HOUSTON — The Braves leave Texas happy to have taken one of the two games on the road, which is always the goal for any playoff team without home-field advantage going into the series. And the Astros leave Texas happy because, after the Game 1 debacle, they responded with a resounding 7-2 victory in Game 2.
“I would say it was a must-win today,” Astros second baseman Jose Altuve said. “We didn’t want to go to Atlanta down by two. So we left everything we had in there tonight. Obviously, very important win to tie the series to keep going from there.”
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Both teams also leave Houston knowing what needs to happen in Atlanta for them to take control of the series. Making that happen, though, won’t be simple. Let’s take a look at one player for each team who could hold the key to World Series success in Georgia.
Alex Bregman is 0-for-7 in the World Series and has only three hits in his past 22 at-bats. In Game 1, when No. 2 hitter Michael Brantley went 3-for-4, No. 3 hitter Bregman went 0-for-4. In Game 2, when the Astros scored seven runs, Bregman went 0-for-3 with a sacrifice fly to center field.
Bregman is much too good of a hitter to continue to be a consistent out in the No. 3 spot in the Astros lineup.
“Bregman can hit, and he thinks he can hit, and he will hit,” Houston manager Dusty Baker said before Game 2. “So it’s just a matter of him staying confident. That’s number one.”
The truth is, though, it’s been a while since Bregman has consistently been a dominant force in the Houston lineup. In 2018, he finished fifth in the AL MVP race. In 2019, he was the runner-up to Mike Trout, drawing 13 of the 30 first-place votes. His combined OPS+ for those two seasons was 157.
His combined OPS for 2020 and 2021 was just 114, quite the drop. There are circumstances, of course. The 2020 season was strange for so many reasons, and Bregman played just 42 of the team’s 60 games, missing time with a hamstring injury. And his 2021 season was abbreviated, too, with hamstring and quadriceps issues.
“He missed, what, 60 games?” Baker said. “So that’s 60 games of repetition that the opposition has over him. You’re playing catch-up the whole time, the whole year. That’s very tough. When do you catch up? I mean, he’s put in the time. He’s put in the work. Law of average is on his side too, big time.”
Bregman returned from the IL in late August and produced a .760 OPS in 32 games. There were moments, such as the back-to-back games with a home run in late September, or the two four-RBI games he had after his return.
But if the Astros are going to beat the Braves in this seven-game series, they’ll need the Bregman of old in that third spot in the lineup, not what they’ve seen in the first two games.
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The Wright factor
With staff leader Charlie Morton out with his broken leg, it is completely plausible to think the Braves might only have one pitcher throw more than three innings over the next three games in Atlanta. Ian Anderson is the scheduled Game 3 starter, and the club would love for him to get at least midway into that game.
But Games 4 and 5 are looking like bullpen games, unless the club decides to bring Max Fried — who threw 86 pitches in Game 2 — on short rest in Game 5.
The wild card in that mix? Kyle Wright, a 26-year-old who has appeared in four big-league seasons but only totaled 70 MLB innings, including just 6 1/3 in 2021. That doesn’t exactly sound like a potential pitching staff savior on paper, but the Braves are excited about what he could bring to the table over the next few games.
Wright had a 3.05 ERA in 24 Triple-A starts, and Atlanta manager Snitker brought him in for the eighth inning in Game 2, to get him a taste of World Series action in a lower-pressure setting. All he did was strike out all three batters he faced, throwing 10 strikes in 12 pitches.
“It was so encouraging to see Kyle tonight,” Snitker said, “just getting in there for that one inning and getting him out there and experiencing this atmosphere because he could play a huge part going forward. I thought he threw the ball extremely well.”
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Let’s not pretend the final frame of a game with a five-run gap is the same type of pressure as being asked to throw three or four innings in a close ballgame. But any sort of confidence builder for a guy in his situation is huge.
“He did a tremendous job,” catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “He was locating. His sinker was moving a lot. His curveball was moving a lot. He did a tremendous job. When I caught him in a rehab game for me, he looked exactly the same as he did that day. It was fun working with him, and it was great seeing him have the success today, especially in the World Series.”
Does Wright start Game 4? Maybe Game 5? Or does Atlanta go with an opener in both games, only to bring in Wright as the bulk pitcher?
And what about rookie Tucker Davidson? He replaced Morton on the roster. Like Wright, he has limited big league experience in 2021 — a 3.60 ERA in four starts in the first half of the season — and he spent time on the injury shelf this year. He made a three-inning rehab outing in early October with the Triple-A club, and has been working out there. He said Wednesday afternoon that he’s stretched out enough to throw up to 80 pitches if needed.
“I was very impressed with Tucker when he got his first call-up this year,” Snitker said. “The moment didn’t seem to matter to him.”
That seems important, heading into an important few games in Atlanta’s season.