Tuesday, January 25 2022
The Astros' Martin Maldonado celebrates after his RBI-single during the seventh inning of Game 5 of the World Series
The Astros‘ Martin Maldonado celebrates after his run-scoring single during the seventh inning of World Series Game 5 on Sunday night in Atlanta. (David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

Carlos Correa couldn’t help but chime in.

On a night everyone else was raving about one of his favorite teammates, the Houston Astros shortstop wanted to speak up too.

In the team’s 9-5 win over the Atlanta Braves in Game 5 of the World Series on Sunday, a result that staved off elimination and sent the series back to Houston on Tuesday for Game 6, catcher Martín Maldonado was the unexpected hero.

In the regular season, the 35-year-old veteran was one of the least productive hitters in baseball, batting .172 (second-worst among big leaguers with 400 plate appearances) with 12 home runs and only 36 runs batted in. His numbers in the postseason had been even worse, entering Sunday just four for 41 with 14 strikeouts and one walk.

Nonetheless, he continued to serve as the Astros’ everyday catcher — he played in 125 games this year, seventh-most among MLB catchers — because of all the other elements of his game, including solid pitch framing, expert game-calling and management of a young pitching staff.

But finally on Sunday, his wily skill set showed up at the plate as well. He had a team-high three RBIs on one hit, one sacrifice fly and one game-changing walk against Atlanta reliever A.J. Minter in the fifth inning, a bases-loaded free pass that tied the score and teed up Marwin Gonzalez’s go-ahead hit in the next at-bat.

“Whatever way you bring in a run, especially in the playoffs, is huge,” Maldonado said after the game, getting star treatment in the Truist Park interview room. “You get good at-bats, whatever the situation dictates. You try to work through it. I was really hopeful to help the team win whatever way we can do it.”

As he sat beside Maldonado at the postgame dais, it was the fifth-inning walk that Correa wanted to highlight.

“Did you guys notice how close he was to the plate on the bat against Minter?” Correa excitedly interjected, staring out at reporters with a laugh. “You guys notice? That was sick.”

It might have helped save the Astros season too.

At that point, the Astros were still trailing 5-4. There were two out in the fifth and Atlanta had willingly loaded the bases by intentionally walking Alex Bregman, purposefully targeting Maldonado instead.

“I was expecting that,” Maldonado said.

So, the 11-year veteran came up with a plan.

“I wasn’t going to swing to get a strike,” he said.

Minter made that easy on the first pitch, throwing well inside with Maldonado — much to Correa’s delight — crowding the plate. The next offering was a cutter just off the outside corner, but Maldonado was taking all the way.

Minter finally hit the zone on pitch No. 3 but then missed low to make it a three-ball count.

As the left-hander began to fire again, Maldonado showed a late bunt, but then pulled the bat back as a fastball whizzed well wide of the plate. Ball four. Tie score.

“It was amazing,” said Gonzalez, who watched the battle from the on-deck circle before slapping a two-run single into left on the very next pitch. “I said after the game, I think that was the key.”

The fact Maldonado ended up in Houston in the first place required a complicated turn of events.

After six steady seasons to begin his career with the Milwaukee Brewers, the Puerto Rico native has been shuffled, swapped and shipped around the league so many times that the Angels — the club that originally drafted him in 2004, cut him three years later, then signed him as a free agent before 2017 — now have two other key players because of him.

In 2018, Maldonado went from Anaheim to Houston at the trade deadline in exchange for pitcher Patrick Sandoval, now one of the Angels’ best young arms.

After signing as a free agent with the Kansas City Royals the next year, Maldonado was traded twice within two weeks in July, first to the Chicago Cubs, then back to the Astros in a move that prompted them to later trade their then-backup catcher Max Stassi to the Angels, where he has since blossomed into a starting role.

But after returning to Houston the second time in 2019, Maldonado has slowly solidified a leading role. A free agent again that year, he re-signed with the Astros on a two-year deal. Near the start of this season, he agreed to a one-year extension with an option for another.

“Maldy’s a guy that, obviously we talk about how great he is with the pitch calling, and his defense is amazing and all that, but he’s a guy that puts in the work every single day in the cage also,” Correa said. “He cares about the team. He cares about at-bats. He wants to win the game.”

And on Sunday, all those things coalesced into a uniquely signature performance, Maldonado reversing his season-long offensive struggles to help the Astros keep their World Series hopes alive.

“He does the hard work, and at some point it’s going to pay off,” Correa continued, still gushing about Maldonado as he sat by his side. “I believe in him every step of the way.”

As Correa finished, Maldonado smiled and laughed.

“Now,” Maldonado said, “you’re going to make me cry.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

Source: Yahoo Sports

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