ATLANTA — In the Astros’ lineup, catcher Martin Maldonado is The Guy You Cannot Let Beat You. The 35-year-old veteran batted just .172 this season, with a .272 on-base percentage and a 58 OPS+ — meaning he was 42 percent worse than the average MLB hitter.
For opposing pitchers, facing a Houston offense that’s otherwise stacked with All-Star-caliber hitters, Maldonado has to be the reliable out. It might sound harsh to call him the weakest link in the lineup, but it’s very much the truth. When Zack Greinke started Game 4 of the 2021 World Series for the Astros, he was ahead of Maldonado in the batting order.
Heading into Game 5 of the World Series, Maldonado had 45 plate appearances this postseason and had produced an anemic .098/.159/.098 slash line, with only four hits and two RBIs. He’s basically been a non-Greinke pitcher who just doesn’t strike out every time.
In Game 5, The Guy You Cannot Let Beat You beat the Braves. Not once, not twice, but three times. Maldonado, who plays every day because of his value as a catcher and leader, had three RBIs — one in the second inning, one in the fifth and another in the seventh. The Astros, as you know, won Game 5 9-5 to prevent Atlanta from clinching at home.
The series shifts back to Houston for Game 6, which is Tuesday.
“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,” Astros shortstop Carlos Correa said. “Even though when things don’t work out, he’s there every single day putting in the work. He cares about the team. He cares about at-bats. He wants to win the game. He wants to get homers. He wants to go out and deliver.”
Maldonado delivered in three different ways, too. In the second, he hit a sacrifice fly to center field that plated Kyle Tucker. In the fifth, he drew a bases-loaded walk; we’ll talk more about that in a minute. In the seventh, he singled into left field, scoring Tucker again as the outfielder raced around from second base.
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Three RBIs in three different ways, only one of which helped bump up that .098 batting average in a positive direction. All in an elimination game, no less.
“Whatever way you bring a run, especially in the playoff, is huge,” Maldonado said. “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.”
Let’s get back to that bases-loaded walk. The game had already been a roller coaster; Adam Duvall hit a grand slam for the Braves in the first inning, but Houston got two runs back in the second and the other two in the third. As soon as the Astros pulled even, Freddie Freeman crushed a 460-foot home run into the right-center bleachers to put Atlanta back ahead in the bottom of the third.
After a scoreless fourth inning for both squads, the Astros had runners on first and third with two outs in the top of the fifth. Alex Bregman, who has struggled mightily at the plate all series but had a huge two-run double in the second, was up. Atlanta quickly signaled for the intentional walk, loading the bases and bringing up Maldonado. Braves left-hander A.J. Minter missed inside with his first pitch and low with his second, threw a strike with a 95 mph fastball and missed low again with a cutter.
As Minter started to throw his 3-1 pitch, Maldonado stepped forward in the box a bit; Minter’s fastball was way inside. Ball 4.
“Did you guys notice how close he was to the plate on the bat against Minter?” Correa jumped in to say during the postgame press conference. “You guys notice? That was sick.”
It was also effective. Not only did Maldonado’s walk force home Correa from third, it also extended the inning for pinch hitter Marwin Gonzalez. He plopped Minter’s first pitch into left field for a two-run single, and just like that, Houston had taken a 7-5 lead.
If the Braves had gotten the best of The Guy You Cannot Let Beat You, they would have still held a 5-4 lead heading into the bottom of the fifth, and who knows what happens from there? Instead, Houston owned a two-run lead.
Maldonado’s single that chased home Tucker in the seventh put the Astros ahead 8-5.
“Just simple things like that, the sac fly you mentioned, scoring a run, getting a walk with the based loaded, another run,” Correa said. “It’s productive at-bats. He does the hard work, and at some point it’s going to pay off. I believe in him every step of the way.”
Maldonado, sitting at the interview table with Correa, looked at his friend.
“Now you’re going to make me cry,” he said.
Funny, that’s probably what Braves fans were thinking as Maldonado — TGYCLBY — kept piling up runs for the Astros on the scoreboard.
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