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 a batter had homered to start the top of the first inning.
Valdez, who left a 2-and-0 slider up and over the plate, failed to regain his balance as Atlanta poured it on from there. By the end of the third inning, Atlanta had scored five times, Valdez had been chased from the game, and the Astros were well on their way to losing their fifth consecutive home World Series game.
Trouble, though, may lurk for Atlanta despite its 6-2 victory in Game 1, which came in front of 42,825 fans at Minute Maid Park.
Atlanta’s starter, Charlie Morton, was also 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. Morton would remain in the game to obtain three more outs, but the blow had fractured his fibula. Atlanta quickly announced that Morton would miss the rest of this World Series but was expected to be ready to go by spring training.
Though Atlanta lost Morton, it gained Soler. The 6-foot-4 slugger, who was acquired from Kansas City in a July trade, was placed on the Covid-19 injured list earlier this postseason and was sidelined from Oct. 12 to 21. Tuesday marked his return to the starting lineup and, because the game was played in an American League park, Atlanta benefited from being able to use him as a designated hitter. Soler had led off only once in his career before Atlanta Manager Brian Snitker moved him into that slot for the final 11 games of the regular season.
For Atlanta, it was just one more thing in a long list of them that have worked out beautifully. The white-hot National League champions now have won 20 of their past 25 games dating back to Sept. 19 in San Francisco and have outscored their rivals by 121-73 during that stretch, a dominating plus-48 run differential.
Part of the recipe for that success was employed here in Game 1. Atlanta has regularly ambushed opponents in the first inning this year, racking up 110 runs during the regular season, the sixth-most in the majors. Soler’s homer continued that onslaught, and then Travis d’Arnaud scored on Soler’s fielder’s choice to shortstop in the second. Adam Duvall blasted a two-run homer to left field in the third.
Duvall’s homer sent Valdez to the showers, and it was hardly a surprise when it happened. Valdez produced the majors’ highest percentage of ground balls (70.3 percent) in 2021 but obtained only two ground-ball outs against the 15 batters he faced Tuesday. 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.
That cast a pall over what had been a boisterous crowd to start the night. Every Atlanta run seemed to quiet Minute Maid Park just a little bit more, and for returning customers, this might have looked like more of the same. The Astros lost all four of their home games the last time they were in the World Series, against Washington in 2019 — though they won all three they played on the road.
Houston’s last home World Series victory came in Game 5 against the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017, a wild 13-12 game that featured seven home runs and lasted 5 hours 17 minutes.