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Atlanta Blasts Its Way to a Win, but Loses an Ace

HOUSTON — Atlanta stepped into its first World Series since 1999 sharply, quickly and memorably. Jorge Soler blasted Framber Valdez’s third pitch of the game deep over the left-field fence, putting an immediate charge into the 117th World Series: It was the first time in Series history that the first batter of the game homered.

Valdez, who left a 2-0 slider up and over the plate, failed to regain his balance as Atlanta poured it on from there. Every Atlanta batter collected at least one hit by evening’s end. By the end of the third inning, Atlanta had scored five times, Valdez had been chased and the Astros were well on their way toward losing their fifth consecutive home World Series game.

The final score of 6-2 was a solid representation of how things went, with Atlanta mostly comfortable after Soler’s strike.

“Everybody knows what it’s like to grow up thinking about playing in the World Series,” Atlanta catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “I mean, I’m sure everybody was a little anxious when the game started, and for Soler to put us up 1-0, I think it just let everyone relax and breathe and just reminded us to be ourselves.”

Trouble, though, may lurk for Atlanta despite its relatively easy victory in front of 42,825 fans at Minute Maid Park. Starter Charlie Morton, like Valdez, was forced to leave the game early. But for Morton, who has started World Series games for three teams, the departure wasn’t performance related. Instead, a Yuli Gurriel comebacker smashed into his right shin in the second inning and, though Morton would remain in the game to obtain three more outs, the pitcher was later found to have fractured his fibula. Atlanta quickly announced that Morton will miss the rest of this World Series but is expected to be ready to go by spring training.

But while Atlanta lost Morton, it gained Soler. The 6-foot-4 slugger was acquired from Kansas City in July but had been placed on the Covid-19 injured list earlier this postseason sidelining from Oct. 12-21. Tuesday marked his return to the starting lineup and, because the game was played in an American League park, Atlanta was able to use him as a designated hitter. Soler had led off only once in his career before Manager Brian Snitker moved him into that slot for the final 11 games of the regular season.

So it was a relatively new leadoff man who did something that nobody else had done in a World Series. Previously, four others had hit leadoff homers in the bottom half of the first inning: The Dodgers’ Chris Taylor (2017), Kansas City’s Alcides Escobar (2015), Boston’s Dustin Pedroia (2007) and Baltimore’s Don Buford (1969).

“I’m very happy, obviously,” Soler said through the translator Franco Garcia afterward. “Me and my family were both very happy. To be honest, I didn’t know that was a thing until I was told a little later on in the game.”

It left his teammates energized, impressed and even perplexed.

“What I was really thinking is, how do they know?” center fielder Adam Duvall said. “That’s what I want to know.”

Duvall added “It’s pretty amazing that we can come up with all of these things. Even more amazing is that the game has been played this long and there are still the first players to do something. That’s pretty cool. Pretty neat.

“I guess there will be a day when there are no firsts anymore.”

That day was not Tuesday. And for Atlanta, both the historical accomplishment and Soler’s smooth transition into the leadoff spot are just a couple components added to a long list that has worked out beautifully. The white-hot National League champions have won 20 of their past 25 games dating back to Sept. 19 in San Francisco and have outscored their rivals 125-74 during that stretch, a dominating plus-51 run differential.

Part of the recipe for that success was employed here in Game 1. Atlanta has regularly ambushed opponents in first innings, racking up 110 runs during the regular season, sixth-most in the majors. Soler’s homer continued that onslaught, then d’Arnaud scored on Soler’s fielder’s choice smash to shortstop in the second. Duvall blasted a two-run homer to left field in the third.

It was Duvall’s homer that sent Valdez to the showers, and it was hardly a surprise when it happened. Valdez produced the majors’ highest ground ball percentage (70.3 percent) in 2021 but obtained only two ground ball outs out of 15 batters faced. Every Atlanta hard line drive and smashed fly ball served as a warning that trouble was brewing. When Valdez left, the average exit velocity against him was 99.3 miles per hour.

“I wouldn’t say it was nerves too much as it was just the emotion of the situation, being the starter for Game 1 of the World Series, being the starter for the Astros in the World Series,” Valdez said through the translator Andrew Dunn-Bauman. “I think it was that more than anything else. It was maybe trying to do a bit too much, throwing a bit too hard. I was in the zone but not exactly where I wanted it to be. Not where the catcher wanted it, either.”

Atlanta teed off on Valdez for eight hits and five runs over 15 batters. Though Atlanta struck out 12 times, every batter in the lineup had a hit. Atlanta became the first team to have all nine starting players collect at least one hit in a World Series game since Kansas City in Game 6 in 2014. Though it was the 25th time in World Series play that a team accomplished the feat, like Soler’s leadoff homer, it was the first time it happened in a Game 1.

“For all of us to get a hit today is pretty cool,” d’Arnaud said. “That’s a really cool stat, especially against the great pitching staff that the Astros have. That’s huge with Game 2 coming up tomorrow, and we can just ride that momentum.”

Atlanta did almost everything right, including executing a key defensive play to end the eighth inning with the score 6-2. Gurriel scorched a line drive high off the left-field wall and Eddie Rosario played it perfectly, wheeling and firing a strike to second baseman Ozzie Albies to nail Gurriel at second.

The Braves hadn’t played in Minute Maid Park since 2017, and on Monday’s workout day Eric Young, a coach for the team, gathered all of the outfielders and hit fungoes off various parts of the left and left-center field wall.

“It’s one of the trickiest outfields in the big leagues, just the way it bounces off the surfaces,” Duvall said of the baseball. “There’s six different surfaces out there: Padding, fence, brick, the scoreboard, the metal in the scoreboard. So, yeah, I mean, we tried to hit on all that and tried to figure out where we need to be when it bounces off the wall.”

He added: “That’s part of what we do. We try to cover all the little things because little things become big things in games like this.”

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