If you had told me that Atlanta would beat Houston Friday night, I wouldn’t have blinked. Though I’ve made dozens of predictions on radio and television as part of The Baseball 100 tour, I have never had a good feel for this Series or, indeed, this entire postseason. The Astros and Hammers are both decidedly talented and clearly flawed, and though it’s a long cliche to call postseason baseball a crapshoot, this series does feel like a crapshoot.
So I could have predicted Atlanta winning.
I would not have predicted Atlanta shutting down that Astros lineup like it was nothing.
The one sure thing about this Series seemed to be that Houston would hit. That lineup, top to next-to-bottom, is the best in baseball — it’s simply tough out after tough out, from Altuve to Brantley to Bregman to Alvarez to Correa to Tucker to the league’s batting champion, Gurriel. The Astros scored the most runs in baseball this year, they had averaged more than six runs per game in the postseason, and the Braves’ pitching staff is stretched pretty thin after the loss of their ace, Charlie Morton.
So, no, I would not have predicted that the Hammers would almost no-hit the Astros.
The circumstances certainly made offense tough. The weather was lousy. It was cold and rainy, and other than the gravity-defying hitting of Travis d’Arnaud, the ball wasn’t carrying at all. Still, Tom Watson always says that bad conditions favor the greatest players. You would have expected the Astros to adjust.
They did not.
So what happened? How did Atlanta hold Houston to two measly hits — one a fly ball that should have been caught and the other an opposite-field ground ball that beat the shift? Well, let’s take a look at some of the key at-bats.
1st inning: After Jose Altuve walked to lead off the game, Michael Brantley came to the plate. Brantley is this generation’s “professional hitter.” Every generation has certain players who don’t win MVPs, don’t get on magazine covers, don’t have Fatheads made, but just go out there day after day and rake — Harold Baines is probably the most famous of them, but there’s also Chili Davis and Rusty Staub and Ruben Sierra for a while and you can think of others. Brantley just rakes.
And Atlanta starter Ian Anderson is exactly the sort of pitcher he rakes against — this year, he hit .363 against right-handed pitching, and he gets particular glee out of fastball-changeup pitchers like Anderson.
But after taking a 95-mph fastball over the heart of the plate — he obviously didn’t go up there thinking first-pitch fastball — Bregman swung at a perfect changeup that was just off the outside corner, and he grounded into a double play.
Two batters later, Yordan Álvarez — who Mike Schur and I have determined is the largest human being on planet earth — came up with Alex Bregman on first. He WAS looking first-pitch fastball, and he got it, up in the zone but tailing away. Álvarez hit the ball hard — 102-mph exit velocity — but got under it, and it was an easy flyout to end the inning.
2nd inning: Yuli Gurriel has been a hitting genius all over the world. He was just 20 when he played for Cuba at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. He smashed eight home runs in 11 games in leading Cuba on an undefeated march through the 2005 World Baseball Cup in the Netherlands. He was already viewed as one of the best players in the world in 2006 — 10 years before he would defect and play in the major leagues. The guy crushed the ball in Japan when he went there.
And this year, as mentioned, he led the American League in batting.
So, we probably should have known something was going on with the Astros when he came up — he took a change-up down in the zone for a strike, then took a fastball down in the zone for a strike, then took another changeup down in the zone for strike three. The last pitch might have been low, but it was close, and it was becoming clear that the weather was not the only fog that the Astros were in.
3rd inning: So here’s the deal — when Altuve gets on base this offseason, the Astros win. And when he doesn’t get on base, the Astros lose. It’s quite stark. He’s hitting .303 in the nine games the Astros have won and he has scored an astonishing 16 runs in those nine games.
In the Astros’ five losses? He’s 0-for-18.
He came up in the bottom of the third inning, two outs, nobody on base, and had a battle with Anderson. I admit to focusing this essay on the Astros, but it should not be lost how well Anderson pitched. His command was stellar; he just placed pitches on the edge of the strike zone box, usually on the outside corner or on the bottom of the zone.
And against Altuve, he moved pitches up and down, up and down, nothing over the middle of the plate, until the count was 3-2. At this point, he was not going to give in to a guy who is second all-time on the postseason home run list, so he fired a fastball high and way out of the zone. Altuve swung through it for strike three.
4th inning: Brantley struck out on a changeup that was probably an inch or two low. Bregman flew out on a changeup that was either just on the outside corner or just off it. And then the Astros mounted their most serious rally after Alvarez walked and Carlos Correa got hit by a pitch. First and second, two outs, one of my favorite players, Kyle Tucker, at the plate.
Why do I like Tucker so much? Three words: No batting gloves.
But Tucker swung at a changeup that was probably six inches off the ground at contact, and he naturally topped it and bounced the ball back to the mound, and another inning was over.
5th inning: You’re probably getting the point by now — Anderson was putting the ball just where he wanted, and the Astros were unable to adjust. The thing this Astros team does better than anybody is control the strike zone, which is to say that they are really good at fouling off a pitcher’s best pitches and taking those tempting pitches that end up out of the zone. But not tonight. Gurriel got under a high fastball, Martin Maldonado lined out on an outside fastball (one of the more hittable pitches Anderson threw) and Marwin Gonzalez looked utterly hypnotized throughout his three-pitch strikeout.
