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Astros Have Advantage Despite Braves' Win

Sports Illustrated logo Sports Illustrated 10/27/2021 Matt Martell

The World Series began with a bang. For the first time ever, the first batter of the Fall Classic hit a home run. Jorge Soler’s lead-off blast was the first blow in Atlanta’s early Game 1 barrage. The Braves scored in each of the first three innings—two in the first, one in the second, two in the third—and knocked out Astros top starter Framber Valdez after he had recorded just six outs.

The 6–2 final score does not reflect what was actually a lopsided affair. Like Houston, Atlanta also was forced to go to its bullpen early, but this was not because starter Charlie Morton was struggling. Instead, the 37-year-old legend of playoff lore took a comebacker off his ankle and faced three more batters, striking out two of them, before leaving the game with what was later announced as a fractured fibula. He will miss the rest of the World Series.

Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel and Braves catcher Travis d'Arnaud Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports © Provided by Sports Illustrated Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel and Braves catcher Travis d'Arnaud Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports

The immediate takeaway is that the underdog Braves won the game and put the Astros in an early 1–0 hole. That’s far better than the alternative. However, it’s because of how Atlanta’s win unfolded that Houston enters tonight’s game with the series advantage.

Morton’s injury hurts, with the obvious reason being the Braves likely will need to rely on either Drew Smyly or Kyle Wright to start in Morton’s place later in the series. But there’s a more immediate concern after the early exit: what happens to the Atlanta bullpen. Last night, the Braves had to use four of their top relievers, more than they otherwise would have if Morton had remained healthy. A.J. Minter is almost certainly unavailable for tonight’s Game 2 after throwing a career-high 43 pitches last night. Tyler Matzek looked mortal for the second time this postseason. He allowed three hits, after giving up just four total in his other nine playoff appearances this year. Luke Jackson pitched better after his brutal NLCS performance (five runs in just 1 ⅔ innings), though it’s too soon to know if his recent struggles or his strong outing last night is the outlier.

What’s also worrisome is the lineup Atlanta’s pitchers will try to navigate the rest of the way. No team is better at making mid-game or mid-series offensive adjustments than the Astros. That’s what happened in the ALCS against the Red Sox. Houston’s hitters figured out how best to attack Boston pitchers by the second or third time facing them in the series. It’s true the Braves have a better pitching staff than the Red Sox, so maybe Houston won’t score 23 runs again over a three-game stretch like it did vs. Boston. But regardless of the opponent, the Astros tend to hit better as their series progress because they become more familiar with the other team’s pitchers.

Have any questions for our team? Send a note to mlb@si.com.

Adam Duvall, Eddie Rosario and Guillermo Heredia Jerome Miron/USA Today Sports © Provided by Sports Illustrated Adam Duvall, Eddie Rosario and Guillermo Heredia Jerome Miron/USA Today Sports

1. THE OPENER

“As DIY projects go, the Braves are the envy of the baseball neighborhood.”

That’s how Tom Verducci begins his column from last night’s game. He takes a look at how the four Atlanta outfielders helped turn the team’s season around, and how they once again led the offense in Game 1.

Read Tom’s entire story here.

2. ICYMI

Want more coverage from last night’s World Series opener? We’ve got you covered.

Charlie Morton's Mystique Grows In Gutty Game 1 Win by Stephanie Apstein

The 37-year-old suffered a season-ending broken fibula Tuesday night, but he made his mark and expanded an already impressive legacy.

Framber Valdez Flummoxed by Fly Balls in Game 1 Loss by Emma Baccellieri

Houston's de facto ace likes to keep the ball on the ground. Atlanta's hitters made sure he didn't get what he wanted in Game 1 of the World Series.

Miss yesterday’s excellent Daily Cover story about Dusty Baker? Here you go!

Dusty Baker's Time Is Now by Tom Verducci

His managing is defined by having won more games without winning the World Series than anyone in history. His story is about more than the one thing it's missing.

