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Astros rally in Game 5 to stay alive, turning the tide in the World Series

The Houston Astros won Game 5 of the World Series on Sunday night. (John Bazemore/AP)

ATLANTA — Tides roll in until they roll out. The breaking waves climb higher and higher until they start to recede, never announcing the change in direction until later, when the line they leave in the sand stands as a marker of exactly when it changed.

No one will know exactly when the tide turned for the Houston Astros, who won Game 5 of the World Series, 9-5, on Sunday night, or even if it really turned at all, until a few days from now when the whole thing is done. Maybe the powerful current that carried the underdog Atlanta Braves from a sub-.500 team in August to a 3-1 World Series lead — and a four-run first-inning advantage in Game 5 — will push them all the way to the title in the end.

But something shifted Sunday night for an Atlanta team that was so close to immortality that it had started counting down the outs. Down 4-0 in the first, the Astros pulled themselves from the depths and emerged with a win that sent the series back to Houston — a win in which the Astros seemed to finally catch their breath.

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“Throughout the whole year, obviously, there are ups and downs and 162, so you've got time to make up for that. Here there's no time for that,” Correa said. “It took us four games, the fifth game. We made the adjustments. Hopefully, we can keep doing that for two more games.”

Even with a 3-1 series lead, the Braves always seemed to be patching a precarious dam, holding off the seemingly inevitable emergence of the Astros’ offense, even as weeks and weeks of heavy bullpen usage wore down Atlanta’s so-far heroic relief corps. But when Adam Duvall smashed a first-inning grand slam and gave Atlanta a 4-0 lead, the Astros were the ones in danger of being washed away.

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When exactly that changed is a matter of perspective. Perhaps it was the uncharacteristic Dansby Swanson error opened the door for the Astros to score two unearned runs that tied it at 4 in the third. Maybe it was an unusually eventful inning for previously dominant A.J. Minter that allowed the Astros to take a 7-5 lead in the fifth. Little by little, the sturdiest pieces of Atlanta’s foundation started to crack here and there. Maybe the Braves can patch them with a day off Monday. But the Astros had, unmistakably, started chipping away.

Astros Manager Dusty Baker felt the tide turned, in part, before Sunday’s game, when the Astros finally got to take batting practice on the field for the first time all series. Three days of rain had relegated them to hitting in the cages, had stolen the time they would normally use to get a feel for an unfamiliar stadium.

“Today felt like the World Series for us. The other days felt like, that’s the weirdest probably three days I’ve ever seen in the World Series,” Baker said. “I’ve never not hit at the field at the opposing team. That was real big for us.”

Perhaps pure attrition was the difference. By Sunday, Atlanta only had two healthy starters remaining. The day after a bullpen game, the Braves trotted out a rookie, Tucker Davidson, with no postseason experience who hadn’t pitched in the majors since June and figured they would see what he could give them. He gave them a scoreless top of the first, then ran into another ticking time bomb in the second in the form of Alex Bregman, who was struggling so mightily that Baker dropped him to seventh in the order.

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Correa said later he felt things changed when the Astros’ new No. 7 hitter stepped to the plate for the first time Sunday. He doubled to bring home one of them, offering a quick reminder to an eager crowd that the whole thing was not over just yet. Martín Maldonado hit a sacrifice fly to give Houston a second run.

“I think that was the key of us winning the game right there,” Correa said. “Bouncing back right away.”

They inched closer thanks to that Swanson error, which turned an easy José Altuve groundball out into a base runner to start the third. A few batters later, they had tied it — though the Braves grabbed the lead again on a 460-foot home run by Freddie Freeman in the bottom half, as if trying to tell the Astros they wouldn’t let them back in it just yet.

Atlanta Manager Brian Snitker saw that homer as a pivot point, at least insofar as it gave him a choice and started a clock: He had a lead and needed 18 more outs. He decided to try to end things there.

“We were going to take that shot right there and see if we could keep the game in check and go from there because we kind of felt like he was our best option in that situation,” said Snitker, who said he was going to see how far Minter could take them, hoping it would be long enough that the rest of his tired bullpen could handle what remained.

