On a brisk Halloween night at Truist Park on Sunday, the Atlanta Braves had a chance to exorcise their city’s recent sports demons.
By the time the final out was recorded in the wee hours Monday morning, old scars only had been flared up once again.
Instead of finishing off the Houston Astros and winning its first World Series since 1995 on home turf, Atlanta blew an early four-run lead en route to a 9-5 loss that will send the World Series back to Houston for Game6 on Tuesday night.
“We’re going back home,” Astros manager Dusty Baker told Fox after the game. “Still alive.”
The Braves are as well, still leading the best-of-seven series three-games-to-two. But it sure didn’t feel like it as the 43,122 fans — who early in the night shook the building after Adam Duvall’s first-inning grand slam — quietly filed out, stunned into silence by the team’s first home loss of the postseason.
This is the same market, after all, that watched the Falcons suffer a historic 25-point meltdown in the Super Bowl four years ago. That’s seen its basketball team sputter in postseason after postseason. Whose local college football program has made a habit of coming up short year after year.
And whose baseball team squandered an identical 3-1 series lead in last year’s playoffs, collapsing against the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series.
The Braves made partial amends for that earlier this month, eliminating the Dodgers in an NLCS rematch. They also led 3-1 in that series, lost Game5 and responded to close it out in Game6.
But that series was different. Games6 and 7 were in Atlanta. The Braves still had Charlie Morton in their back pocket too, one of the best big-game pitchers in the game today. And while they blew an early lead in that Game5, it wasn’t nearly as demoralizing as what happened against the Astros on Sunday night.
After a clean top of the first from rookie starter Tucker Davidson, the Braves’ magical October run seemed to reach its climax in the bottom of the inning.
Astros pitcher Framber Valdez gave up two singles and a walk. With the bases loaded, he threw Duvall a first-pitch sinker on the inside part of the plate. And with a mighty swing, Duvall sent it soaring to right field, crushing only the ninth first-inning grand slam in postseason history.
“I was looking for something that started up,” Duvall said. “I saw it up and put a good swing on it.”
Everything unraveled after that.
In the top of the second, slumping Astros third baseman Alex Bregman — who was dropped to seventh in the batting order for Sunday’s game — snapped a one-for-14 start to the World Series with an RBI double that keyed a two-run inning.
In the top of the third, a leadoff error by shortstop Dansby Swanson started another two-run rally, with Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel each driving home a run to tie the score.
Reprieve came in the bottom of the third, when Freddie Freeman put the Braves back in front with a mammoth 460-foot solo home run to right-center. But even that blast — in what was Freeman’s last home game as a Brave before he hits free agency this winter — wasn’t met with an eruption as much as a collective exhale, Atlanta fans hoping their franchise first baseman had ended their torment.
In the top of the fifth, the Braves’ previously dominant bullpen finally buckled. After left-hander A.J. Minter gave up a couple of singles, Atlanta elected to intentionally walk Bregman to get to Martin Maldonado, the light-hitting catcher who had some of the worst offensive numbers in baseball this year.
Minter, however, failed to find the zone, issuing a disastrous bases-loaded walk on just five pitches — on the last of which Maldonado showed a late bunt attempt before pulling back — to tie the score again.
In the next at-bat, pinch-hitter Marwin Gonzalez flared a two-run single into left field to give the Astros their first lead.
From there, Houston never looked back, tying the second-largest comeback win ever for a team facing elimination in a World Series game.
Astros reliever Phil Maton pitched two scoreless innings in the fifth and sixth, mowing through the middle of Atlanta’s order.
The Astros’ lineup tacked on a couple of insurance runs against Drew Smyly — who was summoned instead of some of the Braves’ other high-leverage relievers — in the seventh and eighth, including Maldonado’s third RBI of the night.
And, perhaps forebodingly, Atalnta’s last true rally in the bottom of the eighth was extinguished by Houston setup man Kendall Graveman just before the stroke of midnight.
The Braves can still complete their Cinderella run to a title, of course, needing to win just one of the next two games in Houston to end a 26-year title drought not only for their franchise but their entire city.
Sunday, however, presented the chance to do it at home.
Early on, all the momentum was in their favor. Then suddenly — and familiarly for sports teams in the heart of Georgia — it all disappeared.
“We’re playing for everything right now,” Duvall said. “It’s not gonna be easy.”