HOUSTON -- Reliable pliability is how the 88-win Braves reached this 2021 World Series. And it’s the quality they summoned again against the Astros in a 6-2 victory in Game 1 on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park that left both teams facing questions about what comes next.
In keeping with the theme of their season, the Braves got huge home runs in Game 1 from two of the outfielders acquired in the mad Trade Deadline dash to replace the lost production of injured star Ronald Acuña Jr., with Jorge Soler becoming the first player to hit a true leadoff home run in the World Series and with Adam Duvall launching a two-run shot to the Crawford Boxes in left in the third inning.
And now, with the Astros always a threat to erupt offensively, it will likely take a village of arms for Atlanta to account for the substantial loss of Game 1 starter Charlie Morton to a fractured right fibula suffered on a comebacker -- an injury that stretched the Braves’ bullpen on this night and will test it the rest of the way.
“We've been through this many times this year,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker, “losing key components to our club. I mean, really key components. We're going to continue. It's not going to be an excuse or anything else. We're going to go out and continue to try and win games.”
Atlanta ably absorbed Morton’s unexpectedly early departure in the third inning, thanks to A.J. Minter’s emergency effectiveness in the longest outing (by pitches, 43) of his big league career. But even in losing the opener, perhaps the Astros will find an opening if the innings grow more difficult for the Braves, who needed Minter, Luke Jackson, Tyler Matzek and Will Smith to cover 6 2/3 innings in Game 1.
For now, it can safely be said that this was not the way manager Dusty Baker’s Astros wanted this Series to start.
“Sometimes you get beat, and sometimes you give them the game,” Baker said. “We didn't give them anything tonight. We just got beat tonight.”
Valdez was barraged by the Braves’ bats, who made him pay for his command issues with tons of hard contact. It was 2-0 after the first, 3-0 after the second, 5-0 after the third -- a bummer of a beginning for the orange-clad fans in the ballpark that, thanks to the Astros reaching this stage three times in the last five seasons, has become the de facto World Series Capital of the World.
“It was just the emotion of the situation, being the starter for Game 1 of the World Series, being the starter for the Astros in the World Series,” Valdez said through an interpreter. “I think it was that more than anything else. It was maybe trying to do a bit too much, throwing a bit too hard.”
Home-field advantage ain’t what it used to be.
The last victory for a World Series team in its home ballpark remains the Dodgers’ 18-inning walk-off over the Red Sox in Game 3 in 2018. The Astros had the Game 7 hosting duties in a 2019 World Series vs. the Nationals that famously was the first in which the home teams went 0-fer. And, of course, the pandemic forced the 2020 World Series between the Dodgers and Rays to be played at Globe Life Field in Arlington.
Houston -- the first team to lose five straight World Series home games since (coincidentally enough) the Braves of 1996-99 (and that streak is still active) -- had an early chance to end that unsightly home trend. The Astros loaded the bases against Morton with two out in the first, but Morton got breakout star Kyle Tucker to ground into the inning-ending out.
Yet it was Morton’s ability to initially keep pitching after Yuli Gurriel’s second-inning comebacker struck him in the right shin that stands out as the true demonstration of his determination. Morton somehow managed to still get the last two outs of the second inning and the first out of the third, recording two strikeouts and throwing his last fastball at 95.9 mph.
“He struck out a guy on a broken leg,” Minter marveled. “It's pretty remarkable. I wish it wouldn't have happened to Charlie. He's a leader. But we're not going to feel sorry for ourselves. We just have to keep going.”
Morton, understandably, could not keep going. X-rays after his exit confirmed that he will be out for the remainder of the Series.
So the Braves are down a starter, but the Astros, who got a run in both the fourth and eighth innings but were never truly in this one, are down a game -- a 1-0 hole that only five of 26 teams in the Wild Card era (since 1995) have recovered from to win it all.
It could be that the full story of Game 1 will not be written until we know the full effect Morton’s injury has on the Braves’ pitching performance the rest of the way, and whether this dangerous Astros club bounces back in this best-of-seven the way it did against Boston in the ALCS. But we know for sure that an Atlanta team already accustomed to overcoming some huge hits delivered some huge hits in Game 1.
“Against this club here, I'd rather get a 5-0 lead after the seventh inning than when we did, because they have so much time to come back and it's such a dangerous team,” Snitker said. “They've been through these wars, and they're so dangerous, and they're so relentless, which makes it even more special to me in what our bullpen did.”