Atlanta Braves, Houston Astros, MLB

Inside the Clubhouse: How the Houston Astros survived in Game 5

The Houston Astros had their backs against the wall but rose to the challenge. Here’s how they completed a monumental comeback to stay alive in Game 5.

The Braves had them right where they wanted them. After Adam Duvall’s first-inning grand slam that shook each level of Truist Park, they were 24 outs from securing their first World Series championship since 1995.

Then the Astros happened.

It started with an Alex Bregman double in the second inning to cut the deficit to 4-1. It continued with a Martin Maldonado sacrifice fly to bring the game to 4-2. In the fifth inning, with the Astros trailing 5-4, Maldonado drew a bases-loaded walk. Then Marwin Gonzalez came off the bench and hit a two-run double to give the Astros a 7-5 lead — a lead they would not surrender as they cruised to a 9-5 victory and bring the World Series back to Houston for Game 6.

Marwin Gonzales was just one of the key Astros who rose to the occasion in Game 5

Gonzalez, 32, wasn’t even in the Astros’ organization until Aug. 27. He spent two weeks as a free agent this summer after being released by the Red Sox and struggled so badly that he could only secure a minor-league contract. But as the Astros looked to advance to the World Series for the third time in five seasons, they wondered if he could have a role on their playoff roster.

After all, Gonzalez has done it before. He was a key cog in the Astros’ World Series championship in 2017, hitting .303/.377/.530 with 23 home runs and 90 RBI. He played every infield position and two of three outfield positions. He is best friends with Jose Altuve, Correa said, and helps bring out the best in the Astros’ star second baseman. Of course, he may never be that type of player again. But he further enshrined himself in Astros history on Sunday night.

“I’m a huge MMA fan, and I’ve seen lots of guys almost knocked out, and they battle back to win the fight. We were down 3-1. Now we’re down 3-2,” Correa said. “I truly believe, if there’s one team that can accomplish that in this league, it’s us.”

The Astros still trail the World Series, 3-2, but this is a position they have been in before. In fact, they embrace it. They trailed 3-0 in the ALCS last season, only to force a Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Rays. They have other postseason experiences to draw back on. They aren’t going to crumble. That’s just not in their DNA.

“The hardest thing to do is to do it the first time,” Baker said, “and then once you do it the first time, you figure that you can do it the second, the third, the fourth, and the fifth time. You call upon your past for confidence that you can do it.”

The first four games offered little reason for optimism that a comeback was on the horizon. Their offense that led baseball in runs scored and on-base percentage was hitting only .206/.291/.298 and averaging only 2.8 runs per game in the World Series. Alex Bregman, their star third baseman, was struggling so badly that Baker moved him from TK to seventh in the lineup in Game 5.

For at least one night, the Astros’ lineup resembled the regular-season version. Bregman ended his World Series-long slump. Maldonado drove in three runs with his bat and patience. Yuli Gurriel recorded three hits. Correa registered three hits and drove in two runners. To force a Game 7, and to win the series, the Astros will need the lineup to play at this level. If they play like they did the first four games, the Braves will be popping champagne bottles and celebrating on the field at Minute Maid Park.

“Hopefully it’s the start of a hot streak going into Houston,” Correa said.

But Game 6 will be a pitcher’s duel — or as much as one can be in 2021. Luis Garcia has been one of the Astros’ best pitchers this season, posting a 0.98 ERA in his last 9.1 postseason innings. Max Fried, who was the best pitcher in the National League in the second half of the regular season, will take the mound for the Braves.

Both teams feel good about the positions they are in. Despite trailing 3-2, the Astros are hopeful their offensive breakout on Sunday is a sign of things to come. Despite having to go back to Houston, the Braves boast a potent lineup and have their unquestioned ace on the mound, and will have a day to rest a bullpen that pitched significant innings in Games 4 and 5.

Like the Astros, the Braves have been in this position before. They led the Dodgers, 3-1, in the NLCS last season, only to collapse and lose the final three games. But the Braves insist that this team is different. Each player has stressed that they are taking it one day at a time and not already dreaming about winning the World Series.

“I thought about that last night,” Braves closer Will Smith said. “Even after what we went through with the Dodgers, having a 3-1 lead, I think it taught us to never take our foot off the gas, and everybody in that clubhouse understands that.”

Sunday provided yet another reminder of that. Because taking down the Astros, and winning the World Series, will require all hands on deck for the Braves. Especially if the Astros’ offensive outburst is a sign of things to come.

“The pressure’s still on us because they’ve got the lead. They’ve got to win one, and we’ve got to win two,” Baker said. “But the fact is we are going home. We didn’t want to end here.”

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