Sports

Atlanta Is Peaking at Exactly the Right Time

ATLANTA — In a sport that revels in the unpredictable, the Atlanta Braves were once a sure thing. With almost ruthless efficiency, they won their division 14 times in a row, a streak that began before Dansby Swanson was born and ended when he was almost a teenager.

By then Swanson had charted his career path. As a boy in Marietta, Ga., he dreamed only of playing baseball — and with luck he might even do it for his favorite team. He got his wish in a surprise deal to Atlanta in 2015, just six months after the Arizona Diamondbacks had drafted him first overall out of Vanderbilt.

“Getting traded here, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, to be able to be back home and to be able to play for this city and to just grow this community,” Swanson said late Saturday night, after his homer helped lift Atlanta to the edge of a World Series championship. “That moment, it means a lot. It really does.”

Swanson’s moment arrived in the bottom of the seventh inning of Game 4 against the Houston Astros at Truist Park. He drove a fastball from Cristian Javier over the right field wall to tie the score, and Jorge Soler followed with a go-ahead pinch-hit homer, carrying Atlanta to a 3-2 victory and a three-games-to-one series lead. Atlanta can take the title at home in Game 5 on Sunday night.

“I’m happy for our city that they can go through this, experience this,” Manager Brian Snitker said. “What a great time of year.”

Atlanta has not been this close to the crown since 1995, the only season in that streak of division titles with a joyous ending. Winning it all can be absurdly difficult; in baseball’s modern era, the franchise triumphed once in Boston (1914) and once in Milwaukee (1957) before its lone title in Atlanta.

“Kyle is the reason we won the game,” Manager Brian Snitker said of Kyle Wright, who entered the game with the bases loaded in the first inning and carried the team through the fifth.Credit…Brett Davis/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

On Saturday, Swanson and Soler pulled off a feat just as rare. Only twice before had teammates hit game-tying and go-ahead back-to-back homers in the World Series, most recently in 1981, with Pedro Guerrero and Steve Yeager of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Those players shared the most valuable player award for that series (with teammate Ron Cey), but Swanson did not remember their names in the interview room after Game 4. He did recall the others who did it.

“Man, on MLB Network they were saying this is the third time, and the other two, one of them was Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in 1928,” Swanson said, as awe-struck as a six-year major league veteran can be.

“Baseball’s been around a long time, and for this to be the third time is pretty special. I feel like when you’re in that moment and you’re in between the lines, your only thought is on winning. So it’s kind of hard to wrap your mind around what just happened.”

Eddie Rosario made a sensational catch in left field during Saturday’s game.Credit…Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

What is happening is an 88-win team peaking at just the right time, making big plays and critical pitches that defy explanation.

Atlanta’s Game 4 starter, Dylan Lee, pitched only two games in the majors this season, the same as Kyle Wright, who relieved him with one out and the bases loaded in the first inning. The Astros, with their thunderous offense, had several chances to win the game in a blowout. Instead, Wright made it through the fifth with the deficit only 2-0.

“Kyle is the reason we won the game,” Snitker said, but the hitters and fielders had to do just enough to make it possible.

They did, of course, because this postseason, Snitker’s team does almost nothing wrong. After doubling and scoring Atlanta’s first run in the sixth, Eddie Rosario made a racing, backhanded grab at the left field wall to rob Jose Altuve in the eighth. Unless you saw Sandy Amoros in 1955 or Joe Rudi in 1972, you’ve probably never seen a better catch by a left fielder in the World Series.

“When Eddie turned to look at the fence, we thought to ourselves — or I least I thought personally — that ball either hit the fence, or it’s gone,” said Soler, describing the dugout view through an interpreter. “Then he just kept running and threw the glove out there and made the catch, and we all looked at each other in amazement, like: ‘Did that just really happen?’ It took us all by surprise, and it was something truly out of a movie.”

Jorge Soler hit a home run as the first batter of this World Series in Game 1. His pinch-hit homer in Game 4 may have been even more pivotal.Credit…Elsa/Getty Images

Soler started this multipart epic with a Game 1 homer as the very first batter of the World Series. Nobody had done that before — but then, no team is believed to have lost its Game 1 starter to a broken leg in the third inning, either. That also happened to Atlanta, with Charlie Morton, and it will force Snitker to use another bullpen game to try to close out the title in Game 5.

That seems daunting, but Atlanta has overcome worse problems, like the loss of their best player, Ronald Acuña Jr., to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in July. They traded for four outfielders — including Rosario and Soler — to solve that problem, and Snitker has a stable of problem-solvers in the bullpen, too.

Atlanta relievers have a 1.61 earned run average across the first four games, and the Astros have been especially quiet after the fourth inning. In Atlanta’s three victories — Games 1, 3 and 4 — Houston has scored only one run from the fifth inning on.

“I can’t say enough about our bullpen,” Snitker said. “My God, I’m going to talk to ownership and send them all to Hawaii for a week when we’re done.”

The way things are going, there might be a parade along the way.

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