28-3,” it was 4-all. A constituency that has seen letdowns by the dozen braced for another.

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The Braves would retake the lead on a Freddie Freeman home run, but the game came undone in the fifth inning. AJ Minter walked home the tying run. Marwin Gonzalez flipped a two-run single into left field. From 4-0 up, the Braves had fallen two runs behind. They would lose 9-5. There would be no clinching this night. If they are to win the World Series, they’ll do it in Houston.

Which was, you’ll recall, the site of the Falcons’ Super Bowl unraveling.

Reality check: The Series isn’t over. The Braves can go 1-1 at Minute Maid Park this week and still be handed the Commissioner’s Trophy. As much as it stings not to stage the ultimate celebration at Truist Park, which was geeked for the occasion, it doesn’t matter where you win it all – provided you win it all.

Said Duvall of his slam: “It’s a nine-inning ballgame. We celebrated it. We got excited. But it’s a long ballgame.”

The elements that brought this team to the cusp of a championship failed Sunday night. For the second consecutive night, they tried a rookie “opener,” as opposed to a real starting pitcher. Neither of their openers – Dylan Lee on Saturday, Tucker Davidson on Sunday – were on the Braves’ roster for the National League Championship Series against the Dodgers. Davidson was added Wednesday to replace Charlie Morton, injured in Game 1.

Davidson lasted longer than Lee had, but Dansby Swanson’s third-inning error – the same Dansby Swanson who tied Saturday’s game in the seventh with a stunning home run – did the rookie no favors. Davidson was replaced by Jesse Chavez, who allowed the two runners he inherited to score.

Chavez would yield to Minter, who had allowed one earned run over 11 playoff innings. In one inning Sunday, the Astros reached Minter for three hits, two walks and three runs. He walked in the tying run. The Astros managed two runs over 18 innings in Games 3 and 4 in Cobb County. They mustered seven over the first five innings of Game 5. Maybe they just started to hit. Maybe they finally saw hittable pitchers. Probably it was both.

Said Minter: “I wouldn’t call it a bad outing. My stuff was as good as any other night.”

Game 5 should have been Morton’s second start of the Series. Instead he’s recovering from surgery to repair the fibula that was broken early in Game 1. His absence reduced the Braves’ rotation to Max Fried and Ian Anderson. The latter worked five no-hit innings in Game 3; the former will start Game 6 on Tuesday. The Braves tried to finesse their way, pitching-wise, through Games 4 and 5. They managed to split. That’s not a terrible return. We say again: They still lead the Series.

In hindsight, their daring escape from Game 4 raised the expectations on Game 5 to a fever pitch. This 88-win team was going to win the Fall Classic in five games, which was asking a lot. Then the game began and Davidson got through the first with aid of a double play. The bottom of the inning saw the Braves load the bases with two out against Framber Valdez, who was displeased with the Ball 4 call on Eddie Rosario, now known as Super Rosario.

Valdez’s first pitch to Duvall was a 95-mph fastball. Duvall drove it over the right-field wall. Truist Park and The Battery went into ecstasy. This was really happening! The Braves were clinching tonight!

The Astros still had eight innings, though. They scored twice in the second off Davidson, who wasn’t fooling anybody. Brian Snitker allowed him to bat for himself in the bottom of the inning. When the Braves’ manager reviews October maneuvers, that’s one he’ll wish he had back. The third inning began with Swanson flubbing Altuve’s grounder. Davidson walked Michael Brantley for the second time. Davidson would exit. Both runners would score.

Freeman led off the bottom of the inning with a 460-foot homer off another Valdez fastball, putting the Braves back in front, but this team was pitching on borrowed time. By the end, Snitker summoned Drew Smyly, which nobody expected to go well. It didn’t. The Astros got five hits in two innings, scoring twice to make it 9-5.

Said Snitker of back-to-back bullpen games: “We knew it was going to be tough. That’s a lot of innings to cover, especially against a club like this.”

Astros 9, Braves 5 (box score)

Another reality check: Without Morton, winning the World Series in five games was asking too much. The Braves are here because they’ve found a workaround – a whole new outfield imported in July! – to almost every problem, but you can’t trade for a No. 1 starter in October.

Now it’s November, and the Braves are still going. I’m pretty good at the gloom-and-doom – I’ve lived here since 1984 – but I see no reason to doubt this team yet. They’ll have Fried in Game 6. If that fails, Anderson will go in Game 7. If that fails … well, let’s hold that thought.

Duvall again: “We’re playing for everything. We’re playing for what we dreamed about when we were little kids. It’s not going to be easy.”

Sunday night was a disappointment. You lead 4-0 at home, you expect to win. But the Braves led 4-0 after one inning, and by the third their rookie opener was gone and the lead was, too. Minter was summoned in the fourth inning, which was early for him. And this bullpen, which has been magnificent in postseason, was way past due to suffer a wobble. Put all that together, and you get …

Game 6 in Houston on Tuesday. That’s not what the Braves and their fans wanted, but it beats the heck out of having no games until next spring.

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