Soler clears train tracks, hauls in Series MVP

Midseason acquisition powers Braves to title with 3 HRs, 1.191 OPS in WS

November 3rd, 2021

HOUSTON -- The eye test said hit it halfway to Austin. Statcast’s projection said it sailed “only” 446 feet.

Home runs don’t get much bigger than Soler’s towering shot for the first three runs of Game 6 of the World Series on Tuesday, powering a 7-0 Braves victory and making Soler the unanimous winner of the Willie Mays World Series MVP Award presented by Chevrolet. He’s the third midseason acquisition (2018 Steve Pearce, 1969 Donn Clendenon) and the second Cuban-born player to win World Series MVP honors.

The other Cuban-born World Series MVP was a pitcher, Liván Hernández for the 1997 Marlins. Now there’s a Cuban hitter: Soler, who, after being sidelined for Game 4 of the NLDS against the Brewers and the first four games of the NLCS against the Dodgers following a positive test for COVID-19, went 6-for-20 with a trio of home runs, six RBIs and a 1.191 OPS to lead all hitters in the Fall Classic.

With his moonshot off Astros starter Luis Garcia in the third inning of Game 6, Soler joined an exclusive list of six players to hit at least three go-ahead home runs in a single World Series.

The first name on that list is Babe Ruth. And for Soler, this was a Ruthian blast.

“I knew I hit it well, but to be honest, immediately after I hit it, I turned around just to look at our dugout and start celebrating,” Soler said. “So I didn't really see it go all the way out.”

He can watch the replay forever. The baseball cleared the left-field wall, the Crawford Boxes and the train tracks at Minute Maid Park and sailed out of the stadium, conjuring memories of Albert Pujols’ prodigious blast off then-Astros closer Brad Lidge in the 2005 National League Championship Series.

“I was talking about the scouting report [for the next half-inning], and then I heard a loud crack,” said Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud. “Then I saw the ball leave the stadium. That was crushed.”

“Oh my God. I was going down to third base and the ball passed me so quick, I said, ‘That’s it,’” said Ozzie Albies, who’d started that Braves rally with the first of his two hits. “It was out of the stadium right away.”

“I think it’s the statement we wanted to make,” Braves third baseman Austin Riley said.

Atlanta manager Brian Snitker had a different thought. The memory of Adam Duvall’s grand slam in the early innings of the Braves’ loss to the Astros in Game 5 was too fresh in his mind.

“All I was thinking about,” Snitker said, “was that now we've got to hold this lead because we couldn't a couple days ago.”

This time, they held it. It was Soler’s third long ball of the World Series, tying a Braves record for homers in a postseason series. The mark was set by the Milwaukee Braves’ Hank Aaron in the team’s 1957 World Series triumph over the Yankees and subsequently matched by Aaron in the ’69 NLCS, Lonnie Smith in the ‘91 World Series, Marquis Grissom in the ‘95 NL Division Series, Ryan Klesko in the ‘95 World Series and Eddie Rosario in this year’s NLCS.

All of Soler’s home runs gave the Braves a lead, putting him on a list of only six players who have hit at least three go-ahead home runs in a World Series. The others are Babe Ruth (1926), Lou Gehrig (1928), Gene Tenace (1972), Curtis Granderson (2015) and George Springer in 2017 for the Astros.

Soler’s home run wasn’t merely about the power; it capped a sensational, eight-pitch at-bat in which he fouled off a two-strike slider and a two-strike four-seam fastball from Garcia before unloading on a cutter and sending it out of the stadium.

With that, the Astros went to their already-taxed bullpen for the rest of the night.

“I think the biggest part for us, kind of like what they did to us [in Game 5], it took the crowd out of the game,” d’Arnaud said. “When they came back after that grand slam, it took the energy out. That’s what that home run did, took the energy out of the crowd and put the momentum on our side.”

“It wasn’t ‘exhale’ because there was a lot of game to go and we had to take care of the defense and get the outs we needed to win this game,” Albies said. “But in the ninth inning, that’s when I started to feel like, ‘OK, we’re going to be world champions right now.’”

If you’re searching for the story of the Braves’ season in one tidbit, try this: MLB has been naming World Series MVPs since 1955, National League Championship Series MVPs since 1977 and American League Championship Series MVPs since 1980, and of all those players, only 11 were midseason acquisitions.

The 2021 Braves account for two of them: NLCS MVP Eddie Rosario and World Series MVP Soler.

Soler came from Kansas City at the cost of a Minor League reliever, in part because he was struggling to the tune of a .192/.288/.370 slash line. But he was just getting hot at the time, and became such a dangerous, proficient at-bat for the Braves that they elevated Soler to the leadoff spot as he slashed .269/.358/.524 in the regular season. In the postseason, Soler posted a .948 OPS over 11 games.

“I got off to a rough start at the beginning of the season,” he said, “and I felt like I started to heat up a little bit before the Trade Deadline. I was traded over here and it was challenging at first. I felt a little out of my comfort zone. I didn't really know people. It was kind of tough to go to a new place and start making those acquaintances and everything.

“Within a week, I felt right at home. Everyone in that clubhouse welcomed me in, and it felt after a little while just like a family.”

He’s the fourth designated hitter to win World Series MVP honors, following Hall of Famer Paul Molitor (1993 for the Blue Jays), Hideki Matsui (2009 for the Yankees) and David Ortiz (2013 for the Red Sox).

For Cuba, it continued a run of postseason highlights. The only Cuban-born postseason series MVPs are Soler, Yordan Alvarez (2021 ALCS), Randy Arozarena (2020 ALCS), Orlando Hernández (1999 ALCS) and Liván Hernández (1997 NLCS and World Series).

“It means a lot to me, to my family, to the organization,” Soler said. “It's something really special.”