ATLANTA — The Astros have the best offense in baseball. They got on base more frequently than any other club this season; they ranked last in strikeout rate and first in offensive WAR. There were only four games all season in which they recorded two hits or fewer. If you’d like to try out-strategizing them rather than overpowering them, good luck, as they alternate right- and left-handers for the first seven hitters in the lineup—no easy matchup playing here. To quiet these hitters is to shut down one of baseball’s most fearsome, versatile and balanced groups.
But the Braves did just that in Game 3. On a rainy Friday night in Atlanta, they did not allow a hit until the eighth inning and only twice allowed a player to move beyond first base. Their 2–0 victory was a rare shutout of the Astros. It was also a demonstration of just how dazzling this pitching staff can be at its best and, most importantly, a decisive win to put them ahead in the series by one game.
The most scrutinized decision of the night was Atlanta manager Brian Snitker’s call to pull starter Ian Anderson—with a no-hitter going after the fifth inning. But whatever that choice meant for history or aesthetics or narrative quality, it meant only one thing for the Astros: They had to get ready for a parade of formidable bullpen arms. The Braves’ best relievers were rested after a travel day that followed them not having seen the field in Game 2, and Snitker was prepared to use them, all of them. Houston’s night did not get easier when Anderson departed with the no-hitter intact. It got harder. Which is exactly why Atlanta chose to do it.
“We didn’t breathe no sigh of relief,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said of watching Anderson get yanked. “It’s no secret they’ve got a good bullpen.”
There were several layers to the decision to pull Anderson. Though he had not allowed a hit, his command had been spotty throughout the night, and he’d given up three walks and one HBP. He’d fought his way out several times after getting behind in the count. It was all enough to make his manager a bit anxious. (“He’s got a really good quality of limiting damage when he’s not real sharp,” Snitker said, a compliment wrapped in a gentle critique.) Throw in that Anderson was about to see the top of the Houston lineup for the third time—to say nothing of the fact that the goal was to win rather than to see a no-hitter—and Snitker felt his call was clear.
But the same inconsistency that made Atlanta’s coaching staff nervous about the potential for an impending mistake had made Houston’s hitters frustrated. They simply could not get a consistent read on him.
“He was effectively wild. I mean, he had a 1-to-1 ratio of balls to strikes, and our guys never could zero in on the strikes,” Baker said. “When a guy’s in the zone, out of the zone, it’s tough to zero in on him.”
The Astros struggled to work with anything all night. Their hitters looked almost uniformly lost—even in areas that are generally team strengths. For instance, Anderson’s top secondary pitch is the changeup, and Houston is better at hitting changeups than any team in baseball. (It had a .325 weighted on base average against the pitch this year compared to a league average of .292.) Yet rather than forcing Anderson to lean on his curve a bit more tonight to avoid giving them too many good looks at the changeup, they could do nothing with the pitch, and he actually ended up throwing his changeup more than he typically does.
“He’s definitely difficult to square up,” said Astros third baseman Alex Bregman. “He has three pitches that are good pitches, and he throws them on the edges. You have to be selective… we didn’t do a good enough job of squaring up the ones that we could have had tonight.”
And Houston got no additional breathing room after Anderson departed. Braves relievers A.J. Minter, Luke Jackson, Tyler Matzek and Will Smith combined to allow just three baserunners over the final four innings—and only one of those represented a well-struck ball. (The other two were a bloop single and a hit-by-pitch.) It’s true that Atlanta still has bullpen games scheduled for the next two days. But “we’ll deal with tomorrow tomorrow,” Snitker said, and by using his best relievers after a strong showing from his starter, he won today.
The takeaway for the Braves? “My pitching staff is full of studs,” crowed catcher Travis d’Arnaud. “They were just out there executing pitches.”
And for the Astros? “You give all the credit to them tonight. They pitched their tail off,” said Bregman. “I think you just flush it and move on.”
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