Astros' bench, bullpen come up huge after brouhaha

October 21st, 2023

ARLINGTON -- When Yanier Diaz jogged out of the dugout with the rest of his teammates to join the eighth-inning benches-clearing commotion between Adolis García and Martín Maldonado on Friday, he kept his batting gloves and elbow guard on.

Diaz knew he would be pinch-hitting in the very next inning.

The rookie catcher notched his first career postseason hit in the ninth and set up -- along with fellow pinch-hitter Jon Singleton, who walked in the next plate appearance -- a massive go-ahead three-run home run from Jose Altuve.

“I know everybody is talking about the homer,” Altuve said. “But if you go and see Diaz's base hit and then Singleton’s walk, especially when he hasn't played in a lot of days … coming from the bench facing probably one of the best closers right now in the playoffs, I think the key was these two guys and to be able to score all those runs.”

Both of the pinch-hit decisions were engineered by bench coach Joe Espada, who filled in for ejected Astros manager Dusty Baker in Houston’s 5-4 win in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series over the Rangers at Globe Life Field.

Singleton’s last plate appearance came on Oct. 1, the last game of the regular season. Diaz -- whose playing-time split with Maldonado has been a point of discussion all season -- has been relegated to the bench during the playoffs as a pinch-hitting option.

Diaz subsequently struggled in his first 10 career postseason plate appearances, striking out five times. The most damaging came in Game 2 of the ALCS on Monday with the bases loaded and no outs in the fifth inning. Diaz pinch-hit for Maldonado and struck out swinging. The missed opportunity would sting in the 5-4 loss.

But Diaz has stayed ready -- adapting his routine to prepare to jump in and hit whenever called upon. He began going to the cage and the gym between innings to stay loose. When Diaz is in the dugout during the ALCS, he can often be seen with a bat, going through warmups just as if he were in the on-deck circle.

“Pinch-hitting is obviously something that is extremely hard to do,” Diaz said in Spanish through translator Jenloy Herrera. “The more and more I’ve got opportunities to pinch-hit, I’ve been able to find a little bit of a better routine, just to be able to prepare myself to come in better in those situations.”

Singleton -- a 32-year-old veteran -- went in for his first career postseason plate appearance and let his eye do the work instead of his bat, drawing a six-pitch walk from Rangers closer José Leclerc.

“You put in the hard work, and you stay ready so you don’t have to get ready,” Singleton said. “That’s been my motto so far this year.”

Espada entrusted Ryan Pressly to get the final six outs. The veteran closer came in after reliever Bryan Abreu was ejected, along with Baker, in the eighth inning, and he allowed only a single in two scoreless innings. One more bench player, shortstop Grae Kessinger, contributed with an impressive leaping grab of a Marcus Semien liner in the ninth.

“We’re deep,” Pressly said. “We play for each other. I love this team, and every time we go out there we try to win, obviously. But it’s just a different animal in this clubhouse.”

For the Astros, it was a glimpse of what is possibly to come -- with both Baker and Maldonado in the final year of their contracts, Diaz touted as the catcher of the future and Espada mentioned as a future Major League manager, having interviewed for several openings over the past few years.

But it was Houston’s star, Altuve -- with the team from the very start of its postseason runs -- who put the Astros on top. The young Houston hitters all rave about his calm, collected nature, and they have tried to emulate Altuve as much as possible.

And in the midst of an emotion-packed, thrilling postseason game, it was an unlikely cast of characters who drew from Altuve’s steady nature to help Houston take a pivotal Game 5.

“He’s special,” Kessinger said. “Everybody knows that. But being able to be around him, he’s just the same guy every day. The same guy in every moment. He never wavers. He’s Jose Altuve.

“That’s what separates him. There’s a ton of guys that are super talented, but his focus, his ability to stay calm in those moments, it’s special.”