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Astros’ powerhouse offence snaps uncharacteristic slump to force Game 6

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After slumping uncharacteristically through the first four games of the World Series, a powerhouse Houston Astros offence finally showed up in Sunday’s Game 5, helping the club top the Atlanta Braves, 9-5. That means Houston lives to fight another day, now needing to triumph in another must-win back in Texas on Tuesday to extend the series to a seventh game. Meanwhile, Atlanta will have two more cracks at the one win it needs to claim its first World Series in a quarter century.

But before we get there, let’s look back at some takeaways from a long, hard-fought, back-and-forth Game 5.

Not the start they were looking for

Considering how poorly his offence was performing in this series, Astros manager Dusty Baker was no doubt counting on a getting a quality start from Framber Valdez. With a 3.29 ERA over 33 outings since 2020, the 27-year-old left-hander’s been Houston’s best starter for two years running. So, why would he expect anything else?

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And everything was going fine in the first inning as Valdez following up Jorge Soler’s lead-off single by retiring the next two batters he faced on as many pitches. But then Valdez gave up another single. And then he walked the bases loaded. And then he threw Adam Duvall this 95-m.p.h. sinker that didn’t sink nearly enough:

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Just like that, only 13 pitches into his outing, Valdez had given up a four-spot. Facing such a large deficit so early in a must-win game, and with Yimi Garcia throwing in his bullpen, no one would have blamed Baker for pulling his starter right then and there. But he stuck with Valdez, who got his next hitter to ground out on two pitches before going three-up, three-down with a strikeout and a couple more groundballs in the second.

Alas, the third inning wasn’t so smooth. Valdez got into a deep battle with Freddie Freeman, which is never a thing a pitcher wants. And the sound this full-count sinker made off Freeman’s bat will probably keep Valdez up at night:

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Two groundouts and a walk later, Duvall was coming back up for his second plate appearance. And this time Baker wasn’t taking any chances, calling on Garcia to take over from Valdez with two out in the third.

Ultimately, the Astros starter was leaving his sinker a little too high, and throwing his curveball way too low, letting Braves hitters key in on velocity and put balls in play at awfully high rates of speed. He still generated some weak groundball contact, as is his calling card. But when Valdez left pitches up, as he did far too often in Game 5, Braves hitters were ready for them.

Over two appearances in this series, Valdez has now allowed 10 runs and recorded only 14 outs. It’s feasible that he could be available for a short appearance out of Houston’s bullpen in a possible Game 7. But if it came to that, would Baker even be comfortable going to him?

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A cat-and-mouse game

Last September, Braves starter Tucker Davidson made his major-league debut, allowing seven runs — only two earned, for what it’s worth — over a disastrous, five-out start. This season he bounced back and forth between triple-A and the majors, making only seven starts before forearm tightness shut his season down in June. On Tuesday he watched Game 1 of the World Series in a hotel lobby near the triple-A ballpark where he was keeping his arm loose in case of emergency.

And less than three innings into that game, emergency struck. Charlie Morton fractured a fibula, ending his series and elevating Davidson to Atlanta’s active roster. Six days later, the 25-year-old left-hander took the mound to face big-league hitters for the first time since June.

Not the easiest assignment for a guy making only his 10th appearance on a mound of any kind since August, 2019. But the flipside of Davidson’s inexperience is Houston’s unfamiliarity with his fastball-slider-curveball mix. There certainly wasn’t much video on him. That set up a fascinating game within the game in which the Astros were clearly trying to see as many pitches as possible in the early going, while Davidson was trying to save some different looks for his second trip through the order.

Seven of Houston’s first eight hitters looked at the first pitch Davidson threw them. And six of them saw five pitches or more in their plate appearance, forcing Davidson to show them everything he had. That uber-patient approach began to pay dividends in the second inning, as the bottom of Houston’s lineup drove in a couple runs. And when Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley both reached at the end of long plate appearances to lead off the third, it drove Davidson from the game.

Ultimately, what looked like a big advantage for the Astros really was one. Davidson was too timid around the plate, nibbling at corners and routinely falling behind. Meanwhile, Houston hitters remained committed to their selective approach, patiently waiting Davidson out and making him throw an average of 5.3 pitches per plate appearance.

