Astros force Game 6: 'Got to keep fighting'
Houston overcomes two deficits; bullpen comes up clutch after Valdez stumbles
ATLANTA -- They came in droves. Some in jerseys, some in pearls, some in coats, some in costumes. Those with a ticket to enter Truist Park stood at their seat in eager anticipation. Those without found some sliver of space in the claustrophobically crowded Battery complex, gazing at a giant screen in hope of a Hollywood ending.
But the tens of thousands of Braves fans who gathered at Game 5 on Sunday night to witness their team's first coronation in 26 years were subjected instead to a resurrection. An Astros team that had been invisible on offense for much of this World Series overcame a first-inning grand slam from Adam Duvall and a go-ahead third-inning solo homer from Freddie Freeman by cranking out one heartbreaking hit after another in a 9-5 victory that sends this Fall Classic back to Houston for Tuesday's Game 6, with the Braves up 3-2.
"These guys are together," Astros manager Dusty Baker said of his squad. "They've been through many of these battles, so they don't know how to quit, and they're always looking for an edge or an opening. Fortunately, tonight, we took advantage of some."
The Astros won this one the hard way. They didn't get a sterling start from Framber Valdez. They didn't hit a home run. They had to explore the lengths of their lineup and their bench, getting production not just from a star like Carlos Correa, who knocked in a pair, but from totally unexpected places -- most notably the three RBIs from catcher Martín Maldonado.
But the Astros did what they had to do. They became the first road team to beat the Braves in this postseason, and they avoided elimination. They still have a chance to become just the seventh team in 47 tries -- and the first since the 2016 Cubs -- to win it all after falling behind 3-1 in a best-of-seven World Series.
"We were down 3-0 last year [to the Rays in the American League Championship Series], we forced a Game 7," Correa said. "Now we [were] down 3-1, why can't we force a Game 7 again?"
Houston's three-run fifth inning against a previously untouchable A.J. Minter stunted the celebratory atmosphere that had been built by the Braves' tight wins in Games 3 and 4 and an early offensive eruption for Atlanta on this night.
Just six batters into the ballgame, the Braves went up 4-0 on the might of Duvall's 377-foot grand slam over the high right-field wall. Valdez had shakily surrendered two singles and a walk to load the bases, and Duvall, one of the many in-season acquisitions who had allowed Atlanta to overcome the absence of Ronald Acuña Jr. and reach this stage, made him pay.
"I was looking for something that started up, because I know if he gets it down, it's going to be a tough pitch to hit," Duvall said. "So I saw it up and put a good swing on it."
Rather than cower in the corner, the Astros answered.
For the second straight game, they faced a Braves starter unknown to them and pretty much anybody, with Tucker Davidson getting an assignment like the one given to fellow fresh face Dylan Lee a day earlier. The Astros got to Davidson in the second by putting two aboard for the struggling Alex Bregman, who had been moved down to the seventh spot in the batting order but delivered an RBI double to right-center. Maldonado followed with a sacrifice fly to make it 4-2.
"I think that was the key of us winning the game right there, bouncing back right away, those two runs, Bregman getting the huge double," Correa said. "Getting the confidence all the way up."
In the top of the third, the Astros took advantage of a Dansby Swanson fielding error on leadoff man Jose Altuve's ground ball. Michael Brantley walked to put two aboard, and Correa punched a double to center off Jesse Chavez to bring Altuve home. One out later, Yuli Gurriel's RBI groundout made it 4-4.
It wasn't tied for long.
In the bottom of the third, pending free agent Freeman did what he has done so often in his long and productive Braves tenure by coming through in the clutch. An uppercut swing on Valdez's 94.5 mph sinker produced a majestic 460-foot blast to the seats in right-center and put Atlanta back up, 5-4. It was only the fourth home run Valdez had surrendered to a left-hander all year. He didn't make it out of the inning.
A game-winner from the longest-tenured member of the Braves would have been exactly the type of emphatic ending the crowd desired.
But the Astros would not relent, even after the Braves went to their best-rested relief option in Minter.
In the fifth, singles from Correa and Gurriel gave the Astros two aboard with one out. A Kyle Tucker groundout to first base advanced the runners, and Minter intentionally walked Bregman to face Maldonado, whose reputation as a light-hitting catcher (he had a .095 average this postseason) preceded him.
That didn't work. Maldonado showed a keen approach, crowding the plate and leaving the bat on his shoulder for five pitches as Minter, who had thrown 16 strikes in his first 18 pitches, struggled to find the strike zone.
"Did you guys notice how close he was to the plate on the at-bat against Minter?" Correa asked reporters with a big smile. "You guys notice? That was sick."
Minter's 3-1 fastball to Maldonado was way inside. He had committed the cardinal sin of issuing a bases-loaded walk to the No. 8 hitter, and the game was tied again.
"Obviously with Maldonado, I could tell he was going up there trying to work a walk," Minter said. "I tried to aim the ball instead of just driving it to the mitt. That's obviously the one thing I would take back."
From there, the Astros brought the pain. Pinch-hitter Marwin Gonzalez, who had not driven in a run since Sept. 20, hit a soft flare single to left-center to score Gurriel and Bregman to put Houston ahead, 7-5.
"Minter is a tough man," Baker said. "He's had our number pretty good this series. I'm just glad that Maldy got the walk and glad that Marwin, that was a big hit. That was a real big hit."
Facing Drew Smyly, the Astros padded their lead in the seventh (when Tucker doubled and Maldonado struck yet again with an RBI single) and again in the eighth (when Altuve singled, stole second and scored on a Correa's second RBI hit).
With Yimi García, Game 2 starter José Urquidy, Phil Maton, Ryne Stanek and Kendall Graveman all coming up big out of the bullpen, the Astros methodically canceled the coronation, one out and one run at a time.
"We put good at-bats together, made good pitches as a pitching staff," Maldonado said. "All in all, we've got to keep fighting."
Losing this fight at home, with the chance to clinch their first World Series title since 1995, was a bummer for the Braves.
"It would have been great," Atlanta manager Brian Snitker said. "You always love to do it here. I'll take it anywhere. I don't care where we're at. If we win the World Series, it doesn't matter where it is."
Now, it's back to Houston, where the Braves will hope to relocate their celebration and where the Astros look to prove their resurrection is for real.