It’s almost a cliché to say that a team which falls behind 3-1 in a best-of-seven playoff series has been pushed to the brink. If that’s the case, the Houston Astros went to the brink and a little beyond and survived to tell about it.
The Astros bounced back from a first-inning grand slam clubbed by Atlanta’s Adam Duvall, beating the Braves 9-5 on Sunday and sending the World Series back to Houston for Game 6 on Tuesday. Atlanta still maintains a 3-2 series lead.
To hear Houston manager Dusty Baker tell it, the Astros’ motivation was pretty simple.
“We didn’t want to end here with the celebration here,” Baker said.
Duvall’s slam put a charge into the standing-room-only throng at Truist Park, eager to see the Braves clinch their first title since 1995 and the first since the club moved into its five-year-old park in suburban Cobb County.
At that point, history was not on Houston’s side. The Braves became the first team to score four runs in a potential World Series clincher since the 1961 Yankees, who went on to cruise to a 13-5 win over the Reds to win the title 60 years ago.
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On top of that, teams were 45-3 all time when holding a lead of four or more runs at any point of a potential clincher, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Make it 45-4. And Baker, whose 2002 Giants were the last team to blow a lead that big in a World Series clinching scenario, felt like if it had to happen and it’s good that it happened with plenty of game left.
“I always say, ‘if it’s going to happen, let it happen early,'” Baker said. “You don’t want it to happen in the middle of the game or toward the end of the game. The guys came through. That’s what counts.”
In a vacuum, if there is any team that should feel at ease in trying to overcome a four-run deficit with the end of the season staring them down, it’s the Astros. Besides Houston’s extensive postseason experience — five straight trips to the ALCS and three pennants in five seasons — this was baseball’s most prolific offense during the regular season and an attack that managed to become even more productive once the playoffs began.
That is until the World Series began and the Astros struggled to a .206 team batting average during the first four games against Atlanta. Houston was shut out on two hits during Friday’s Game 3 loss and managed just two runs in a 3-2 Game 4 loss on Saturday.
Add up the 3-1 series hole, the early 4-0 deficit in Game 5, the struggles of the offense and it made for a grim scenario to everyone, it seems, except the Astros.
“I say keep fighting,” Astros shortstop Carlos Correa said. “I’m a huge MMA fan, and I’ve seen lots of guys almost knocked out, and they battle back to win the fight.”
The Astros weren’t knocked out by their early deficit and the seeds for that turnaround might have been planted before the game. After two straight days of chill, drizzle and mist meant the infield at Truist Park remained under a tarp before the games, and wiped out batting practice, Sunday’s game was played in cool but dry conditions.
Thus both clubs were able to get on the field before the game and go through their normal pregame drills. This was a particular boon for the Astros, who struggled to acclimate to a park in which they had only played two games prior to this series and none since 2017.
“Today really felt like the World Series because they got to go on the field and see all the people and see all the media,” Baker said. “It felt like the World Series, where the other [games] felt like we were coming out of the dungeon and just going to play. So that was big, the fact that we got to get on the field.”
Whether or not that was the key, the Astros outscored the Braves 9-1 after their early hole, an outburst keyed by the bottom of the order.
Baker shuffled his lineup after the offense’s struggles during the first two games in Atlanta, dropping All-Star third baseman Alex Bregman to seventh in the batting order. Bregman was one of the beneficiaries of the dry conditions, which he took advantage of with extra work in the batting cage before the game.
After managing just one hit over the first four games of the Series, Bregman drove in Houston’s first run with a ringing double in the top of the second, minutes after Duvall’s grand slam.
“I think that was the key of us winning the game right there, bouncing back right away,” Correa said. “Those two runs, Bregman getting the huge double. Getting the confidence all the way up.”
Bregman’s double was just the tip of the iceberg for the bottom of the Houston lineup. Batting eighth, light-hitting catcher Martin Maldonado drove in three runs. And batting as a pinch-hitter in the nine-hole, Marwin Gonzalez stroked a key two-run single.
“Whatever way you bring a run, especially in the [playoffs], is huge,” Maldonado said. “You get good at-bats, whatever the situation dictates. You try to work through it.”
The Astros worked through their dance with the brink of elimination and suddenly are headed back to the heart of Texas, still down, but very much alive. The Braves could have been the first champion since the 2013 Red Sox to celebrate a title on their home field. Now, only the Astros can snap that drought.
“The pressure’s still on us because they’ve got the lead,” Baker said. “They’ve got to win one and we’ve got to win two. But the fact is we are going home.”
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