Multiple Astros later called Minter the toughest Atlanta reliever they had faced. But he allowed two hits, then intentionally walked Bregman to load the bases for the light-hitting Maldonado. He walked him to push home the tying run, though he said later the rest of his outing wasn’t as bad as it seemed, that fatigue was not an issue. Maldonado creeped up on the plate and faked a bunt in a three-ball count, all of which Minter admitted left him aiming the ball instead of trusting his stuff.

“Did you guys notice how close he was to the plate in that at-bat against Minter?” Correa asked later. “That was sick.”

Then came the kind of hit from an unlikely source that always seems to accompany a shifting of the winds. Marwin Gonzalez, the former staple of the Astros’ bench who went to the Boston Red Sox and was released midseason, only to be picked up by his old team down the stretch, blooped a ball into short left field that found green grass. His first two RBI since Sept. 20 gave the Astros their first lead.

Then Maldonado struck again by singling home another run in the seventh. Correa drove one home in the eighth, giving him three hits and two RBI on the day. The Astros scored as many runs in one night as they had in Games 2 through 4 combined, lifted by a fresh wave of momentum they will ride all the way back to Houston.

Then again, the Astros had to use potential Game 6 starter José Urquidy to help them hold Atlanta down, just to survive. Maybe his appearance in the middle of the game was a pivot point, too: The Astros will have to start Luis Garcia on short rest Tuesday with uncertainty looming in Game 7. The Braves will have two traditional starters lined up for Games 6 and 7.

“When you’re down 3-1,” Baker said, “you kind of have to pull out all the stops.”

Maybe, in hindsight, the tide turned the Astros’ way Sunday night. Maybe, for Atlanta, the high-water mark is still to come.

— Chelsea Janes

This story has been updated. Find highlights and analysis, by Scott Allen and Adam Kilgore in Washington, below.

