HOUSTON — History will long celebrate the mammoth 450-foot home run by Yordan Alvarez in the sixth inning of Game 6 — with good reason — but that epic World Series moment doesn’t happen without the roughly 18 inches of real estate that veteran catcher Martin Maldonado boldly claimed just a few minutes earlier.
Kyle Schwarber had homered for the Phillies in the top of the sixth to break a scoreless tie, and with his Astros trailing, 1-0, Maldonado stepped to the plate leading off the bottom of the sixth inning. The first pitch was a ball, a 95 mph sinker from Zack Wheeler off the plate inside. The second pitch was another sinker, but this one caught the inner part of the strike zone.
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For the third pitch, Maldonado crowded the plate, scooting right to the edge of the batters box.
“Closer,” Maldonado told me after the game. “I know how his sinker is, how much it moves. I was trying to just make sure I didn’t bow out.”
And he stood his ground as yet another sinker — it’s Wheeler’s bread-and-butter pitch — followed a path that was nearly identical to the first pitch. Maldonado did not bow out, and it hit him on the elbow. On the surface, it felt very similar to the end of Game 1, when Astros hitter Aledmys Diaz leaned his elbow in and was hit by a David Robertson pitch. That was correctly waved off by the home plate umpire.
This one was different. Because Maldonado was as close to the plate as he was legally allowed to be — check the replay, and you see his feet right up to the chalk line — a normal upright stance meant Wheeler’s 95 mph sinker hit his elbow. There was not intentional leaning in (which is not allowed) but just intentional positioning (which is just fine). He was actually pulling his elbow closer to his body as the pitch hit him.
The moment met with the approval of at least one Astros Hall of Famer; Craig Biggio is second in MLB history with 285 hit-by-pitch incidents.
“Wheeler throws hard, runs the ball in and cuts it away,” Biggio told me, standing on the field during the postgame celebration. “That ball just kept running and running, and ran in enough that it hit him on the elbow. Fortunately for us, it was able to start a rally and we’re grateful for it.”
Wheeler had been dominating leading into that at-bat. He’d retired nine of the past 10 Houston hitters, four by strikeout. With Maldonado on first, Jose Altuve’s grounder, which would have been an easy 6-3 putout, instead became a force out. Maldonado was out at second, but the speedy Altuve was on first, a trade the Astros would gladly take.
Jeremy Pena followed with a ground-ball single up the middle, and just like that, Wheeler was gone with Alvarez coming up. Phillies manager Rob Thomson went to the bullpen, calling for reliever Jose Alvarado. Considering how Wheeler had been dominating — he was only at 70 pitches — that’s another trade the Astros would gladly take.
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Alvarez, of course, demolished a fastball from Alvarado for a three-run homer, giving the Astros a 3-1 lead they would not relinquish.
“That’s the game. The game’s about the team,” Maldonado said. “We know each other and we love each other. We made it happen.”
Eighteen inches that led to a 450-foot home run that landed over the batter’s eye in center field, a place where few baseballs ever reach. The small things that lead to big rewards.
“Maldy understands the game. He understands what’s at stake,” pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. said. “That was a huge part of that inning, and for us being world champions tonight.”
Eighteen inches that helped manager Dusty Baker finally cross off an achievement that was much more than 18 years in the making. This is — well, was, because the 2022 season is now officially in the books — Baker’s 25th season as manager. It was his third trip to the World Series and his first win.
Dusty, champion pic.twitter.com/gSHI3MZyRI
— Ryan Fagan (@ryanfagan) November 6, 2022
You’ve probably heard a time or a thousand about his “failure” to win one. The fact that Maldonado’s veteran move that led to the magical four-run inning — Christian Vazquez delivered an RBI single in the sixth — happened in Game 6 was not lost on Baker.
“I didn’t want to go to Game 7 because Game 6 has been my nemesis,” he told reporters after the game. “Game 6, man … I was like, Game 6 again? I said my prayers last night, said ‘Lord please don’t take us past Game 6 again.’ Then when Yordan hit the ball to the moon out there, man, I said, ‘OK we’ve got action.’ My bullpen is strong, and our guys were rested.”
Standing there in the clubhouse, soaked in champagne and beer and wearing his ski goggles, Baker told a story about his manager with the Dodgers, Tommy Lasorda, a few years before Lasorda died in January 2021.
“He reminded me that it took us, with the Dodgers, until our third try to get the Yankees. So this is my third try,” Baker said with a smile. “I was talking to Tommy tonight after the game, talking to my mom, who died in January, talking to my dad and Hank. I said, ‘Last year was the Braves’ year, that was Hank Aaron’s year, the year he died. This year was the 75th year after Jackie Robinson, and it’s the first year for me.’”
Not that Baker needed a title as a manager — he won one as a player in 1981 with Lasorda and the Dodgers, after they fell short in 1977 and 1978 — to cement his legacy in the sport, but it’s one heck of a way to wrap up the 2022 season.