HOUSTON (AP) — A healthy swing by Jorge Soler powered the Atlanta Braves to a smashing start in the World Series.
Making his first start since testing positive for COVID-19, Soler became the first player to begin a World Series with a home run and the Braves, despite the loss of pitcher Charlie Morton to a broken leg, hushed the Houston Astros 6-2 Tuesday night in Game 1.
Boosted by a strong bullpen effort, a two-run homer by Adam Duvall and a late sacrifice fly from Freddie Freeman, the Braves coasted in their first Series appearance since Chipper Jones and their Big Three aces ascended in 1999.
Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and the Astros mostly looked lost at the plate. This is their third World Series in five seasons — and first since their 2017 illegal sign-stealing scheme was revealed.
Before the game, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said there were plenty of sleuths monitoring the dugouts, clubhouse and stands to guard against any possible shenanigans.
“There’s a lot more people watching what goes on as a result of the issues that we’ve had,” he said.
Soler’s no-doubt jolt into the left-field seats on Framber Valdez’s third pitch quickly took all the juice out of Minute Maid Park, quieting a boisterous, sellout crowd.
Fresh off dispatching the defending World Series champion Dodgers in the playoffs, the Braves weren’t done, either. Aggressive in every way, they kept teeing off against their former, longtime National League rivals.
Moments later, Ozzie Albies stole a base and Austin Riley hit an RBI double, taking a rare swing at a 3-0 pitch.
Soler added an RBI grounder in the second and when Duvall launched a two-run homer, it was 5-0 and the Braves had made even more October history — the only team to score in each of the first three innings in a World Series opener.
At that point, Braves batters were far from the only ones making noise. The few Atlanta fans sprinkled in the sea of orange had started their familiar chop chant, too.
By then, it looked as if everything was going right for the Braves.
But baseball can be a fickle game, and the fates can spin faster than the best curveball.
Because in the bottom of the third, Atlanta absorbed its own big hit.
As he struck out Altuve, Morton suddenly grimaced and took an awkward step. His teammates, manager Brian Snitker and a trainer soon joined him on the mound, and just like that, Morton was gone.
Turned out a hard comebacker by Yuli Gurriel that ricocheted off Morton’s leg to Freeman at first base for an out to begin the second had done more damage than anyone realized.
Morton stayed in for another inning, amazingly, before gingerly walking off with a fractured right fibula. The 37-year-old righty, the winning pitcher for the Astros in Game 7 of the 2017 World Series, will be replaced on the roster. He’s expected to be OK for spring training.
“He's a gamer. You knew it had to be pretty bad for him to come out there," Duvall said. "He gave it all he had. And I want to get in there and talk to him and see how he’s feeling and stuff. You know, just let him know we’re all here for him.”
A.J. Minter replaced Morton and got the win, permitting one run in 2 2/3 innings while throwing a career-high 43 pitches. Atlanta relievers Luke Jackson, Tyler Matzek and Will Smith finished it.
“We’ve been through a lot this year. And I say that just in the 2 1/2 months that I’ve been here," Duvall said. "But you know, guys gotta step up. We need everybody at this point in the season. We know this is a grind. This is a point in the season where nobody’s probably 100%, and we need everybody.”
Game 2 is Wednesday night, with Braves lefty Max Fried starting against Astros right-hander José Urquidy.
Altuve and the Astros did little all night. The All-Star second baseman struck out three times — he’d never done that in 73 prior postseason games.
Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez and the Astros never seriously threatened in the later innings. Their only runs, in fact, came on shortstop Dansby Swanson’s fielding error in the fourth and Correa’s groundout in the eighth.
In fact, the game wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated. It was more like a romp — during the seventh-inning stretch, as fans did a sing-a-long to “Deep In The Heart of Texas,” Braves backup catcher William Contreras locked arms with starter Travis d’Arnaud and did a little Texas two-step as they switched places warming up Jackson.
STATS AND STUFF
It was the first World Series action with a packed stadium since Game 7 at this very park in 2019, when a sellout crowd silently filed out after watching the Nationals rally past Houston. That night, the biggest mystery was why didn’t manager A.J. Hinch summon ace Gerrit Cole from the bullpen — soon after, a lot of people had a lot bigger questions about the Astros. ... Soler and Duvall became the first teammates both acquired midseason to homer in the same World Series game. Soler missed five playoff games after testing positive but returned late in the NLCS and went 1 for 2 with a double in a pair of pinch-hit appearances. ... The Astros fell to 0-4 in World Series openers. ... No team has won a World Series game in its own park since the Dodgers beat Boston in 18 innings in Game 3 of 2018. The visiting team won every game in 2019, and last year’s Series was played at a neutral site in Arlington, Texas.
Braves: Fried finished strong down the stretch and excelled in two playoff starts, but then faltered in Game 5 of the NLCS at Dodger Stadium. With a chance to clinch, the Atlanta ace gave up five runs and eight hits in 4 2/3 innings.
Astros: Urquidy was tagged by Boston for six runs over 1 2/3 innings in his previous start in Game 3 of the ALCS. He has postseason pedigree, though, pitching five scoreless innings as a rookie to beat Washington in Game 4 of the 2019 World Series.
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Ben Walker, The Associated Press