HOUSTON – As DIY projects go, the Braves are the envy of the baseball neighborhood. The same team that reached the All-Star break 44–45 and with an outfield of Orlando Arcia, Guillermo Heredia and Abraham Almonte opened the World Series with four sluggers in their lineup who were elsewhere the first half of the season.
All Jorge Soler, Eddie Rosario, Adam Duvall and Joc Peterson did in Game 1 Tuesday was smash six hits and drive in four runs in what was the fastest getaway ever seen in 117 World Series openers: runs in the first, second and third innings on Atlanta’s way to a 6-2 win over the Astros.
Quicker than you can lay down hardwood flooring, wallpaper and wainscoting, the Braves look entirely different from the group that played .500 ball for the first 110 games, the longest stretch of somnambulant baseball ever for a team that somehow ended up in the World Series. They are 41–21 since (.661).
“How it all worked is amazing,” says hitting coach Kevin Seitzer. “It works because of the caliber of people and the back of their baseball cards. They just fit right in. And we have a very loving group around here and they really care about each other.”
The Astros had to console themselves with small victories. Braves reliever A.J. Minter is not available for Game 2 after throwing a career-high 43 pitches in emergency relief of starter Charlie Morton, who left with a broken right leg after getting hit with a batted ball.
Tyler Matzek, Atlanta’s hottest reliever, faced six batters in lower leverage (with a five-run lead) and lost his cloak of invincibility. Three of the six Houston batters nicked him for hits, including Yordan Alvarez, who smashed a slider off the wall in center for a triple. Amazingly, it was the first time since June 24 that Matzek allowed a hit off his slider. Batters had been 0-for-40 against his last 203 sliders.
Otherwise, most everything about Game 1 favored the Braves, including the American League rules, which allowed them to run out in the same lineup all four horsemen who saved them from the Apocalypse.
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You knew things were going to be different when the game began with a 6-foot-4, 235-pound DH stepping into the box as the leadoff hitter. Soler is as big as a linebacker and hits like one. He was only the third DH to bat leadoff in a World Series opener, but the previous two fit the traditional profile of the table-setting leadoff guy: Lonnie Smith with the 1991 Braves and Chuck Knoblauch with the 2000 Yankees.
“He’s scary,” Seitzer says. “That’s a freakin’ presence in that batter’s box.”
Soler was acquired at the trade deadline July 30 from Kansas City, the same day GM Alex Anthopoulos also traded for Duvall from Miami and Rosario from Cleveland, which came two weeks after he traded for Pederson from the Cubs. It was an impressively full cart for someone who vowed never again to make the same mistake he made as Blue Jays general manager in 2014: to leave the trade deadline with an empty cart and his players ticked off.
Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista captured the clubhouse angst then when he responded, “Everybody does [trades] at the deadline and figures out a way to improve the roster. We just somehow didn’t.” The dispirited Jays tumbled out of wild-card position.
When Anthopoulos obtained Soler, he told manager Brian Snitker that Soler would be “a right-handed bat off the bench.” Then Seitzer looked at video of Soler. He immediately ran out of the room to find bench coach Walt Weiss.
“I grabbed Walt and I said, ‘Come in here and look at this!’” Seitzer says. “I said, ‘We need to go talk to Snit and reconsider this ‘bat off the bench’ thing.‘ And Snit goes, 'Well, let me call Alex and see what he thinks.’”
Soler’s slugging jumped after joining the Braves (.370 to .524), just as it did for Rosario (.389 to .573), Duvall (.478 to .513), and Pederson (.418 to .428). Anthopoulos went 4-for-4.
Before Game 1, Seitzer formulated a plan for his hitters against Houston starter Framber Valdez.
“We wanted to try to see him in the center of the zone,” Duvall says. “That’s always a good idea, but with the way his ball moves it’s especially important to get him in the middle. The way his ball moves from in the zone to out of the zone, he gets a lot of chases.”
It took just three pitches for the plan to bear fruit. Soler looked at two sinkers out of the zone. When Valdez threw another sinker that stayed in the middle, Soler crushed it into the Crawford Boxes. It was the first time the first batter of a World Series hit a home run.
“Ever?” Seitzer says incredulously.
“Wow,” Seitzer says. “He’s got a really good eye. He makes good swing decisions. He shuts down early on secondary stuff. He just has great at-bats. That hit to get us on the board was freakin’ huge.”
Pederson was next among the Four Horsemen to be heard from. He knocked a Valdez sinker in the second for a single that followed one by Travis d’Arnaud. That eventually led to a run when Astros manager Dusty Baker played his infield back with one out when already down 2–0—conceding a run with his ground-ball pitcher on the mound. Soler obliged the gift-giving with an RBI routine grounder to shortstop
Fellow Horsemen Rosario (single) and Duvall (home run) contributed next, taking care of the third-inning runs and knocking a woeful Valdez from the game with five runs on eight hits.
“We had a plan,” Seitzer says, “and the boys executed perfectly.”
Rosario is the Braves’ lead Horsemen. With two more hits, he is hitting .465 this postseason. His calm at the plate is, to borrow from his hitting coach, freakish. Two years ago, Rosario swung at 43.2% of pitches out of the zone, the fourth-worst chase rate in baseball. This postseason his chase rate is down to 30.6%. He is crushing pitches from one line to the other.
“He’s a special talent,” Seitzer says. “When you get locked in, everything slows down. There’s no herky-jerky to the body or anything. He’s in a nice place.”
How did he get there?
“Skipper decided to roll him out,” Seitzer says. “He wasn’t playing regularly when he first got here, and his at-bats were so consistent and Joc was scuffling a little bit, so Skip made the decision to roll with him and see where it goes.
“We heard when we got him, ‘Big moments, this is the guy.’ He’s got great hands, he’s got juice and, yes, in the big moments he steps up.”
Did someone say, “big moments?” Rosario has a career postseason OPS of 1.104. Among all left-handed hitters with at least 70 plate appearances in the postseason, the only hitters better than Rosario are a couple of guys named Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig (1.214 each).
The Braves are unrecognizable from their former mid-season selves. Rosario is turning into the Babe. Soler is T.J. Watt hitting leadoff. Duvall is the second coming of Gus Zernial, who 70 years ago was the last guy to lead the league in RBIs while switching teams midway. And Pederson has done more for the pearl industry than anybody since Coco Chanel. Welcome to the Brave New World.
More MLB Coverage:
• Morton's Mystique Grows With Gutty Game 1 Performance
• Dusty Baker's Time Is Now
• 'Hell No. We're Doing It Tonight': How Atlanta's Season Shifted
• Tyler Matzek's Improbable Journey to Immortality in Atlanta
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