• The San Juan Daily Star

Facing elimination, Astros find their bats, force Game 6 in Houston

José Altuve and Carlos Correa were both part of a resurgence by the Astros offense that helped send the Series back to Houston.

By Scott Miller

Adam Duvall swung and the baseball sailed high and deep and, surely, toward the history books. The 43,122 Atlanta fans filling Truist Park, early arrivals and in the mood to party with a clinching World Series win within reach, exploded into a raucous din. They believed the grand slam, only the 21st in World Series history, signaled their divine right to celebrate.

It was the first inning.

As Atlanta quickly found out, the Houston Astros are here for a reason, too, even if they hadn’t exhibited it much lately. But they finally found their offensive groove just when they needed it, facing elimination in Game 5. A shake-up in the lineup and a big day by a light-hitting catcher produced a series-saving 9-5 victory for the Astros.

“Today really felt like the World Series because they got to go on the field and see all the people and see all the media,” Houston manager Dusty Baker said. “It felt like the World Series, where the others felt like we were coming out of the dungeon and just going to play.

“So that was big, the fact that we got to get on the field.”

It had been a tough few days for the Astros. They hadn’t played in Atlanta since 2017 and, because of cold and rainy conditions, not only was their planned workout on Thursday evening canceled, but pregame on-field batting practice before Games 3 and 4 was wiped out, too. So the only time the Astros were on the unfamiliar field was during the games themselves.

Offensively, it showed. They scored only two runs over the first 18 innings here, losing games 2-0 and 3-2 and having a terrible time throughout. Including the games in Houston, the Astros were 4 for 31 with runners in scoring position for this series.

But Baker stubbornly said “I believe in miracles” before Game 5 and it seemed as if his team might need one as the Astros had left 17 runners on base during the first two games in Atlanta.

One fact Baker cited before Game 5 was the fact that as recently as the 2016 World Series, the Chicago Cubs trailed Cleveland three games to one but came back to win the title.

Houston’s offense woke up, finally, on Sunday when the skies cleared and the area dried. The Astros scheduled some early work on the field for midafternoon, before Atlanta’s batting practice session. Whether that alone brought change, or whether the Astros’ hitters are simply too good to be held down for too long, things changed dramatically in Game 5.

Down by 4-0 early, Houston scratched across two runs in the second when Yuli Gurriel drove a one-out single to center, Kyle Tucker walked and Alex Bregman, struggling so badly that Baker dropped him to seventh in the lineup, knocked an RBI double. Tucker then scored on catcher Martín Maldonado’s fly ball to center field.

It was a beginning to some, more than that to others.

“I think that was the key of us winning the game right there, bouncing back right away, those two runs,” Houston shortstop Carlos Correa said. “Bregman getting that huge double. Getting the confidence all the way up.”

Bregman had gone 0 for 5 in Game 4, striking out twice and failing to hit the ball out of the infield. He is hitting only .111 (2 for 18) in this World Series even after his Game 5 double, and .171 (7 for 41) since the start of the AL Championship Series. Baker dropped him from third to seventh in the lineup, and Bregman was one of the Astros out early to hit on the field Sunday.

“A few guys hit early who needed work,” Baker said, before flashing a knowing grin and continuing: “Like Bregman.”

Scoring two runs immediately after Duvall had brought the crowd to its feet didn’t even the score quite yet, but it energized the Houston dugout.

“From the moment we scored those two runs we said, ‘all right, it’s time to go. Let’s go,’” Correa said. “Let’s put great at-bats together. Let’s fight. Let’s battle.”

Said Baker: “That was a shutdown inning for them, but we answered back with two and that made it a 2-0 game versus a 4-0 game.”

From the Atlanta dugout, despite the sensational autumn work of his bullpen, manager Brian Snitker was far from comfortable in the immediate aftermath of Duvall’s grand slam because “I’d rather score those runs in the seventh inning when you don’t have so much time to cover.”

The Astros tied it, 4-4, with two more runs in the third. Atlanta shortstop Dansby Swanson booted a ground ball to give Houston a start there. Then the Astros shook off a Freddie Freeman homer that briefly put Atlanta on top, 5-4, by scoring three more times in the fifth. Correa and Yuli Gurriel rapped base hits, Bregman was intentionally walked and Maldonado followed by working a clutch, bases-loaded walk against Atlanta reliever A.J. Minter.

Maldonado said he was expecting Bregman to get the intentional pass, and he was ready.

“I wasn’t going to swing to get a strike,” Maldonado said. “It was pretty much try and be patient. I know he’s got a good cutter. He’s been amazing this year so far with that pitch. And you try to see him out for the most part.”

Maldonado, the defensive stalwart at catcher who typically contributes little offensively, had drawn only one walk in 47 plate appearances this postseason at the time. But on a night when Houston was desperate for help from all corners of its roster, Maldonado stepped up. The player who finished with the worst batting average during the regular season of all big league catchers with at least 400 plate appearances (.172) finished with three RBIs, the third coming on a base hit in the seventh two batters after a Bregman double.

Correa chipped in an RBI single in the eighth that was an unnecessary, but welcome, insurance run. It was Houston’s fifth Game 5 hit with runners in scoring position — one more than the Astros produced in the first four games combined.

It all wiped out the Duvall grand slam that so many here figured was a sure sign that Atlanta was going to clinch its first World Series title since 1995. It was the first World Series grand slam in the first inning since the New York Yankees’ Bobby Richardson hit one in the 1960 World Series.

That, and the fact that Atlanta was a perfect 7-0 at home this postseason, seemed to be premonitions for a big celebration in this town overnight Sunday. Instead, the World Series now will move back to Houston for Game 6 tonight (8:09 p.m. EST, FOX), with the Astros’ offense showing signs of life and at least some indication that, perhaps, there may be a long way to go yet in this series.

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