3. WORTH NOTING from Tom Verducci

In spring training, Astros hitting coach Alex Cintrón made an adjustment with Yuli Gurriel’s setup. Gurriel used to place his feet in the box, step back with his front foot, then pull his hands back to the ready position. That caused him to over-rotate his shoulders.

Cintrón reversed the last two steps. Now it is feet, hands, and—lastly—the step back. This keeps his shoulders in alignment.

“After we did that I told him, ‘You’re going to win the batting title,” Cintrón says.

Sure, enough, Gurriel, at 37, became the oldest batting champion since Barry Bonds. Watch his hands and back elbow when he hits: nobody in baseball draws them nearer to his body. He has amazing hands as a hitter, which is why he can shoot any pitch to any part of the field.

Check out the direction of his hits this year (postseason included):

© Provided by Sports Illustrated

One thing he needs to work on: headfirst slides. He was thrown out at second on what should have been a double when he got stuck in the dirt because his hands hit the ground before his body did. Stick to feet-first slides.

4. WHAT TO WATCH FOR from Will Laws

The endless cycle of sports analysis has glorified nearly every aspect of the best-of-seven series. Game 7 is well-spoken for as a winner-take-all affair. Game 6 features one team desperately trying to force a Game 7 and the other desperately trying to avoid it. Game 5 is recognized as especially significant when the teams are tied up. Game 3 is, too, to a lesser extent. Game 4 may represent an opportunity for a sweep; or the beginning of a historic turnaround a la the 2004 Red Sox. Who doesn’t love a good Game 1 to set the tone for a series?

Game 2, by comparison, doesn’t get as much love. However, Wednesday’s Game 2 (8 p.m. ET on Fox) seems to be an unusually pivotal point for a matchup this early in the series.

If the Braves steal another game at Minute Maid Park tonight, the odds will forcefully swing in their favor; historically, 79% of teams who win the first two games of the World Series on the road have gone on to win the title. On the other hand, if Atlanta loses, its outlook would significantly worsen in the wake of Charlie Morton’s season-ending injury. The next three games would likely be started by Ian Anderson (who has averaged four innings in his three starts this postseason) and a pair of relievers who’d kick off bullpen games. Or perhaps Drew Smyly would draw a start after getting booted from the rotation in September.

Regardless, the turn of events ratchets up the pressure on Max Fried. He is once again Atlanta’s top starter after filling that role in last year’s playoffs to mixed results. And he’s set to face an offense that graded out as the best against left-handers by wRC+ (117) during the regular season. If Fried flounders in a Game 2 defeat and Atlanta proceeds to lose its next two contests—as Vegas oddsmakers would surely favor it to—he’d be under pressure to start Game 5 on short rest for the first time in his career, an assignment he would’ve avoided if Morton were healthy. So, the Braves may approach Game 2 with more urgency than one would expect from a team that just won Game 1 on the road.

Charlie Morton Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports © Provided by Sports Illustrated Charlie Morton Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports

5. THE CLOSER from Emma Baccellieri

The most storied moment in this game—which became clear almost as soon as it happened—was Charlie Morton’s coming out for the third inning after being struck with a 102-mph comebacker in the second. Teammates marveled at his toughness and praised his dedication. They mourned his loss for the season with a fractured fibula. Catcher Travis d’Arnaud was among them—but he offered a slightly different perspective, too.

“It’s incredible that he even thought of going out there,” he said. “And I bet you it was so A.J. could have some more time to get ready. He sacrificed himself.”

Once A.J. Minter got on the mound in relief—after continuing to warm up while Morton was striking out Jose Altuve—he threw a season-high 43 pitches.

That’s all from us today. We’ll be back in your inbox tomorrow. In the meantime, share this newsletter with your friends and family, and tell them to sign up at SI.com/newsletters. If you have any questions or comments, shoot us an email at mlb@si.com.

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