ATLANTA – You would have to go back to 1937 and Margaret Mitchell to find the last time someone in Georgia wrote such a perfect story. With a majestic home run by Freddie Freeman, in his fourteenth and possibly final year in the Braves organization, Atlanta took a 5-4 lead in the fifth inning as super reliever AJ Minter began the front leg of a relay career from bullpen that would bring the Braves to their first World Series title in 26 years.
But this was Halloween night. And someone knocked on the door. It was Martín Maldonado, who came disguised as Little Leaguer.
The Braves did not become World Series champions with a victory in Game 5 on Sunday. His rendezvous with destiny did not go so much with the wind as with a laugh. Maldonado, the one with the .095 batting average this postseason, put together an epic trick or treating at bat. It was better than the doorbell.
“He turned the game around,” says Astros hitting coach Troy Snitker.
There was a lot to admire about Game 5 on a grand scale. If this turns out to be the end of the original baseball, the last game played in which all players must play offense and defense if the powers are bent on homogenizing baseball with the universal designated hitter, this was an appropriate break. Houston’s 9-5 victory left a final reminder that baseball will never be played with this complexity again. Astros manager Dusty Baker won the game by using nine players at No. 9 in his lineup, including a pitcher who received a pinch-hitter and a bench player who had not driven a race in 50 days to get the first strike.
Goodbye chess. Hello ladies.
It wasn’t the end of the Astros’ core four. On a night in which Yuli Gurriel, José Altuve, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman surpassed Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Tino Martínez and Paul O’Neill as the band with the most tour of four in postseason history (78 games) , the Houston infielders made sure there is at least one more game before Correa leaves via free agency. All four combined for eight hits, six runs and four RBIs in an unmistakable display of veteran strength as they looked into the abyss of elimination.
But nothing tonight was more remarkable than what Maldonado did. The World Series focused on ingenuity.
“That’s one of the things about this team,” says Bregman. “Nobody is afraid. No one is afraid of failing. They try what they think will work. “
Braves manager Brian Snitker had this game exactly where he wanted it, which is backwards. Snitker has been on the goofy kind of thing that gets people kicking out of Las Vegas on suspicion of card counting. No manager had dared to open with three rookie pitchers in a World Series. Snitker did it Three days in a row, the last of whom, Tucker Davidson, had not pitched competitively in 28 days and last pitched in the majors on June 15.
Of course, it “worked,” meaning the Braves somehow outlasted Davidson to give Minter a 5-4 lead. That’s when Snitker finally hit the 16 and was knocked out.
Minter wasn’t that clever. Correa started the fifth lining up a cutter for a single. Yordan Alvarez, buried in deep funk, struck out. Gurriel started off again stroking another one of those Minter cutters for a single. After Kyle Tucker showed up, Snitker made the perfectly understandable decision to intentionally walk Bregman to have Minter ditch Maldonado for the third out.
When Snitker settled on the idea, Maldonado came up with a contrary.
“I told the guys, ‘If I get the bases, I’ll stay at the plate,'” says Maldonado. “Could be hit with a box cutter.”
Correa says: “He said, ‘He’s throwing cutters. I’m going to go to minor league mode and get on the plate and make him feel uncomfortable. ‘
Maldonado is a great defensive receiver. But he’s such a poor hitter that one of the competitions of his career is Cy Young, the pitcher. Only Maldonado, Young and two terrible hitting catchers, Bill Bergen and Jeff Mathis, have come to the plate since 1900 more than 2,900 times and hit .212 or worse. His superior ability to call, receive, pitch, his intellect in baseball, and his nickname (Machete, for narrowing down running backs; you don’t get rid of that easily) are the reason he keeps playing.
All Minter needed to do was hit the Cy Young doppelganger and the party in Atlanta was on.
He could not do it.
Maldonado stood near the top of the plate, affecting a Little League player’s position given the take signal when the coach thinks the only way to avoid an out is a walk.
“No, I had no intention of swinging before two strikes,” he says.
From first base, Bregman admired Maldonado’s ingenuity.
