HOUSTON – Ron Washington barely remembered how to have the conversation. When shortstop Dansby Swanson trotted up to him, head down, after a catastrophic second inning that lost Atlanta’s Game 2 of the World Series, 7-2, it had been nearly a month since an Atlanta infielder ruined a play that mattered.
Swanson had cushioned a groundout in Game 1, but Atlanta was already up 5-0 at the time. The circumstances were most dire on Wednesday. Lefty Max Fried, the team’s remaining bulwark arm after Charlie Morton broke his right fibula during Game 1, had allowed a run in the first but was beginning to calm down. With the game tied at 1, Fried struck out the Astros’ Carlos Correa to start the second.
Then things started to fall apart. Kyle Tucker singled down the middle. Atlanta switched Yuli Gurriel to throw, and cut a fastball the other way for a single. José Siri hit a swing bunt. A scored run. Martin Maldonado hit a weak groundout that worked its way between Swanson and third baseman Austin Riley. Gurriel ran home. Siri ran for third place.
Left fielder Eddie Rosario shot to third base to catch Siri, only to find that no one was there. Swanson was in short left field. Riley was serving as the cutoff man between third base and the pitcher’s mound, where Fried was. The ball jumped to the backstop. Siri scored, screamed, and hit her chest. Maldonado ranked second. The Astros never looked back.
Rosario should have eaten the ball. Riley should have realized that the only play he could make was on his base and retreated there. Fried should have backed third base. But most of the onus fell on Swanson, who lost time in left field after the groundout passed. He was too close to Rosario to cut the shot home and too far from third to make a play there.
Swanson knew immediately. “I should have cut it,” he told the infield coach Washington after the inning ended, with the Astros leading 5-1.
“Cut it or go to third!” Washington said cheerfully.
There was no point lecturing infielders. “It’s been a while since we haven’t played great defense,” Washington said after the game. In fact, his charges are among the best defenders in the league. They have dazzled the entire postseason, between their positioning and their athleticism. They will win more games against this team than they lose. But on Wednesday, they helped lose one.
Fried had allowed five runs in 4⅔ innings in an NLCS Game 5 loss to the Dodgers last week, and Houston provided a challenging matchup. Fried likes to throw to the glove side, inside to right-handers, outside to left-handers. Only three other starters used that third of the plate more than he did this year, and none were as successful as he. Unfortunately for Atlanta, the Astros are the fifth best team in baseball to hit those pitches. There wasn’t much room for error, and with Morton set for the series, Fried knew he had to give the bullpen a break.
I could have done it if it weren’t for that second inning. He seemed to relax once he returned for the third; he retired the next nine men in order. But by the time he allowed a single in the sixth on his 86th pitch, manager Brian Snitker had seen enough. Still later, Snitker praised the outing.
“I’m having a hard time convincing myself that he fought,” Snitker said. “In the first inning, they made very good shots. The second inning, when they scored, it was a strange inning, you know what I mean? It wasn’t like they were hitting him. Balls that found holes, controlled the blows, we threw a ball. It was just a strange entry. But I thought his stuff was really good. He ended up throwing a lot of pitches during the five innings he was there, but God, it could have been a very different result for him, I think, especially in the second inning. “
Fried disagreed. “At the end of the day, they put in four runs in that inning,” he said. “You need to do better next time, just throwing, getting out of it.”
You will probably have another chance. Morton would have been lined up to start Game 5 on a normal break; Fried said he was willing to start with a short break. He will have to beat the Astros on the glove side. You will have to trust your infielders. And he will have to back third base.
More MLB coverage:
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• Dusty Baker’s time is now
• ‘Hell, We Won’t Do It Tonight’: How Atlanta’s Season Changed
• Tyler Matzek’s unlikely journey to immortality in Atlanta
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.