Back-to-back HRs put Braves on cusp of title

October 31st, 2021

ATLANTA -- Exactly three months from the day they summoned in those frantic final moments before the Trade Deadline, the Braves summoned the power-hitting outfielder to pinch-hit in a tied Game 4 of the World Series on Saturday night. What followed was a magnificent missile, a smoked line drive that sent Astros left fielder crashing violently into the wall and the Truist Park crowd into hysterics.

Soler’s seventh-inning solo shot off immediately followed the same from , and those back-to-back blasts are how the Braves not only put together the first lead change of this Fall Classic, but also put themselves on the cusp of their first World Series title since 1995. With a 3-2 victory that required late-inning lumber and six pitchers, the Braves took a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven Series to give themselves a chance to clinch at what is sure to be a charged Battery on Sunday night.

“At the beginning of the year, I wasn't part of this team,” Soler said through an interpreter. “The organization traded for me. Obviously, I'm grateful to be here. It truly means a lot to be able to be here with this group of guys.”

That group of guys is the 47th team to take a 3-1 lead in a best-of-seven World Series -- an advantage that 40 of the previous 46 (87%) turned into a title.

“There's still a lot left to be written,” said Swanson, “and I think that we need to go out and continue to compete to put ourselves in that position to give this city what it's been longing for.”

Swanson and Soler wrote quite a script in the seventh. In a stunning span of just five pitches in Game 4, they turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead.

First, Swanson swatted Javier’s 95.1 mph four-seamer over the heart of the plate into the right-field seats in front of the Chop House. Then, Soler, whose in-season arrival made him one of the four acquired outfielders who rescued the Braves in the wake of 's awful season-ending knee injury, punched a misplaced 80.6 mph slider to left.

“He threw me a couple sliders,” Soler said of Javier, “and on that second slider, I felt like I got a pretty good look at it. On that third slider, I felt like he partially hung it a little bit, and so I was able to make that connection and get the home run.”

What it lacked in height, the 107 mph blast off Soler’s bat made up for in speed and significance. It barely cleared the 6-foot wall that guards the Astros’ bullpen, and Alvarez, a primary designated hitter in a ballpark that -- for now, anyway -- does not allow one, was unable to get a glove on it.

“I thought that Alvarez had a shot,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “That would have been a fantastic play.”

Instead, Alvarez hit the wall, and Soler hit the biggest home run of the Braves’ season, to date.

Swanson and Soler were, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the first Nos. 8 and 9 hitters to hit back-to-back homers in the World Series.

Their timing was impeccable.

Prior to that point, the Astros had been winning/surviving a pitchers’ duel, untraditional though it may have been. Houston had taken an early lead with the help of a short and shaky outing from , a 27-year-old Braves rookie making his first career start. The Astros had gotten some vintage effectiveness from potential Hall of Famer , who had seemingly been running on fumes. And 's 23rd career postseason home run -- a solo shot off in the fourth -- had put them in good position to even the Series at two wins apiece.

With these two clubs comparably compromised -- the Astros with the in-October elbow trouble of , and the Braves with the fractured right fibula suffered in Game 1 -- Game 4 was destined to be bullpen-oriented. That’s how we wound up in a situation in which a reliever was warming just three pitches into a World Series game.

Lee’s assignment had been a surprising one. He was released by the Marlins in March and made his big league debut for the Braves on Oct. 1. And though he didn’t allow a ball out of the infield, he did show some jitters in walking and Alvarez to load the bases after Altuve’s leadoff single to short.

“I was shocked, of course,” Lee said of being assigned his first start in the World Series. “But I know that I'm a reliever now.”

So one night after pulling his starter five innings into a no-hitter, Braves manager Brian Snitker pulled Lee one out into a one-hitter. Wright was summoned into a stressful situation with the Astros in the heart of their order. While was able to make it a 1-0 game by grounding out to third and scoring Altuve, that fielder’s-choice RBI was all the Astros could muster.

Wright struck out to escape the inning with minimal damage, and he went on to give the Braves 4 2/3 innings in which his only big mistake was Altuve’s homer, which went a Statcast-projected 434 feet to dead center. (The Truist Park organist who had teased the 5-foot-6 Altuve with “It’s a Small World” seconds earlier didn’t fare very well in that at-bat, either.)

That gave Houston a 2-0 lead. But it could have been much worse for the Braves, under the circumstances.

“Kyle is the reason we won the game, how he kept that thing in check and allowed us to stay around in that game,” Snitker said. “That was huge.”

Greinke’s performance, meanwhile, was all guts, grunts and guile. It was only four scoreless innings, but, in the context of a postseason that has largely revolved around relievers and Greinke’s very limited role of late, it was everything the Astros could have possibly hoped for.

“We were going to take him as far as he could, and we took him to that point,” Baker said. “He was dealing, and he threw up some key double plays. He was vintage Greinke.”

While Greinke’s 90.2 mph four-seam average was above his season average (88.9), it obviously wasn’t lighting up the radar gun. But he induced whiffs on 40% of all swings against him and limited hard contact. And he made the early runs scored by the Astros stand up.

The Braves, though, chipped away in the sixth. Baker turned to trade acquisition after pitched himself into a two-on, one-out jam. Maton struck out on some high cheese, but continued his star-building October with a sharp RBI single to left. Alvarez’s debatable decision to throw home on the play allowed the Braves to get runners at second and third with two outs. But after intentionally walking to load the bases, Maton struck out to preserve the 2-1 edge.

Alas, it didn’t last in the game-changing seventh.

Following those seismic swats from Swanson and Soler, the Braves got perfect eighth and ninth innings from and and a circus catch from left fielder on an eighth-inning Altuve fly ball to the warning track.

With that, they perpetuated their reputation for perseverance and put themselves on the precipice.

“I'm happy for our city that they can go through this, experience this,” Snitker said. “What a great time of year. For the city, the Braves Country, to experience all this, for our players to experience it, it's a win-win situation.”