At last a shapeless series had a defining image, a clear contour – the awesome arc of a home run smashed out of the ballpark by Jorge Soler that gave the Atlanta Braves their first World Series title since 1995.
This November triumph was primed in midsummer through inspiration born of desperation. Injuries, including to star outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr, led Atlanta’s general manager Alex Anthopoulos into the trade market. Judicious signings remodeled the outfield and helped an ordinary team become good. In the playoffs the Braves discovered – perhaps to their own surprise and almost certainly to everyone else’s – that they were great.
“We had so many new faces that just fit perfectly,” said first baseman Freddie Freeman. The Braves didn’t have a winning record until August, when they surged into playoff contention. They won the fewest regular-season games of any side in this year’s postseason. Now they’re champions.
“We’ve been the best team since the trade deadline and we played like it all the way into the postseason. We just got hot,” said Freeman.
Eddie Rosario, signed from the Cleveland Indians on the same July deadline day as Soler, was the Most Valuable Player of the National League Championship Series win over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Soler, the Havana-born 29-year-old acquired from the Kansas City Royals, was one of four midseason outfield signings who hit three home runs in the postseason. His first led off Game 1 against Houston and the second won Game 4. Yet he missed most of the NLCS after testing positive for Covid-19, and hit for an average of only .192 this year with the Royals.
With the roof open at Minute Maid Park on Tuesday there was nothing to keep his 446ft three-run detonation in the stadium as it flew over the train tracks above the left-field wall. He watched it leave as he tapped his chest, dropped his bat and gazed over to his teammates. “Immediately after I hit it I turned around to look at our dug-out and celebrate,” he said. After the game he was named MVP of the World Series.
Atlanta, the club famously bought by the media mogul Ted Turner so he could broadcast their games on his TV station, then acquired by Time Warner, still have corporate owners in the shape of Liberty Media, who also control SiriusXM satellite radio and Formula One.
But these are not the Braves of old, the club that claimed 14 consecutive NL East division titles from 1991 to 2005. That vintage called on the starting pitching of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, Hall of Famers all. With a single World Series title to show for all that talent, that generation were underachievers.
The 2021 squad have exceeded expectations, though their fourth successive playoffs appearance indicates they are building solid foundations again in a big city that is not exactly spoilt for title-winning teams.
“It’s something that you dream about but I don’t know if you ever feel it’s going to be a reality, honestly,” said the Atlanta manager Brian Snitker, who joined the organization as a minor league player in 1977. “It’s a special group… they have a great work ethic and baseball IQ.”
It was hard to detect any pattern in this arrhythmic set of games or single out any one player’s contribution as vastly ahead of the rest. If there was an overall theme it was tactical disruption, as the most unheralded players in the sport – middle relievers – assumed outsize importance as the managers mixed-and-matched and mercilessly yanked their starting pitchers.
This was partly out of necessity, since both sides had to cope with injuries to first-choice starting pitchers, including Atlanta’s ace, Charlie Morton, who left Game 1 with a broken leg; partly to counter fatigue; and also from following the trend of replacing pitchers before they face the line-up three times on the basis that familiarity helps the hitter.
This irreverence towards starting pitching thrusts the chorus line into center stage and downgrades the drama. We used to wonder how deep into the night a pitcher might go; now we ask, how shallow? And pauses from repeated calls to the bullpen make for marathons that finish late on the east coast and turn off television viewers.
So there was a retro, 90s-era nostalgic appeal to watching an Atlanta starting pitcher endure and excel on Tuesday as Max Fried extinguished Houston over six mostly serene innings, even after Astros outfielder Michael Brantley trod on his ankle in a first-inning race to first base.
The 27-year-old left-hander was the only player in the series from either side to pitch more than five innings. Each team deployed at least five pitchers in the other games. Fried’s strong showing meant that Atlanta used only three pitchers here. Houston called on eight.
The Astros, in their third World Series in five years, with their elite infield of postseason veterans, seemed unlikely candidates to crumple. Yet after their leadoff hitter reached base in three of the first four innings and the team failed to score, Houston’s vaunted offense looked confused and cowed.
Jose Altuve’s two home runs in earlier games were the only ones the Astros mustered in the entire series. “The homers, it’s a little crazy,” the second baseman said. “Just them executing pitches,” Carlos Correa, the shortstop, who seems poised to leave in free agency, said.
The Astros’ 72-year-old manager, Dusty Baker, was visibly frustrated as Soler power conquered America’s oil capital. Perhaps he sensed it was the moment his second chance at winning the World Series as a manager slipped away, 19 years after his San Francisco Giants agonizingly lost in seven games to the Anaheim Angels.
Now out of contract, Baker’s future is uncertain. It was easy to feel sorry for him, as a two-run homer from Dansby Swanson made it 5-0 before the team’s talisman, Freeman, a free agent this winter, drove in another run then hit a solo homer to make the scoreline cringeworthy for the Astros.
With a 7-0 win for the visitors clinching a 4-2 series victory, a curious streak continues: no team has won the World Series in their own ballpark since the 2013 Boston Red Sox. But as hundreds of Atlanta fans in the stands celebrated at the end and the players cavorted on the field before hoisting the trophy, the Braves looked perfectly at home.