Early HRs get ATL close, but 'it's a long game'

Duvall hits first-inning grand slam, and Freeman adds go-ahead solo shot in the third

November 2nd, 2021

ATLANTA -- The early head-turning offensive production had the makings of a World Series-clinching performance in front of a roaring home crowd. Instead, a massive grand slam from and a go-ahead blast from were not enough for the Braves to take care of business in Game 5 on Sunday at Truist Park.

Following a 9-5 loss, Atlanta heads back to Houston for Game 6 on Tuesday with a 3-2 Series lead.

“I'd rather score that run in the seventh inning when you don't have so much time to cover,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “We knew we had a long, long way to go in that game and anything could happen. It would have been great if we could have kept adding on. We just weren't able to do that.”

Duvall’s first-inning slam earned the Braves a 4-0 lead, six batters in. The ninth first-inning grand slam in postseason history came 29 years after Atlanta’s only other World Series slam, a Lonnie Smith homer off then-Blue Jay Jack Morris in Game 5 of the 1992 Fall Classic.

The fifth grand slam of this postseason matches the MLB record set in 1998, when the Braves hit three of those. Four of this year’s grand slams have come off Houston pitching. The advantage had been long-lasting: Entering Sunday, teams were 18-2 in the World Series when connecting on a grand slam. The only other two losses came from the 1988 A’s (Jose Canseco) and ’65 Yankees (Yogi Berra).

“I always say, if it's going to happen, let it happen early,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “You don't want it to happen in the middle of the game or toward the end of the game.”

Though Astros starter Framber Valdez has a history of following rough starts with better ones against the same opponent this year, including against Boston in Games 1 and 5 of the American League Championship Series, the Braves were ready to take advantage after Jorge Soler’s leadoff single past third baseman Alex Bregman put Atlanta’s offense in motion.

Valdez nearly ended the threat early, but after Freeman flied out, Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve couldn’t turn a double play quickly enough to retire the speedy Ozzie Albies at first. From there, Valdez searched in vain for a third out.

Austin Riley’s ground-ball single to left sent Albies racing to third. Left fielder Yordan Alvarez, normally Houston’s designated hitter, threw to third, allowing Riley to take second. Eddie Rosario’s five-pitch walk loaded the bases for Duvall, who jumped on Valdez’s first-pitch 95.4 mph sinker and sent it deep to right.

Duvall joined Moose Skowron as the only players to hit a grand slam in a potential World Series clincher. Skowron homered off Roger Craig in Game 7 in 1956, providing the final runs in the Yankees’ 9-0 win over the Brooklyn Dodgers.

“We celebrated it, we got excited and that's what you do when you hit home runs, but it's a long game,” Duvall said. “That happened in the bottom of the first. It's a nine-inning game, and they didn't quit.”

The early lead quickly was erased by the Astros, who evened the score, 4-4, by the third inning. Reigning National League MVP Freeman did his best to play the role of early-game hero when he stepped to the plate against Valdez. He demolished a 94.5 mph sinker a Statcast-projected 460 feet to give the Braves a one-run edge.

The rocket to right-center field tied Freeman’s personal mark for longest postseason home run (the other came in Game 1 of the 2019 NL Division Series) and ranks fourth among all playoff blasts since Statcast began tracking in 2015. Five 460-plus-foot homers belted in the playoffs were during that span; Freeman is the only player to hit two of them.

Within Braves history, Freeman’s sixth go-ahead homer in the playoffs broke a tie with Chipper Jones to set a new franchise mark. It also was the first time a club’s longest-tenured player went yard in a potential World Series-clinching game since Barry Bonds in Game 6 of the 2002 Fall Classic between the Giants and Angels.

“They kept fighting,” Duvall said. “We weren't able to get it going again and keep the pressure on, and that's hats off to their pitchers. They kept us there when they needed to.”