Braves finally crack in Game 5 loss, fumbling potential World Series clincher vs. Astros


ATLANTA – As reliever after reliever climbed the Truist Park mound and seamlessly executed his pitches, and just enough hits fell in front of defenders or narrowly cleared the fence and the Atlanta Braves, backed by roaring overflow crowds, took command of this World Series, Sunday night’s Game 5 seemed ripe for a coronation.

Instead, it merely exposed the razor-thin margin the Braves have walked.

Sometimes, it takes a night of misfires and backfires to illustrate just how perfectly a club has played, managed and coped with the rigors of playoff baseball. And after Sunday night’s four-hour slog into a suddenly uncertain November, the Houston Astros’ 9-5 flogging of the Braves seemed far less like a delaying of an inevitable championship, even if the Astros still trail this World Series 3-2 heading back to Houston.

Perhaps it was even an undressing.

The Braves gave a reliever with just two career appearances a Game 4 start – and lived to tell about it. Loaded with house money and swaggering into Game 5 with a 3-1 series lead, the Braves, for their next trick, handed the ball to young Tucker Davidson, a lefty who hadn’t pitched in a game since June 15 and had just five big league appearances, anyway.

Finally, the machine broke down.

Davidson was shaky, Snitker too hesitant to remove him. Dansby Swanson did neither of them any favors by booting a ground ball.

And perhaps most notably, the most important piece of the Braves’ Night Shift bullpen – multi-inning lefty A.J. Minter – finally cracked, issuing a bases-loaded walk to the worst hitter in the major leagues.

GAME 5: Astros overcome early deficit to force series back to Houston

Wheels up for Houston – and Tuesday night’s Game 6 at Minute Maid Park.

As it turns out, winning a World Series with two able-bodied starting pitchers is pretty tough.

“Every bit,” says Snitker, who navigated a 3-2 comeback win in Game 4 despite opener Dylan Lee recording just one out. “When we won (Saturday), it made it easier, I guess, coming into this one, but we knew it was going to be tough.”

A.J. Minter reacts after giving up an RBI single in the fifth inning.

A.J. Minter reacts after giving up an RBI single in the fifth inning.

The Braves, at last, can deploy their last two starters standing. Max Fried, who was roughed up for six earned runs in a Game 2 start, will take a second crack at securing a championship in Game 6. Ian Anderson, five-inning no-hit wonder of Game 3, would be aligned for Game 7.

Sunday’s Game 5 would have been Charlie Morton’s, but for the broken fibula he suffered in Game 1. And a second attempt to cover up their starter deficiencies went south quickly.

Lee’s one-out pratfall in Game 4 was rescued by stellar bullpen work and late home runs from Swanson and Jorge Soler. Sunday, Davidson, who sat out four months with a forearm injury, was gifted a first-inning grand slam from Adam Duvall, the roar of approval traveling from Truist Park through the packed, master-planned avenues of the nearby Battery.

The Braves, armed with a 4-0 lead, were poised to claim their first championship since 1995. Instead, their formula blew up.

Davidson induced a first-inning double-play ball but was peppered in the second for an RBI double by struggling Alex Bregman – just his second extra-base hit this postseason – and a sacrifice fly by Martin Maldonado to halve the Braves’ advantage.

While Davidson had been rehabbing and pitching simulated games at Class AAA Gwinnett, stretching out to more than 70 pitches, asking more than two innings on a stage far bigger than he’d ever climbed seemed greedy.

But Snitker, eyeing seven long innings and a depleted bullpen ahead, kept him in.

“Even after two, that’s a lot of game to cover with some guys down,” says Snitker. “We were going to try to stretch him as far as we could, and I think we did.”

And it might have worked – if not for Swanson flubbing a leadoff grounder from Jose Altuve.

Dansby Swanson misplays a ground ball in the third inning.

Dansby Swanson misplays a ground ball in the third inning.

Davidson’s fastball ticked down from 94 to 92 mph, and the struggling Astros continued to rehab their World Series averages. Carlos Correa clubbed an RBI double and Yuli Gurriel scored him with a one-out ground ball.

Snitker got his three innings out of Davidson. But the 4-0 advantage was gone, a blown lead that eventually spiraled.

Minter entered Game 5 nearly perfect in October – a 0.82 ERA in 11 games, including 3 2⅔ crucial innings in this World Series. But he’d thrown 60 pitches over four days in Games 1 and 3, with a day off to recover for Sunday’s outing.

Perhaps that wasn’t enough.

Minter came on to protect a 5-4 lead in the fourth and struck out Michael Brantley to end it. But things unraveled in the fifth, when singles by Carlos Corra and Yuli Gurriel enabled Bregman – demoted to No. 7 in the lineup – to bat with two on, two out and first base open.

Bregman’s earlier double showed he was coming to life. Looming on deck was catcher Maldonado, who was 4 for 42 (.095) this postseason and whose .172 average and .573 OPS in 426 plate appearances would have ranked at the bottom of the major leagues had he amassed sufficient at-bats.

There was a pause, and finally Snitker ordered Bregman walked to load the bases, bringing up Maldonado for a showdown with little mystery.

Maldonado: “I wasn’t going to swing unless I got a strike.”

Minter: “I could tell he was going up there trying to work a walk.”

Minter, the connective tissue from starter to back-end studs Tyler Matzek and Will Smith all postseason, finally cracked.

“I tried to aim the ball,” he said, instead of just driving it to the mitt. “That’s obviously the one thing I would take back.”

Maldonado drew a five-pitch, game-tying walk, startling the home crowd. Pinch hitter Marwin Gonzalez then parachuted a fly into shallow left field for a two-run single.

There was still plenty of game left. But the Braves’ indomitable façade had been shattered.

“They’re not going to quit. They’re not going to roll over,” says Duvall of the Astros. “We’re playing for everything right now. We’re playing for the dreams that we’ve had as a little kid. It’s not going to be easy.

“This time of the year, all throughout the postseason it’s not going to be easy. You’ve got guys that are willing to run through walls for a win.”

And for the first time in three games, the Braves finally ran into one, their season continuing on against their wishes.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Braves crack, fumble World Series clincher in Game 5 vs. Astros

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