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Starting Nine: Keys to Braves seizing control as World Series shifts to Atlanta

After getting out of Houston with a split, the Braves head to Truist Park, where they’re 5-0 this postseason

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Atlanta Braves
Austin Riley has a .368 average and 1.060 OPS at home during the postseason with two doubles, a home run and four RBI. He’s hitting just .167 with a .494 OPS on the road.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

From Mark Wohlers’ hand to Carlos Baerga’s bat to Marquis Grissom’s glove. That moment that sealed the 1995 championship in Game 6 is an indelible moment in Braves lore — and it’s also the last time that they won a home World Series game.

They’ll have three chances to end that, starting with Friday’s Game 3 in a series with the Astros that’s split at one win apiece. A team that has been defined by its ability to overcome obstacles — playing without Ronald Acuña Jr. and Marcell Ozuna, being down Travis d’Arnaud for 67 games, needing 109 games to get above .500, and on and on — is dealing with another challenge, with Game 1 starter Charlie Morton done with a fractured right fibula. But the Braves can still seize control of the World Series before it leaves Atlanta — and potentially start planning a parade down Peachtree Street — before Game 6 would shift things back to Houston.

Here’s how.

1. Ian Anderson regains his postseason mojo

At 23 years old, Anderson may not pitch a more important game in his career, one that has the potential to swing the series, with the Braves likely relying so heavily on their relievers in Games 4 and 5. Anderson has been effective through three postseason starts, but he’s not Christy Mathewson-level locked in like he was during last year’s run. He’s gone no deeper than five innings — that coming in his Game 3 start vs. the Brewers in the Division Series — and in two starts against the Dodgers in Games 2 and 6, had a 3.86 ERA and lasted just three innings in Game 2 when Brian Snitker pulled his young right-hander because he was, simply put, “off.” Be it the jump in innings after the shortened 2020 that was devoid of a minor league season — with Anderson throwing 140 1/3 in the 2021 regular and postseasons combined after tossing all of 51 in 2020 — or teams having a firmer grip on his arsenal, he’s not been nearly as dominant when he posted that 0.96 ERA in his first career postseason starts. The first inning has been especially dicey, with a 6.38 ERA in the regular season and 6.00 so far in the playoffs. Playing in Anderson’s favor, the Astros have scored just four first-inning runs, slashing .190/.234/.333. Of course, Anderson’s changeup is his biggest weapon, leading to a .197 batting average and .291 wOBA, and he’s going to be challenged, with Yuli Gurriel hitting .385 against the pitch with Kyle Tucker at .333 and Carlos Correa hitting .327. The bottom line is without Morton and Snitker relaying that they’ll need the bullpen — excuse me, “arm barn” — to cover 18 innings in Games 4 and 5 — unless a rainout can get Max Fried to full rest for the fifth game — Anderson has to go deep into this one and take pressure off that relief corps.

2. Neutralize the lefties

The Astros’ left-handed hitters are leading the postseason with a 1.007 OPS and 35 RBI and .349 average. That includes Alvarez (.410 average, 1.299 OPS and nine RBI), Brantley (.352 average and nine RBI) and Tucker (15 RBI and .957 OPS). They had success against two of the Braves’ lefties in Game 2, with A.J. Minter allowing doubles to Brantley and Tucker, while Brantley also singled off Matzek, and Alvarez hit a triple. As dominant as he’s been in these playoffs, lefties are still hitting .375 off Matzek, though Minter has held them to a .154 mark and Smith .143. The pressure’s on Luke Jackson, who had a .196 average against lefties during the regular season, allowing just six extra-base hits (all doubles) in 109 plate appearances. The righty’s work in Game 1 was a strong sign that he’s right again after his League Championship Series miscues, as he struck out three in 1 2/3 innings, including fanning Jose Altuve in a right-on-right matchup. The Braves are going to need to have success against those Astros left-handers if Atlanta is going to limit the postseason’s highest-scoring offense.

3. Feed off Luis Garcia’s tendencies

The unfamiliarity in Game 3 plays both ways. Marwin Gonzalez is the only Astro who has a plate appearance against Anderson, and while he is on the World Series roster, he has yet to pick up a bat this postseason. Meanwhile, the Braves have never seen Houston’s Game 3 starter Luis Garcia, but that could play into Atlanta’s favor. He’s four-seam reliant, throwing the pitch 44.7 percent of the time, and opposing batters jumped on that pitch for a .379 wOBA and 10 home runs in the regular season. During his gem in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, in which he bewildered the Red Sox over 5 2/3 scoreless innings with seven strikeouts and one walk, Garcia threw 61 percent four-seamers, setting up a cutter that had a ridiculous 92 percent whiff rate (12 on 13 swings). The Braves have shown an ability to feast on four-seamers, posting the fourth-highest expected wOBA against four-seamers (.366) in the regular season, topped by Freddie Freeman’s .349 (fifth in MLB) and they’ll need to do exactly that to take Garcia from replicating the game plan that worked to perfection vs. Boston.

