Astros manager Dusty Baker said the club is debating removing hard-throwing right-handed reliever Josh James off its American League Championship Series roster after he left Game 5 with a sore back. If the Astros replace James on the ALCS roster, they’d lose him for the World Series, too, if they advance.
James was removed from Thursday’s win over the Rays in the eighth inning with a back issue after he fielded a comebacker off the bat of Joey Wendle that wound up being turned for a double play. He had given up a game-tying homer to Ji-Man Choi earlier in the inning after throwing two scoreless innings in his only other appearance in the ALCS in Game 3.
“We got a decision to make,” Baker said. “Do we wait on him and think we got enough pitching and have him eligible for the World Series? Or if he’s real bad do we need this space now and be without him in the World Series? We’ll see. Hopefully, he’s a quick healer.”
If the Astros were to replace James, among those in their playoff player pool are Nivaldo Rodriguez, Humberto Castallanos, Brandon Bielak and Brandon Bailey -- all of whom are rookies who made their Major League debut this year. Lefty Cionel Pérez is also an option to be added.
Brantley still hobbled
For the second game in a row, veteran outfielder Michael Brantley started at designated hitter in Game 6 because he’s having trouble running. Brantley fouled a ball off his foot and a ball off his shin in the same at-bat in the seventh inning in Game 4 and had to leave.
With Brantley unable to play the field and facing Rays left-handed starter Blake Snell, Aledmys Díaz -- a right-handed hitter -- started in left field Friday for only the second time this season. Had Brantley been healthy, he would have been in left and Díaz would have been the DH against Snell. Baker also dropped Brantley down one spot in the lineup, to third behind Jose Altuve, so he could have a better chance to drive in some runs.
“Díaz has been working out extremely hard in the outfield every day,” said Baker, who could use Josh Reddick or Myles Straw as defensive replacements for Díaz late in the game.
Díaz, an infielder, started two games in left field in the regular season -- Sept. 19 and Sept. 26. He started three games in left field in his first year in Houston in 2019.
“During the season, I worked a lot in the outfield in BP, taking extra work there,” Díaz said. “I knew it was going to be a possibility in the playoffs for me to play the outfield facing a left-handed pitcher, so I’m ready to go.”
McCullers: Maldonado is the ‘rock’ of this team
If the Astros come back and pull off the improbable and become the second team to rally from 3-0 down to win a best-of seven series by beating the Rays in the ALCS, McCullers said veteran catcher Martín Maldonado should be the ALCS Most Valuable Player.
Maldonado, the team’s nine-hole hitter, was 3-for-11 at the plate through the first five games of the ALCS, but he helped navigate five rookie pitchers for 6 2/3 innings in a Game 5 win. In Game 4, he convinced Baker to keep starting pitcher Zack Greinke in the game in a sixth-inning jam, and Greinke got out of it. He also sent his teammates inspirational text messages after they fell behind, 3-0, in the series.
“He was, in my opinion, the MVP of the ALDS and the Wild Card round and continues to be probably the most underrated player on our roster,” McCullers said. “It’s all about offensive numbers nowadays, but when you have someone who you’re able to rely on and you have someone who’s able to know when to slow the game down and know when to step up and tell the manager this is what we’re doing … his will to win and the grit that he has is something I admire a lot.
“What he’s been able to do and how he’s been able to help our young pitching staff through the postseason -- and [in Game 5] he had a huge double that put Brantley in position for a two-run double -- he’s just the rock of this team, and I have a lot of admiration for him and the player he is.”
McCullers will get a chance to team up with Maldonado in Game 7 if the Astros win Game 6. McCullers started Game 7 of the 2017 World Series and closed out Game 7 of the ALCS that year, too.
“If we get to a Game 7, I’ll be very excited to pitch,” he said. “I’ve pitched a couple of Game 7s before, so I feel like with that and knowing coming into the series I was slated for [Games] 2 and 7, I’ve been ready for those two starts. I’m praying for a win today and I’ll be very excited to be able to pitch tomorrow.”
“[Alex] Bregman probably slept in his baseball pants last night.’’ -- McCullers