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11:46 p.m.
Headshot of Adam Kilgore
Reporter covering national sports
Dusty Baker shuffled the Astros’ lineup for Game 5 after two impotent games in Atlanta. He moved Carlos Correa from fifth to third, Yuli Gurriel from seventh to fifth and Alex Bregman from third to seventh. Through eight innings, Correa, Gurriel and Bregman have gone 7 for 13 with two doubles, one walk and four RBIs. It requires a special touch and feel to make changes in an elimination without making players feel tight. Baker pulled the trigger on significant moves and unlocked some of his best hitters. He deserves a lot of credit if the Astros hold on.
11:22 p.m.
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Martin Maldonado is about as unlikely of an offensive hero as you could find. Maldonado is a team leader and one of the best defensive catchers in the game, but he was maybe the worst-hitting regular in MLB this year Maldonado hit .172 with a .573 OPS this year. In the first four games of the World Series, Maldonado went 2 for 12 with no walks and four strikeouts. In Game 5, he is 1 for 2 with a sacrifice fly, a bases-loaded walk and three RBI. His two-out RBI single in the seventh provided Houston a critical insurance run, pushing its lead to 8-5.
11:07 p.m.
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Reporter covering national sports
Leading 7-5 after six innings, the Astros need nine outs to force Game 6. How are they going to get them? Top set-up man Ryne Stanek has pitched the last two days, and Ryan Pressly threw 33 pitches Saturday night. Kendall Graveman will be counted on for more than inning. How Dusty Baker navigates the rest of the endgame will be fascinating.
10:54 p.m.
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Reporter covering national sports
The Astros have been such a resilient team this postseason. They closed out the White Sox in the ALDS a day after Chicago beat them, 12-6. The Red Sox took a 2-1 lead on them in the ALCS, and they won the next three games by a combined score of 22-3. The Astros bounced back to win Game 2 of the World Series after losing Game 1. And now they’re in position to stay alive in Game 5 after yielding a first-inning grand slam that put them in a 4-0 hole.
10:31 p.m.
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Is the Braves’ bullpen on the verge of breaking? A.J. Minter, Luke Jackson, Tyler Matzek and Will Smith have been horses all postseason, pitching nearly every day and dominating. Manager Brian Snitker has repeatedly said he has no concerns about their workload. But Minter showed signs of fatigue as the Astros scored three off him and took the lead in the fifth. Minter hung a cutter to Yuli Gurriel. He walked catcher Martin Maldonado, a non-threat offensively, with the bases loaded by yanking a fastball a foot to his arm side. Minter had the stuff and the command of a reliever who’s tank is on empty. The Braves have to hope he’s the only one in their bullpen in that condition.
10:13 p.m.
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Reporter covering national sports
Dusty Baker’s use of Game 2 starter José Urquidy in relief paid off with a scoreless fourth inning, and Baker will likely try to get another inning out of Urquidy with the middle of the Astros’ lineup upcoming. The decision will complicate Houston’s pitching plans if it can survive Game 5. Urquidy would have started Game 6. Now, the Astros will either have to throw Luis Garcia on three days rest or use a bullpen game Tuesday if they stay alive.
9:33 p.m.
Headshot of Adam Kilgore
Reporter covering national sports
The Astros stormed back into Game 5 through Atlanta’s miscues. The biggest mistake was Brian Snitker sticking with opener/starter Tucker Davidson. Snitker let Davidson hit for himself with one out in the second, ensuring he would face the top of Houston’s order in the top of the third. The Astros punished him with two runs. The Braves have a bullpen full of arms operating at an elite level. Snitker should have gone to it without concern for fatigue — either they win the series tonight or they get a day off Monday. The Braves’ smaller mistakes: Two of the Houston runners who scored reached on walks, and another reached on Dansby Swanson’s error.
9:06 p.m.
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With two outs and a runner on third in the second, Dusty Baker allowed Framber Valdez to hit for himself. Valdez predictably struck out. It’s tough to essentially concede an inning with a run 90 feet away. It’s even tougher down, 4-2, in an elimination game. You wonder if the absence of backup catcher Jason Castro, out for covid protocols, factored into Baker’s choice. Castro is the Astros’ best pinch hitter, and Castro’s replacement, Garrett Stubbs, is a non-threat offensively. Thinning a depleted bench in the second inning would have hurt the Baker’s ability to dictate matchups late in the game. I would favor using the pinch hitter, but it’s not an easy call.
8:54 p.m.
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Reporter covering national sports
There’s a lot of Game 5 left, but it’s not too early to wonder who could win World Series MVP if the Braves can close it tonight. Adam Duvall put himself into consideration with a grand slam, which gave him his second homer of the series and a series-leading six RBIs. But Jorge Soler still seems like the favorite. He also has two homers, and both came in crucial spots — his first led off the series, and his second gave them the lead late in Game 4. Soler also singled and scored on Duvall’s slam, which made him 5 for 13 with two walks, three runs and three RBIs.
8:44 p.m.
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Maybe the Astros and Dusty Baker simply trusted in Framber Valdez, who became their de facto No. 1 starter after Lance McCullers Jr.’s injury earlier in the postseason. But they showed surprisingly little urgency for an elimination game before Adam Duvall hit a first-inning grand slam. After Eddie Rosario drew a two-out walk to load the bases, pitching coach Brent Strom did not visit Valdez on the mound, and no Astros relievers rose in the bullpen.
8:31 p.m.
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Years from now, it’ll be hard for baseball historians to make sense of this World Series. Tucker Davidson and Kyle Wright combined for 26⅓ innings in the regular season for the Braves. After one inning of Game 5, they’ve pitched 5⅓ innings of one-run ball in the World Series. Davidson’s biggest pitch induced a double play from Carlos Correa, who is now 2 for 15 in the World Series. The Astros are getting nothing from Correa and Alex Bregman, and the Braves are getting key innings from Davidson and Wright. It’s not hard to see why Atlanta controls the series.
8:11 p.m.
Headshot of Chelsea Janes
National baseball writer
Tucker Davidson was up late watching the Atlanta Braves beat the Houston Astros from a Courtyard by Marriott in Gwinnett, Ga., when Charlie Morton broke his leg. Davidson had been keeping warm and stretched out at Atlanta’s Triple-A facility, just in case. Within hours of Morton limping off the Minute Maid Park mound, Davidson was on his way to Houston to join the Braves’ World Series roster, despite not pitching in a major league game since June. He will start Game 5 of the World Series on Sunday night. Davidson is 25-year-old lefty with a mid-90s fastball he mixes with a slider and curveball, though he hasn’t had much opportunity to test them out on big league hitters: The Amarillo, Texas, native has made five major league starts in his career, none against Houston. He suffered a forearm injury this summer and did not make a competitive start until the final day of the minor league season, when he went three innings for Triple-A Gwinnett. He has since pitched simulated games in Gwinnett. Sunday, he will faced one of the deepest and most experienced lineups in recent postseason history.