For a few minutes, the Braves made it possible to believe that clinching the World Series would be easy.
Left-hander Tucker Davidson was the first potential worry. He was making his postseason debut with a start in Game 5 of the Series. No problem: Davidson got a double-play ball to leave the Astros scoreless after three at-bats.
Then Braves outfielder Adam Duvall hit a grand slam off Framber Valdez in the bottom of the first. The Braves led by four runs. They just needed to hold it for eight innings to clinch the Series in Atlanta, where so many opponents have celebrated series victories in the past.
It wouldn’t be that easy, of course. It’s never been that way for the 2021 Braves. And there was no way the Astros were going out like that. Their championship pedigree is tainted by a cheating scandal, but the core of this Astros teams owns three AL pennants and a World Series title.
The Astros came back twice from deficits in Game 5 and won 9-5. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Astros are the fourth team in MLB history to win a Series elimination game after trailing by four or more runs.
“They’re not going to quit,” Duvall said. “They’re not going to roll over. We’re playing for it all. We’re playing for everything right now. We’re playing for the dreams that we’ve had as a little kid.
“It’s not going to be easy.”
The Braves still lead the best-of-seven series 3-2. They only need to win once more in up to two tries. The series shifts back to Houston for Game 6 on Tuesday and a possible Game 7 on Wednesday. The Braves already won once at Minute Maid Park in this series.
It’s been a long time since the Braves lost consecutive games. It last happened when they dropped four games in a row Sept. 14-18. The Braves are 22-7 since then, including playoffs.
Said Duvall: “We’ve learned to celebrate the win or go over the loss and figure out what we need to do better, and then turn the page and come back.”
Another reason for the Braves to feel good about the circumstances: After constructing two straight games with relievers, lefty starter Max Fried is lined up for Game 6 on Tuesday. He’ll have an extra day of rest and the most heavily-used Braves relievers will get a break.
Houston scored six runs off Fried in Game 2, but the optimistic view of that outing is that he had some bad luck.
“I always feel good when Max pitches,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “He always gives you a chance to win. Our bullpen’s in good shape. Max has got full rest and we should be good to go.”
Houston’s pitching looks to be in worse shape. There is no clear option to start Game 6. The Astros could bring back Luis Garcia on short rest after he needed 72 pitches to get through 3 2/3 innings of Game 3. Otherwise, Houston manager Dusty Baker is looking at another so-called bullpen game in a postseason that’s featured so many.
The Braves don’t have to stretch much at all to believe that all those factors are in their favor. First, they’ll have to get over the sting of squandering a prime chance to end this Series at home. They’ll also spend the next two days hearing about the MLB teams that folded in the Series before them.
The Braves are the 49th team to take a 3-1 lead in the Series. Only seven of the previous 48 failed to go on to win. The 1958 Milwaukee Braves were one of them.
The Braves also have a more recent history of collapse. They blew a 3-1 lead to the Dodgers in the 2020 National League Championship Series. They put that failure further behind them by closing out the Dodgers in this year’s NLCS in six games after leading 3-1. The Braves still can become the first team to squander 3-1 series leads in consecutive postseasons.
The thing for the Braves to do now is block out the noise, like they did before Game 6 of this year’s NLCS, and then take care of business in Houston. They need one more win for their first Series title since 1995. Do that, and they’ll look back on Game 5 as just another setback on the way to the ultimate goal.
That first inning of Game 5 was grand for the Braves. Davidson’s double-play ball calmed the nervous energy at Truist Park. Duvall’s grand slam sent the spectators into a frenzy. He hit it against lefty Valdez, the starter the Braves beat in Game 1.
Said Duvall: “We got excited, and that’s what you do when you hit home runs, but it’s a long game. That happened in the bottom of the first. It’s a nine-inning game, and they didn’t quit. They kept fighting.”
The Astros halved the four-run deficit against Davidson in the second inning. Braves manager Brian Snitker had a decision to make with Davidson due up second in the bottom of the inning. Davidson’s career battling line: 0-for-6 with six strikeouts. Snitker decided to let Davidson hit and hestruck out as the Braves went down in order.
I figured that indicated Snitker was going to give Davidson a relatively long leash for the third inning. Instead, Snitker pulled Davidson after two batters. Jose Altuve reached base on Dansby Swanson’s error and Michael Brantley walked.
Jesse Chavez relieved Davidson and gave up a double that scored Altuve. Gurriel brought home Brantley with a ground out. The Braves’ four-run lead was gone already. That nervous energy was back in the the ballpark.
Astros 9, Braves 5 (box score)
Freddie Freeman’s mammoth homer off Valdez in the bottom of the inning gave the Braves a 5-4 lead. The ball cleared the home bullpen in right-center by some 10 rows. Statcast estimated its distance at 460 feet. The excitement was back at Truist Park.
That one-run advantage lasted until the fifth inning, when the Astros scored three runs off left-hander A.J. Minter. Houston later tacked on two more runs against left-hander Drew Smyly. After not hitting Braves lefties much through four games of the series, the Astros racked up nine runs (seven earned) and 10 hits against them in Game 5.
That’s something the Braves will have to fix for Game 6. Lefty Fried is set to start and they have three lefties at the back end of the bullpen. It will be another hard thing for them to figure out. That’s how it goes in the World Series against a tough opponent like Houston.
The start of Game 5 was an illusion for the Braves. It was never going to be that easy to finish off the Astros.