MLB

Swanson, Soler put Braves on verge of World Series title

On Saturday night, a late rally put the Atlanta Braves on the brink of their second World Series title since moving down south.

ATLANTA — The first 27 innings of the World Series provided little stress. The first two games were blowouts. There were no lead changes. The most drama came in Game 3 when Braves manager Brian Snitker pulled Ian Anderson after five no-hit innings, a decision that was correct based on the way baseball has evolved.

Then with two swings of the bat, Dansby Swanson and Jorge Soler completely changed that narrative, with their back-to-back home runs off Astros reliever Cristian Javier completing a stunning 3-2 comeback and bringing the Braves within one victory of winning their first World Series since 1995.

“It’s like I’ve been waiting for Dansby to do a Dansby-esque type thing,” Snitker said, “which the kid likes the moment, I know that.”

Swanson, 27, was hitting just .225 with one extra-base hit this postseason. He was down in the count 0-2, with Javier throwing all sliders. Then he threw a fastball right down the heart of the plate. Swanson smoked it over the right field fence. Soler, who missed time this postseason after testing positive for COVID, was ahead 2-1 in the count when Javier tried to sneak an 80-mph fastball by him. Soler barely hit it over the left field fence. Game changed. Series changed.

The Braves have been in this position before. Just last year, they led the Dodgers 3-1 in the National League Championship Series. They collapsed as Los Angeles’ depth was too much to overcome with no days off. They proved they are a different team this year after they beat those same Dodgers, winners of 106 games, in the NLCS. And in the first four games against the Astros, who have advanced to the ALCS in five consecutive seasons, the 88-win Braves have been the superior team.

The Atlanta Braves are one win away from a World Series title

The Astros boast a daunting lineup. They led baseball in on-base percentage and runs scored. The group has three MVP-caliber players in Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman. Yordan Alvarez is an emerging superstar. Yuli Gurriel, the AL batting champ, is hitting seventh most nights. Yet they are hitting a mere .206/.291/.298 and averaging only 2.8 runs per game against the Braves. A night after being two-hit, the Astros were 0 for 8 with runners in scoring position and left 11 runners on base.

“They say good pitching beats good hitting,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said, “and then when you don’t hit, they say what’s wrong? And they’ve been pitching well against us. They’ve been pitching great against us.”

It’s true. Without Mike Soroka and Charlie Morton, the Braves have overmatched Astros hitters. Snitker said that Kyle Wright’s 4.2 innings were “the reason we won the game.” Luke Jackson, Tyler Matzek and Will Smith were once again brilliant. Snitker added that, with the exception of Wright, the Braves should have every option available out of the bullpen for a potential Game 5 on Sunday night.

“I can’t say enough about our bullpen,” Snitker said.

But the story of the Braves’ night, and why they are on the verge of winning the World Series, is the offense. Each night, they seem to get a key hit from a star. On Saturday, it was once again Austin Riley who started the comeback when they were down 2-0. What makes their lineup so dangerous, however, is they have so many different ways to beat you. Eddie Rosario, the NLCS MVP, shined in the big moment before Swanson and Riley hit the game-sealing home runs.

It was the third time in World Series history that players hit go ahead and game-tying home runs back-to-back, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig doing it in 1928 and Pedro Guerrero and Steve Yeager doing it in 1981. Soler and Swanson are the first Nos. 8 and 9 hitters to hit back-to-back home runs in the World Series.

“It was just a complete game changer,” Soler said.

“Going all the way back to Milwaukee, we’ve had these at-bats and these hits that have sort of electrified and surprised the entire dugout,” Rosario said. “So we’ve all had some success, and we’ve all been able to experience it. I had my home run. Freddie (Freeman) had his home run against (Josh) Hader. Jorge had his home run. (Travis) d’Arnaud had his home run the other night.”

To defeat the Dodgers, and to take a 3-1 series lead over the Astros, the Braves have needed all-hands on deck. They’ve also needed to catch a break or two at times. In the eighth inning, Jose Altuve smacked a line drive to left field. Rosario sprinted back, stuck up his glove backhanded at the last second, and snagged the ball before crashing into the outfield wall.

“I feel right now I am Super Rosario,” he said. “I don’t see the ball. I throw the glove and catch the ball. Everybody’s happy. I’m happy. It’s unbelievable what I did tonight. Wow, what a catch.”

Said Snitker: “That’s probably not an instructional video we’ll show our minor leaguers.”

But it brought the Braves one step closer to a World Series championship that increasingly feels meant to be. They have three games to finish off the Astros, with the first coming Sunday night at Truist Park. If they do, Swanson and Soler’s back-to-back home runs will go down as one of the greatest moments in Atlanta sports history.

“Maybe we can have this chat in about 10 years when I’m getting old and I have kids and stuff like that,” Swanson said, laughing. “I feel like in that moment — in the moment right now, I’m so thankful that we won.”