4. Austin rakes back at Truist Park

Austin Riley had a hit in both games in Minute Maid Park, including an RBI double in the opener that was only the second run he’s driven in on the road in the postseason. Away from Truist Park, Riley has a .167 batting average and .494 OPS, but it has been a far different story at home, where that OPS jumps to 1.060 and he’s hit .368. It was an inverse of his regular season, where he was better on the road (.968 OPS) compared to home (.823). Regardless of why it’s happening, he’s in position to be back on the stage where he’s been more productive in these playoffs, and the Astros will throw out right-handers to start the next two games before Framber Valdez potentially starts in Game 5 and Riley has torched righties (.941 OPS vs. .752 against left-handers), making this an opportune time for the season’s breakout player to break out again.

5. Take advantage of the hole in Astros’ lineup

Without the designated hitter, the Astros are going to have a hole in their lineup, and some shakiness in the outfield. Michael Brantley, Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez have been Houston’s most effective bats in the postseason, and if Baker opts to get them as many at-bats as possible, it the defense is going to drop down a peg. Alvarez hasn’t played in the field since Oct. 3, and is likely to man left, while Tucker likely slides to center, where he has all of 28 innings, the last of which was Sept. 4. Brantley, meanwhile, moves to right, a position he hasn’t played since Sept. 4. How Baker juggles the pitcher’s spot in the order, be it in holding back a key bat or opting for offense over defense is a factor the Braves can take advantage of.

6. Jump on the veterans in expected bullpen game

How Dusty Baker will attack Game 4 remains up in the air, but the expectation here is that he gives Zack Greinke the start in a bullpen game, with Jake Odorizzi playing a big role. Greinke, who may or may not be on a course for Cooperstown — argue amongst yourselves — is far removed from the Cy Young winner he was in his Royals days and the perennial All-Star seasons he provided the Dodgers. Since June 28 he’s had a 4.89 ERA and gave up two runs in 1 1/3 innings vs. the Red Sox in the ALCS, throwing just 37 pitches. Braves have hit him well, including Eddie Rosario (1.400 OPS), Travis d’Arnaud (1.286), Dansby Swanson (1.167) and Joc Pederson (1.023) and Adam Duvall (.929), with Pederson taking him deep twice. Despite what we saw from Odorizzi in Game 1, when he struck out five over 2 1/3 innings, the Braves also have had plenty of success against him, including three of their biggest bats in Freeman (2.067 OPS), Rosario (1.286) and Jorge Soler (1.839).

7. Keep Bregman reeling

If there’s a somewhat scary notion with the Astros offense, it’s they’ve gotten almost nothing from Alex Bregman in the World Series and little since he homered in Game 4 of the ALCS. The third baseman is 2-for-14 (.143) over the last four games and is 0-for-7 against the Braves with three strikeouts, stranding four runners. His long contribution so far has been a sacrifice fly that scored Jose Altuve for the first run of Game 2. It’s been a down past two seasons for Bregman since he posted a career-high 167 wRC+ in 2019, dropping to 21 percent above league average during the shortened 2020 campaign and 115 wRC+ this year, his lowest of any of his six full seasons. Sandwiched between Brantley and Alvarez in the Astros’ order, it becomes a lot more appealing to let one of the Braves’ left-handed relievers roll through that part of the order with the three-batter minimum if Bregman continues to struggle.

8. Get the Wright stuff

We’ve seen extreme highs and extreme lows from Kyle Wright, the former No. 5 overall pick in 2017, and those were on full display last postseason, when he followed six scoreless innings against the Marlins in the NLDS by lasting just 2/3 of an inning in getting burned for seven runs on five hits vs. the Dodgers in the NLCS. But he flashed his potential again in Wednesday’s Game 2, when he came in for the eighth inning and struck out Jose Siri, Martin Maldonado and Altuve on 12 pitches. The right-hander could be an option to start Game 4 or 5 — a gameplan that could be altered with the rainy forecast ahead — or provide bulk innings in either if not both games, as could Tucker Davidson, who replaced Morton on the roster. Either is a more appealing option than looking to Drew Smyly, who was greeted in Game 2 by a first-pitch home run from Altuve. If Snitker doesn’t opt to pitch Fried on short rest — an as-scheduled Game 5 would be four-days’ rest, something Fried has done 10 times this season with a 2.86 ERA — Wright’s Game 2 showing may an indication he could be the arm to look to.

9. The home-field advantage

Truist Park is going to be raucous, of that there’s no doubt. At home, the Braves are a perfect 5-0 this postseason, haven’t lost since Oct. 1, haven’t dropped back-to-back games dating back to Sept. 14 and 15 and haven’t fallen in three straight since May. That comes despite scoring the fewest runs (20) and OPS (.766) of any team that advanced to the League Championship Series, leaning heavily on a pitching staff that has held opponents to a .232 average) and allowed the fewest homers (12) of the postseason’s final four teams. That takes us full circle, as Game 3, and potentially the entire World Series, hinges on the quality and number of innings Anderson can provide a starting staff that’s in need of a positive development.

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