HOUSTON -- “"El Reptil” (Cristian Javier’s nickname) was neutralized by the Royals.
Javier was on a historic stretch in his two previous outings with 27 strikeouts in those games. He was the first pitcher to allow one hit or fewer with that many strikeouts in a two-start span.
The Dominican hurler could have made history on Wednesday as he would have joined Jacob deGrom (2021), Gerrit Cole (2019), and Pedro Martinez (two such streaks in 1999) as the only pitchers with three straight outings of 13 strikeouts or more.
Javier was unable to do so as he struck out seven while allowing five runs on four hits in five innings of work in the Astros' 7-4 loss to the Royals at Minute Maid Park.
“He had similar velocity that he has had the last couple of times, but sometimes they hit you,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “There are days where [opponents] will make it unpleasant, but that’s baseball.”
It was clear early in the game that it was not going to be the same Javier of the past two starts. The hitters got to him early, as Whit Merrifield crushed his fastball to left-center field to lead off the game.
It turned out to be the first of three long balls he gave up in the first two innings as Hunter Dozier hit a two-run shot in the first inning and Emmanuel Rivera hit a solo blast in the second inning.
What was the similar theme to all those homers? They all came off Javier’s fastball. The same four-seamer that was on top of the American League in run value, and the third-best pitch of any type in MLB before Wednesday.
The righty did not have the command he typically does with that pitch.
“It definitely affects me to an extent,” Javier said in Spanish about his struggles on the fastball. “I didn’t have a good release point today to be able to throw that pitch for a strike.”
Questions have now been raised about whether the Astros' recent decision to go with a six-man rotation has impacted Javier's sharpness.
Before the Royals' series, the Astros' rotation was on a roll, as Houston's starters were 7-0 (1.03 ERA) with batters recording just 22 hits (.108 BA) against them in the previous nine games. In that span, they threw two immaculate innings, a combined no-hitter against the Yankees, set a franchise record of five straight games of one or fewer runs and a franchise record of 20 strikeouts in a nine-inning game.
Now, the pitching has all of a sudden endured a tough stretch. Javier joined Jake Odorizzi, who, in his first start off the injured list on Tuesday allowed five runs on nine hits in four innings, and Luis Garcia, who allowed five runs on eight hits in 6 1/3 innings pitched on Thursday, as the third straight starter to give up five runs in his start.
The bullpen, which is already stretched thin, has been put to work throwing 11 2/3 innings in the three games against the Royals. The Astros are not panicking to make the switch back to the standard five-man rotation even with what has happened recently.
“We knew [the situation] when we went to the six-man rotation,” Baker said. “The mandate by the league is 13 pitchers. We just have to adjust and have four more days until we have an off-day, Hopefully we have some big offensive outputs.”
The Astros almost had enough offense to offset Javier’s struggles, cutting the deficit to one in the sixth inning with Aledmys Díaz's home run, but the Royals got insurance runs in the ninth inning to hold them off.
It marked the end of an eight-game winning streak for the Astros.
“You knew you weren’t gonna win every game even if you want to,” Baker said. “We will look to win tomorrow and cap off a good homestand.”