HOUSTON — The best player at this World Series watched from a luxury suite at Minute Maid Park on Tuesday night. The second-best player watched from the visiting dugout. The pitcher with the best postseason résumé limped off the field with a broken leg.
The Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves are here, trying to settle the 117th World Series. Shohei Ohtani, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Charlie Morton are out of action — Ohtani because he plays for the Los Angeles Angels (he picked up an award on Tuesday), Acuña because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and Morton because a searing comebacker snapped his right fibula in the second inning. He stayed in to fan Jose Altuve in the third.
“I didn’t think it was broken, I just thought he took a line drive off of his leg,” catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “But to go out there and strike out the next guy with a broken leg, it blows my mind.”
It was a fluke injury, like Acuña’s in July, but the wounds symbolize all the proud players sputtering to the finish line. The season is always a grind — baseball people love that word — but never more than now, at the end of a full schedule that followed a 60-game sprint as the pandemic raged last year.
The teams left standing are the deepest. That is why the Astros made it through despite losing their No. 1 starter, Lance McCullers Jr., to a forearm strain in the division series. Zack Greinke, 38, is a tired war horse, with only a trot or two left in him. Justin Verlander, who had Tommy John surgery last fall, is a memory.
Framber Valdez, a premier ground-ball specialist, gave the Astros the best-pitched game of the playoffs last week at Fenway Park. But in Game 1 on Tuesday, the ace’s role did not suit him. Atlanta won, 6-2, chasing Valdez in the third inning.
“It was my first World Series game, so I’m not going to tell you that I didn’t feel the pressure, I didn’t feel any kind of tension,” Valdez said through an interpreter, with admirable candor. “But I did everything I could to lower that, lower the adrenaline, lower the emotion I was feeling.”
Alas, Valdez could not lower his pitches. He said he threw too hard, which kept his fastball from sinking and his changeup from deceiving. It was another home letdown for the Astros, who lost all four games here — and the title — to the Washington Nationals in 2019.
The last time the Astros won the World Series, in 2017, Morton was on the mound. Like everyone else, the Astros loved Morton — who is both a gentle soul and a dogged competitor — but they worried about his shoulder and soon let him leave. Big mistake.
Morton did not beat the Astros in Game 1, but he might as well have. The Braves would have loved five strong innings from Morton, who rarely goes much longer than that in the postseason. Instead they got seven outs from him and eight from reliever A.J. Minter.
Devastating injury aside, it was as if Morton left the stage halfway through a performance, and Minter played him flawlessly til the end of the act. Minter, who struggled so badly he was shipped to the minors for three weeks this summer, warmed up while Morton faced Altuve on his creaking leg.
“I wish it wouldn’t have happened to Charlie; he’s a leader,” Minter said. “But we’re not going to feel sorry for ourselves. We just have to keep going. I’ve been joking around with the guys all year long. I felt like, ‘Just turn me into a starter, I’m ready to go.’”
Minter fired a career-high 43 pitches, helping Atlanta win a game in the World Series for the first time since 1996, when Greg Maddux silenced Yankee Stadium with a Game 2 masterpiece. Then the reigning champions, the Braves seemed to have it all. But they lost the next four games, and dropped four straight again in their rematch with the Yankees in 1999.
From there, Atlanta became an easy out in October, falling short of the World Series in its next 12 trips to the postseason. Last year, with no off days in the hurry-up National League Championship Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers, a three-games-to-one lead disappeared.
No such worries now. Even without Morton for the rest of the World Series, Atlanta’s pitchers get built-in rest days after Game 2 and a potential Game 5.
“Going forward, I think we’re going to be fine,” d’Arnaud said. “We’ve had these bullpen days during the year. I think the days off after tomorrow are going to be very beneficial, whereas last year it was seven days in a row and we did go through a little bullpen game in Game 3. So it kind of ate us up a little different.”
This year, Atlanta has depended all along on the kind of resiliency the team showed in Game 1. General Manager Alex Anthopoulos traded for four outfielders soon after Acuña’s injury, and one of them, Jorge Soler, missed much of this postseason after a positive test for the coronavirus. On Tuesday, Soler homered as the first batter of the World Series. Nobody had ever done that before.
It seemed like a feat better scripted for Acuña, who might have then homered again, like Andruw Jones in his first two at-bats in the Bronx in 1996. Instead, Acuña’s magic simply transferred to Soler and Adam Duvall, whose two-run blast knocked out Valdez.
Duvall was part of Atlanta’s outfield overhaul, with Eddie Rosario, the N.L.C.S. most valuable player; Joc Pederson, the pearl-wearing power hitter; and Soler, who is from Cuba and said the language barrier worried him after the trade.
“I just assumed that I was going to have a hard time making those connections with some of the English-speaking players, but after a weekend, that wasn’t the case,” he said through an interpreter. “I felt like I was already here, playing with my brothers.”
Those brothers have banded together to take their team deeper than it has been in decades. In a season of attrition across baseball, Atlanta might offer the best example of the power of the collective.