Sports

Atlanta Overcomes Decades of Frustration to Win World Series

HOUSTON — So, this is the Braves team that found a way to match the great Atlanta teams of the 1990s. This team, with no trio of Hall of Fame aces, no legendary manager and no backlog of World Series experience to build on, somehow found a way.

The current edition of Atlanta’s storied ball club could never equal the star power of those forebears, but it has already drawn even with them in championship trophies, achieving in one trip to baseball’s mountaintop what its predecessors could do only once in five tries.

On a cool Tuesday night with the roof open at Minute Maid Park, Atlanta beat the Houston Astros, 7-0, in Game 6 to win the World Series in its first appearance in the Fall Classic since 1999.

Per M.L.B.’s orders, the roof at Houston’s Minute Maid Park was open for Game 6.Credit…Annie Mulligan for The New York Times

It was the first title for the club since 1995, back when an extraordinary collection of superstar pitchers and multitalented position players, backed by the Hall of Fame Manager Bobby Cox, won the first major championship for the city of Atlanta.

Those great teams were expected to win multiple rings. They did not win a title until their third appearance in the World Series, playing in five overall, and despite a wealth of talent, never won another.

The 2021 team, under Manager Brian Snitker, features lesser-known players like Jorge Soler and Dansby Swanson, both of whom hit thunderous home runs to propel Atlanta on Tuesday. Soler blasted a three-run shot in the third inning, and Swanson crushed a two-run homer in the fifth.

Jorge Soler gave Atlanta an early 3-0 lead with a monstrous home run over the train tracks in left field. Credit…Annie Mulligan for The New York Times

Many teams, like the Mariners, Rockies, Rangers, Padres and Brewers, would happily accept a solitary championship. But the old Atlanta teams, which won more than 100 games six times, bore the heavy tag of underachievers, especially with a pitching staff anchored by Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, and the franchise won 14 consecutive divisional crowns (there was no division title in the strike-shortened 1994 season).

The current squad bears scant resemblance to those teams, for it was not expected to make the World Series this year, much less win it. It is a plucky assemblage of overachievers that could barely cobble together a full starting pitching staff, let alone one of the greatest ever assembled.

But Max Fried was a worthy descendant of that lineage, pitching six innings for the win, and helping to restore the image of the starting pitcher in a postseason dominated by relievers.

Max Fried was dominant, throwing six shutout innings and striking out six batters without a walk.Credit…Annie Mulligan for The New York Times

The team had a year marked by injuries, and the controversy surrounding Major League Baseball’s decision to move the All-Star Game out of Atlanta, but the Braves somehow bent the rest of baseball to its will.

It all seemed so improbable back in July when Atlanta lost its best player, outfielder Ronald Acuña, Jr., to a torn knee ligament. In early August, the team was a game under .500 and in third place in the National League East. The Braves won only 88 games, the fewest of the 10 playoff teams, and then lost their top pitcher, Charlie Morton, to a broken leg in the second inning of Game 1 of the World Series.

But in the postseason, they built off their relatively modest streak of four straight N.L. East titles. In the first two of those years, they lost in the divisional round, then last year they graduated to the National League Championship Series before falling to the Los Angeles Dodgers after leading the series three games to one.

They exacted revenge on Los Angeles this year, won their first pennant since 1999, and made the most of the opportunity by clinching the World Series in six games, avoiding the specter of a Game 7 in Houston.

Astros fans were hopeful after their team, facing a three-games-to-one deficit, sent the series back to Houston.Credit…Annie Mulligan for The New York Times

Game 6 began amid a noisy throng of orange-clad Houston fans hoping to see their team finish a comeback from a three-games-to-one deficit. But when Soler hit his atmospheric blast an estimated 446 feet clear over the train tracks above the left field stands, many Atlanta fans revealed themselves amid the suddenly quiet Astros fans.

Luis Garcia, Houston’s starting pitcher, was one strike away from escaping the inning, but hung a slider to Soler, who smashed it onto the street outside the stadium. Soler dropped his bat, turned to his dugout, tapped his chest twice and pointed to his teammates before trotting around the bases.

It was his third home run of the series, and he joined Hank Aaron, who did the same in 1957 for the Milwaukee Braves, Lonnie Smith (1991) and Ryan Klesko (1995) as the franchise’s only players to hit three home runs in a World Series.

In the fifth, Swanson, the No. 9 hitter, blasted a two-run home run off Cristian Javier.

Dansby Swanson’s 411-foot home run in the fifth gave Atlanta some insurance.Credit…Annie Mulligan for The New York Times

Freddie Freeman, Atlanta’s longest-serving and best-known player, hit a bases-empty shot in the seventh that along with his R.B.I. double in the fifth accounted for the final two Atlanta runs of the night.

Atlantans have yearned to see plays like that, just as they have longed for another champion for most of the last 26 years, but often found sporting heartbreak instead.

Atlanta lost the World Series in 1991, 1992, 1996 and 1999, and the N.F.L.’s Falcons catastrophically collapsed in the Super Bowl after the 2016 season, when the New England Patriots wiped out a 25-point deficit with a little over 18 minutes to play and won the game in overtime. The city’s Major League Soccer team, Atlanta United, won the M.L.S. Cup in 2018, but had existed for only two years at that point.

The Braves also won championships in Boston in 1914 and in Milwaukee in 1957. In the 19th century, one of the team’s early incarnations in Boston won the World Series of 1892.

The Astros missed their opportunity to win a championship devoid of taint and controversy. Houston won the World Series in 2017 but was later found to have used illicit means to steal and transmit opponents’ signals throughout the season. The scheme came to light before the 2020 season, and ever since the Astros have been heckled as “cheaters” by fans of opposing teams.

The Astros fired their manager, A.J. Hinch, in the wake of the scandal, and replaced him with Dusty Baker, the popular skipper who has yet to win a World Series in 24 seasons as a manager — though he is the only manager to take five different teams to the postseason. Baker managed the Giants when they lost to the Angels in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series.

Houston, which fell to the Washington Nationals in 2019, lost the World Series at home for the second time in three years. The Astros’ chances of winning next year could be diminished if their shortstop, Carlos Correa, chooses to leave in free agency. The Astros have lost other key players over the years, including the star pitcher Gerrit Cole, and still managed to find a way back.

For now, they are stuck on one title, just like the Atlanta teams of the 1990s — whose postseason struggles were not inherited by the improbable 2021 team.

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