6th inning: Atlanta manager Brian Snitker took Anderson out of the game after five innings even though he had (1) not allowed a hit and (2) only thrown 76 pitches. I do have a lot to say about this — like A LOT to say about this, like a BOOK-LENGTH amount to say about this — but books take a while to write, and so for now let’s stay focused on the game and the way the Braves somehow shut down this brilliant offense.
Lefty A.J. Minter came into the game for Atlanta. He’s had quite the journey in his baseball career — at times he has been dominant, at times he has been entirely unable to find the strike zone, he was terrific in the short 2020 season and playoffs, he was demoted to the minor leagues in July, it has been some kind of strange ride.
He fell behind Altuve 2-0, which normally is a bad, bad thing. Altuve has a career .531 on-base percentage after getting ahead in the count 2-0, and on the 2-0 pitch itself he has hit .418 and slugged .637.
Then Minter threw an 89-mph cutter up and out over the heart of the plate … and Altuve just took it for a strike.
Minter kept his next pitches low and Altuve struck out on a beautiful cutter over the inside corner.
The other at-bat worth talking about is Alvarez’s — he came up with a runner on first and two outs, and he flailed at three cutters that were all outside the zone.
7th inning: Now it was Luke Jackson pitching for the Hammers, and he was not as sharp as Anderson or Minter had been, but it didn’t matter. Correa grounded out on what looked like a very hittable slider. Tucker (without batting gloves!) blasted a middle-middle hanging slider — at 109-mph exit velocity it was far and away the hardest-hit ball of the night for Houston — but he hit it at centerfielder Adam Duvall. And then Gurriel, who just looked out of sorts all night, dribbled a slider down in the zone.
8th inning: Now it was time for another Atlanta pitcher, Tyler Matzek, who was once a first-round pick, once among baseball’s top prospects, twice a pitcher for an Independent team called the Texas Airhogs in Grand Prairie, Texas, and multiple times a pitcher on the waiver wire. It seems hard to believe that a 6-foot-3 left-handed pitcher who can throw 100 mph would have such a difficult time finding his way in the big leagues, but, hey, Crash Davis was a switch-hitting catcher with immense power, and he only got a cup of coffee in the majors.
Anyway, Matzek gave up the first hit of the game, sort of — Aldemys Diaz hit a pop-up to left that was beautifully placed between a retreating Dansby Swanson and a tentatively charging Eddie Rosario. Had Swanson gotten out of the way — and there was no way Swanson was catching that ball — I do believe Rosario could have made the play. But Rosario pulled up instead and the Astros had their first hit.
Astros manager Dusty Baker put pinch-runner Jose Siri in the game — obviously setting him up to steal second. Siri is one of the fastest players in baseball, and d’Arnaud — for his many strengths as a player — had thrown out 8 of the last 58 base runners that have tried to steal against him in the regular season, and in the postseason he had thrown out (this seems almost impossible to believe) one out of 32 runners attempting to steal.
ONE OUT OF THIRTY-TWO.
But for reasons that defy understanding, the Astros did not try to steal with Jason Castro at the plate. After throwing a pitch in the dirt and a pitch a foot high, Matzek promptly fired three fastballs right by Castro for out number one.
Then came Altuve, and he completed his horrendous night by swinging at a slider that almost hit him and fouling out.
Finally, with Brantley at the plate, Siri did steal second, and d’Arnaud threw the ball away, moving Siri to third (though, realistically, it probably should have been caught by Swanson, who might even have tagged Siri out). That was the only time all night that the Astros got a runner to third. But Brantley swung under a 100-mph fastball, popped out to third, and that was the end of that.
Ninth inning: All right, one more pitcher for the Hammers, Will Smith, the Fresh Prince of Newnan, Ga., who began his career as a pretty good prospect for Kansas City, became a valuable middle reliever for Milwaukee, missed a year for Tommy John surgery, returned as a Giants closer, and now at age 31 closes for Atlanta and often does so with a whole lot of drama.
And sure enough he gave up a leadoff single, Houston’s second hit of the night, when Bregman punched a 93-mph outside fastball the other way to beat the shift. It was Bregman’s first hit of the series.
And then the Astros went down like so:
— Alvarez, first-pitch swinging, popped out on a middle-middle fastball.
— Correa lined out on a curveball up in the zone.
— Tucker bashed a low, 82-mph slider to the warning track; maybe on a hot night it would have been something, but on this night it was the final out.
So, all in all, the Astros were completely shut down by a combination of Atlanta’s terrific pitching — particularly by Anderson — and an uncharacteristically poor approach. Now they find themselves trailing 2-1 in the Series and forced to start Zack Greinke, a pitcher they have clearly lost faith in. On the other hand, as I write this, nobody even knows who Atlanta is going to start tonight. The series goes back to being entirely unpredictable.