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Altuve and Brantley eventually scored. And, by the middle of the third inning, a game that saw the Braves go up four runs in the first was already tied. Jesse Chavez may have been on the mound when that lead was surrendered. But it was Houston’s approach against Davidson that made it happen.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Having an approach

With his team hitting .206/.291/.298 for the series, Baker was left searching for a way to spark his struggling offence. No one outside of Altuve and Brantley was hitting well in the series. But Alex Bregman — with only a single and walk over 17 plate appearances — was particularly cold. That spurred Baker to drop Bregman all the way to seventh in his lineup, pushing Carlos Correa up into the three hole ahead of Yordan Alvarez.

When was the last time Bregman hit that low in his team’s batting order? Game 2 of the 2017 ALCS. That’s 2,262 Bregman plate appearances ago. Why hasn’t he hit that low in the order in so long? Because he’s an outstanding hitter with an .884 career OPS. That track record’s the reason Bregman was always going to come out of his slump in a big way. Not where he hits in the lineup.

But baseball being baseball, Game 5 found Bregman almost immediately, as he came to the plate with two on and one out in the top of the second inning and his club desperately needing to claw back some runs after surrendering an early lead. And what did Bregman do? He worked himself into a hitters count, forced a pitcher to throw him something on the plate, and punished it to right-centre field.

It was that approach — patient, selective, constantly getting ahead — that allowed Bregman and the rest of Houston’s hitters to snap out of their collective funk and overcome multiple Game 5 deficits. As early as the third inning, Braves manager Brian Snitker was throwing leverage relievers at the Astros, forcing them to carry that approach over against different, challenging looks. But Houston never wavered.

They cashed the two runners Davidson left behind off Chavez in the third. Then they forced A.J. Minter into a series of lengthy battles in the fifth, punctuated by Martin Maldonado’s bases-loaded walk — only the Houston catcher’s second walk in 66 plate appearances since Sept. 21. A pitch later, Marwin Gonzalez dropped a Minter cutter into shallow left-centre to give his team its first lead of the night:

And they didn’t stop there. With Drew Smyly refusing to throw anything but curveballs after taking over in the seventh, the Astros waited him out and forced the veteran left-hander onto the plate. First, Kyle Tucker took an elevated curveball into the right field corner for a double. Then, Maldonado lined another breaking ball left up — of the 17 pitches Smyly threw that inning, 14 were curveballs — past the shortstop, bringing Tucker home:

Whatever Braves pitchers were bringing, the Astros were adjusting to it. It’s even more impressive considering Atlanta’s bullpen had been untouchable in this series, pitching to a 1.61 ERA over 22.1 innings through the first four games, holding MLB’s best regular season offence to a 1-for-23 line with runners in scoring position. But the Astros hitters — and their collective approach — are too good to stay that cold for so long. No matter who’s hitting in what order.

Closing it out

Watching a game that ran over four hours, it was easy to fall into a numb malaise and not notice how spectacularly Houston’s bullpen pitched after Valdez left the game. Five relievers combined to hold Atlanta hitters to just three singles and a double over 6.1 scoreless frames, striking out six and walking none.

Game 2 starter Jose Urquidy pitched a clean fourth. Phil Maton ran up seven swinging strikes — five with his fastball — while striking out three over two innings. Ryne Stanek needed only a dozen pitches to retire the top of Atlanta’s order in a perfect seventh. Kendall Graveman was a soft contact machine, mixing sinkers and sliders to get the win over the finish line. And Zack Greinke came up with a pinch-hit single in the fourth, which doesn’t have anything to do with Houston’s bullpen but is a fact that will absolutely not go unacknowledged in this piece.

After using Urquidy on Sunday, it’s a good bet the Astros will go back to Game 3 starter Luis Garcia when the series resumes in Houston on Tuesday. Meanwhile, the Braves will have a real rotation piece on the mound for the first time in a couple games in Max Fried. And both managers ought to have their full complement of relievers available following Monday’s off-day. That sets the stage for a thrilling conclusion to this series — one that Atlanta still holds an advantage over, but that Houston’s intent on making interesting.





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