World Series 2021 - How Martin Maldonado saved the Houston Astros' season by not swinging

ATLANTA - The Atlanta Braves had a plan. With a 5-4 lead and an open base to work with in the top of the fifth inning of World Series Game 5, they figured they could get out of a jam by intentionally walking No. 7 hitter Alex Bregman to get to the Houston Astros' light-hitting catcher.

But Martin Maldonado had a plan, too.

Maldonado entered the night hitting just .167 in the series, which is actually about 100 points higher than he hit in the first two rounds of this postseason. He's considered the only weak link in the Astros' lineup -- or at least he was until Sunday night.

The intentional walk loaded the bases with two outs and hard-throwing Braves left-hander A.J. Minter on the mound. Before entering the batter's box, Maldonado turned to Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron in the dugout.

"He asked, 'What do you think of me getting on top of the plate?" Cintron told ESPN after the Astros' 9-5 win. "I said that's a good idea. That way you can see the cutter up and recognize it earlier."

But something else happened as the right-handed Maldonado got ready just inches from the plate.

"I think it did throw him off," Maldonado said of his at-bat against Minter. "His cutter is nasty. If you're off the plate, you give him more room to throw that cutter for strikes."

Instead, Minter threw two straight balls to start the at-bat. Tensions began to rise in sold-out Truist Park.

"Did you guys notice how close he was to the plate on the bat against Minter?" shortstop Carlos Correa said to reporters afterward. "You guys notice? That was sick."

Maldonado then watched a fastball he had no intention of offering at cross the middle of home plate for strike one.

"He wasn't going to swing 2-0, but he was ready to swing 2-1, but he got another cutter," Cintron said.

Maldonado was expecting a fastball but because he was seeing the cutter better, it was easier for him to lay off of the pitch just below his knees. The count went to 3-1. The lead and perhaps the game was on the line.

And that's when Maldonado got even more creative, turning as if he was going to bunt before pulling the bat back as Minter sailed a pitch way inside. Ball 4. Game tied.

"I thought of it in the moment," Maldonado said with a smile. "I wasn't going to swing until 3-2. Maybe it would throw him off."

The Astros' dugout erupted, and then moments later did again as pinch hitter Marwin Gonzalez drove in two runs with a single to left to give Houston a lead it never would relinquish.

"He came back to the dugout yelling at me, 'You like my Little League bunt?'" Cintron said. "He was prepared before he stepped up to the plate. He was ready for that at-bat. That made the difference."

Maldonado added a sacrifice fly and an RBI single, saving his best game of the postseason for when the Astros needed it most.

Maldonado's performance helped take the Astros from down 3-1 to heading back to Houston for Game 6 -- and a potential Game 7.

"It means a lot," an emotional Maldonado said. "Every time you've got a chance to help the team win one way or another, it's always huge."