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ATLANTA — You didn’t think the Astros were going to just go softly into the offseason, did you?
This season, Houston led the majors in hits, runs, RBIs, and batting average. The Astros ranked second in OPS and third in slugging percentage. They’d spent the first two games of the World Series in Atlanta looking like their bats had gotten lost in baggage claim, managing a mere two runs on 10 hits across 18 innings.
So it was always a matter of when, not if, the Astros would bust out the big sticks. “When” arrived Sunday night in Game 5 of the World Series, and it didn’t even matter that the Atlanta Braves streaked out to a four-run lead on one swing of Adam Duvall’s bat. The Astros needed only five outs to catch the Braves and six more to pass them en route to a 9-5 victory.
The Braves held a 3-1 series lead coming into the night, but from the jump, the odds weren’t in their favor. No team had ever gone 8-0 at home in a single postseason; the Braves were one win away from managing that feat. On a more franchise-level scale, the team was fighting its own recent history; the Braves are now 4-12 in their last 16 clinching opportunities.
Atlanta fans showed up strong for the team’s first shot to clinch a World Series victory in 26 years, swarming not just throughout the stadium but in the surrounding Battery district as well. Lines to buy souvenirs stretched nearly two hours. Those that made it to their seats by the start of the game saw a parade of Braves legends, from Greg Maddux to Dale Murphy, fire up an already-amped crowd.
Maddux, who threw out the first pitch, was a perfect visual metaphor for the vast difference between baseball of the 90s and today. In his five World Series games with Atlanta, Maddux averaged nearly eight innings a start. Sunday night, the Braves opted to go with a bullpen game, mixing and matching arms for short sprints.
Compared to Dylan Lee, who started Game 4 after pitching all of two regular season innings in the majors, Game 5 starter Tucker Davidson is a crusty veteran. Davidson has started five games in his career, none since June 15. Pitching on 138 days’ rest, he struck out Jose Altuve and erased a walk to Michael Brantley by inducing a double-play grounder out of Carlos Correa.
Houston sent Framber Valdez to the mound five days after his disastrous Game 1 start, and he didn’t take long to hurl Houston into a deep hole. Jorge Soler singled out of the gate, his hard shot hopping right off the glove of third baseman Alex Bregman, and two outs later, the Braves loaded the bases for Duvall. Valdez dealt his first pitch, a 95-mph sinker, and Duvall blasted it into a crowd of diners past the right-field wall. Atlanta held a four-run lead, Truist Park and the Battery beyond were ecstatic, and for a brief moment, all was right in Atlanta.
But this is Atlanta, where no victory ever comes easy, no postseason is without pain. Aside from a breakout Game 2, the Astros had swung toothpicks for the majority of the series, but in the second inning, they started swinging lumber. Yuli Gurriel singled, Kyle Tucker walked, and then Bregman, one of many Astros who’d struggled all series, doubled to center field. Gurriel singled and Tucker held up at third, scoring on Martin Maldonado’s sacrifice fly. Just like that, half of Atlanta’s lead vanished before the fans had stopped cheering for Duvall’s grand slam.
Atlanta continued to play the role of generous host in the top of the third, giving back two more runs and squaring up the game again. Davidson came out to start the third, and promptly put two men on base — Altuve via an error on Dansby Swanson, Brantley via walk. Both would end up scoring after Jesse Chavez came on in relief. By then, it was clear that the Braves’ duct-tape-and-prayer bullpen games were fraying, the absence of the injured Charlie Morton wearing on the staff.
Valdez started the third and promptly gave up a monster, never-in-doubt 460-foot home run to Freddie Freeman. Valdez had been rocked for eight hits and five runs in two innings in Game 1, and he gave up another five over the first three innings of Game 5. Two outs later, he walked Rosario, and that was it for his night. Yimi Garcia came on in relief and fought Duvall for 12 pitches, finally getting him to fly out on an up-the-chimney shot to short left field.
The Astros began the fifth with singles from Correa and Gurriel; an intentional walk to Bregman loaded the bases for Maldonado. Minter gave up a two-out walk to Maldonado, who had been hitting .098 in the playoffs, to tie the game at 5. Then Marwin Gonzalez, who hadn’t had a hit all series, dropped a soft lollipop into left field, scoring two more Astros. That was effectively that, the Astros claiming this one halfway through the game.
After Freeman’s homer, Atlanta couldn’t get out of second gear. The Braves left men on in every inning from the third to the sixth, and could only watch as the Astros drip-drip-dripped runs onto the board in the seventh and eighth. In all, the Astros scored in five of nine innings, a relentless hammering that easily and utterly nullified that dramatic first-inning grand slam.
The series now shifts back to Houston, where Atlanta will have two opportunities to close out the Astros, and Houston will have to run the table to win its second series in four years. Game 6 is scheduled for Tuesday evening.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.