“I loved it,” he says. “It was amazing. The guy has a tremendous baseball feeling. Only he can adjust his plan and get on top of the plate and make you throw strikes. “
Minter threw a first pitch cutter that nearly hit Maldonado. The next pitch, another cutter, was from the outside corner. Finally, Minter hit a four-seam fastball for a called strike, after which he barked out some frustration.
“Martín told me that after the 2-0 straight he heard him say something,” Correa says. “He said, ‘I think he cursed me! I do not know why. I’m just having a good time at bat. ‘
Minter tossed another cutter. Too low. Now it was 3 and 1 and Minter knew he had to throw a strike. His next pitch was the worst of the five, another cutter that nearly hit Maldonado. The game was tied. The bullpen relay race, the Halloween party, the Margaret Mitchell sequel… everything was on hold.
As Correa crossed the plate, he sneaked up on Marwin Gonzalez, Baker’s pick for the pinch hitter seeking his first RBI since Sept. 20.
“‘He trusts the cutter,'” Correa told González. Look for the cutter around at bat. Hit the cutter. Look for nothing else. ‘
On the first pitch, Minter threw a first pitch cutter at Gonzalez. Gonzalez nailed it in left field for a two-run single. The Astros led, 7-5. They would not be caught.
No more perfect postseason at home for the Braves. No more Snitker-doodle wins. No more invincibility for Minter. He entered Game 5 keeping batters this postseason at 2 for 20 with his magic cutter, and left after allowing three hits and a walk on normal cutters in a span of seven batters.
The exposure of his relief pitchers could be catching up with Snitker. Or maybe the Astros are that crafty. Maldonado is the baseball version of a fixer. He knows how to do things in ways that go unnoticed, at least by fans. Teammates are in awe of his knowledge.
Maldonado has paid a visit to the mound in the first inning in all but one of these five World Series games. Run a game as if it were your personal property. In the fifth inning of Game 5, for example, he called a timeout when Eddie Rosario came to bat for Atlanta with a runner on second. He walked up the mound toward pitcher Phil Maton. Remember when your mom used to say, “Wait for your dad to get home”? Maldonado walks toward the mound like the father who just came home. After a hard day at work. And bad traffic.
“Uh, he told me in very stern language how we wanted to throw him,” Maton laughs. “Just wanted to remind me that you have to cast it as if it were 0 and 2 from the beginning. But it was, uh, a little bit stronger than that in terms of the language. “
Maton retired Rosario on a curve that Rosario hit into the area.
In the next inning, Correa was in the deck circle when Maldonado called out to the bat boy. He whispered a message in his ear that he wanted me to deliver to Correa. The bat boy did as he was ordered.
“I just told him to remind him that he’s the guy who loves the big moment,” says Maldonado. “It was more like, ‘Have a great at-bat.’
As usual, Maldonado was behind the plate during the 151 pitches thrown by six Houston pitchers. Only one other team had ever won a World Series elimination game using half a dozen pitchers: the 1972 Reds under Sparky “Captain Hook” Anderson in a 5-4 victory over Oakland, another strategic spell made possible only by the original game (pre DH) rules.
Maldonado scored three runs on three varieties: one out, one walk and one hit.
“Yeah, it’s probably the best game of my career,” he says, “especially since we were like this. But this team has a lot of pride. And we love each other. “
Who knows where this World Series goes from here? It’s been like driving down an unlit country road on a miserable night, as humid and humid as the one in Game 3 – you can barely see what’s immediately beyond the hood, but you know twists and turns are coming. It’s time to get behind the wheel. On paper, the Braves should feel good about having Max Fried and Ian Anderson lined up for the two possible games. The Astros should feel good about putting the series back in their park.
What is certain is that the deciding factor for the Braves was bummed in Game 5 by a light hitting catcher who earned the Best Costume award. With devilish creativity, and without taking the bat off his shoulder, Maldonado might as well go after Atlanta for more than tonight.
More MLB coverage:
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• Soler’s Go-Ahead, Pinch-Hit home run shows the value of the even man out
• The Best 21 Days of the Life of Brian Snitker
• Why does MLB still allow synchronized and team-sanctioned racism in Atlanta?
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.