Best slider ever: Taylor ends threat, keys win

July 3rd, 2021

The bases were loaded in the eighth inning Friday night and the go-ahead run was at the plate, so Astros lefty reliever Blake Taylor closed his eyes, took a deep breath and told himself one quick bit of advice: throw the best slider you’ve ever thrown in your life. 

Considering the magnitude of the game situation -- not to mention the Astros’ bullpen struggles this season -- it was a mission accomplished for Taylor, who got Harold Ramirez to swing over an 83.2 mph slider to strand the bases loaded. Closer Ryan Pressly slammed the door in the ninth, and the Astros had a 6-3 win -- their 50th of the season -- over the Indians at Progressive Field.

“This is a big spot, so just get the ball to Pressly,” Taylor said. “The second he swung over it, I let it all out and walked back to the dugout. It was a good feeling. It means my stuff was working tonight.” 

That was arguably the biggest out of the season for an Astros bullpen that has a 4.15 ERA, 18 losses and 13 blown saves, which was the third-most in the American League entering Friday. Especially after lefty Brooks Raley gave up a three-run homer in the sixth, allowing a pair of runners he inherited from starter Lance McCullers. Jr. to score and turn a 6-0 game into a nail-biter.

“I was like, ‘C’mon, Blake,’” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “He’s the best that I had out there remaining, and he was throwing the ball good. They got a jam shot and two infield hits. It’s not like they were hitting him all over. That’s why we stuck with him. That does a lot for his confidence for the next time and the next time.”

The tenuous eighth began with an infield hit by nine-hole hitter Oscar Mercado, who hit a grounder to third baseman Robel García. He made a diving stop, but his throw to first was late as Mercado slid into the bag head-first. The exit velocity on the hit was 81.2 mph, with a 16 percent hit probability.

Taylor struck out leadoff hitter Cesar Hernandez before Amed Rosario hit a flare into left field for a single that was 69.5 mph off the bat, putting runners at first and second. Taylor struck out Bobby Bradley for the second out, prompting a visit from pitching coach Brent Strom with the dangerous Franmil Reyes coming up.

“We had a plan for Franmil,” Taylor said. “We went over him as a hitter and just attacked the zone. He chases a lot of sliders from lefties. I tried to get in there with the fastball, and it got in on the hands and he beat it out. That was basically the conversation.”

Reyes loaded the bases when he hit a chopper up the middle that shortstop Carlos Correa fielded going to his left. He couldn’t get enough on the throw to first, which was a tad late. The hit had an exit velocity of 78.2 mph with a 7 percent hit probability.

That brought Ramirez to the plate as the go-ahead run. Taylor worked the count to 2-2 before striking him out on the slider to end the inning. Taylor and catcher Jason Castro were able to laugh in the dugout after the tensions had subsided.

“To his credit, he did a great job not changing anything and just focusing on the next pitch and getting out of a big spot,” Castro said.

But was it the best slider of his life?

“From my point of view, yeah,” Taylor said. “I honestly think that was the best slider I’ve thrown in my career. It started like a strike and went down and dove down. I couldn’t ask for a better result than that.”