Jorge Soler's pinch-hit homer puts Atlanta Braves on cusp of World Series title

ATLANTA -- Jorge Soler had taken only 11 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter over the past three years. Nine of them occurred this season, including two in the playoffs, but the concept was still foreign to him. His strategy was to swing as often as he could.

The Atlanta Braves would utilize only relievers in Game 4 of the World Series on Saturday night, which meant Soler could be summoned at any moment. So from the second inning on, Soler spent most of his time in the bowels of Truist Park in Atlanta taking repeated swings in the batting cage.

When his turn finally came in the bottom of the seventh, he quickly glanced at the scouting report of Houston Astros right-hander Cristian Javier, stepped into the on-deck circle, watched teammate Dansby Swanson tie the score with a fly ball off the brick wall beyond the right-field fence and told himself to look for something elevated. Four pitches in, Soler got a slider that drifted out over the plate and produced the home run that propelled the Braves to a 3-2 victory and put them one win away from their first championship in 26 years.

"To me, to all of my family, it means a lot," Soler, speaking in Spanish, said after the Braves took a 3-1 series lead on the Astros. "I wasn't here at the start of the season. I was elsewhere. They traded me here, and they gave me the opportunity to be here, be part of this group."

Swanson, a .248/.309/.439 hitter since the start of the regular season, and Soler, pinch-hitting in the pitcher's spot because the National League rules prevent a designated hitter, became the first Nos. 8 and 9 hitters to belt back-to-back home runs in a World Series game, according to research from the Elias Sports Bureau.

Theirs just so happened to come at a crucial time, with the Braves trailing by a run, down to their final eight outs and the Astros' high-end relievers in the game.

Soler's batted ball -- a 107 mph line drive that sailed just beyond the reach of Astros left fielder Yordan Alvarez and prompted a scary collision -- accounted for the first go-ahead pinch-hit home run in the seventh inning or later in World Series history since Ed Sprague of the Toronto Blue Jays did it against the Braves in Game 2 of the 1992 World Series.

The current Braves became the third team in World Series history to hit back-to-back, seventh-inning-or-later home runs to tie a game or take the lead, joining Pedro Guerrero and Steve Yeager for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1981 and Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig for the New York Yankees in 1928. The man who surrendered those homers Saturday night, Javier, hadn't allowed a run in his nine previous postseason innings.

Teams that take a 3-1 series lead have gone on to win a best-of-seven World Series 40 of 46 times. The Braves will look to do so at home on Sunday night -- on the final night of October, at a place where they remain undefeated this postseason.

"I'm happy for our city that they can go through this, experience this," said Braves manager Brian Snitker, who has spent his entire 44-year professional career with the same organization. "What a great time of year. For the city, the Braves Country, to experience all this, for our players to experience it -- it's a win-win situation."

The latest victory doesn't happen without yet another big play by Eddie Rosario, the NLCS MVP who turned in the catch that changed the course of Saturday's game.

The Braves had finally attained their first lead to begin the eighth inning, but with two outs, Astros second baseman Jose Altuve lifted a Luke Jackson slider out to left field, a little shallow of the spot where Soler's ball landed. Rosario -- 24 hours removed from watching the Astros' first hit fall right in front of him in the eighth inning -- sprinted back and felt the warning track beneath his feet. As he approached the fence, he shot his glove out and made the last-second catch that stunned his teammates.

Moments later, he was still on a high.

"I feel right now I am Super Rosario," Rosario said. "I don't see the ball. I throw the glove and catch the ball, everybody's happy, I'm happy. It's unbelievable what I did tonight. Wow, what a catch."

Rosario was asked if there was a strategic element involved in not sticking his glove out until the very end. He laughed off the question.

"It just happened," Rosario said. "That was it."

The Astros began Saturday's game by loading the bases with one out against Braves opener Dylan Lee, a reliever who, in an effort to prevent a sleepless night, was not informed he would be starting this game until he arrived in the clubhouse earlier that afternoon. The Astros, a high-powered offense that has mustered only a .206/.291/.298 slash line in this series, produced only one run in that frame. Kyle Wright replaced Lee and got Carlos Correa to hit a soft grounder, then struck out Kyle Tucker and allowed only an Altuve solo homer over the next four innings.

The Braves struggled to get anything going against the crafty Zack Greinke, who navigated through four scoreless innings despite not being fully stretched out. But Swanson, who grew up roughly 20 miles away from Atlanta, brought their offense to life with his seventh-inning home run. He was already approaching second base as his batted ball cleared the right-field fence. He shot his right index finger high into the air amid the roar of a sold-out crowd.

Now his Braves -- an 88-win team that didn't get hot until the stretch run and has been counted out ahead of every series it has played this month -- are one win away from a championship.

"I've played that over and over and over again in my head a million times, whether it was for this team or just this moment in general," Swanson said of his homer. "There's obviously been a lot of work that's gone into this moment and a lot of dreams that have gone into this moment, and I'm just thankful for great parents and great family that have pushed me and believed in me to get me to this moment."