HOUSTON -- The Astros are expected to have Justin Verlander, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, back in their rotation for the playoffs, which is clearly a huge addition if he’s fully recovered from his forearm strain. And now Jose Urquidy is emerging as a playoff rotation option as well.
Making his third start of the season after a lengthy bout with COVID-19, Urquidy held the Rangers to one run on three hits and no walks in seven sterling innings, and Alex Bregman’s bloop single with the bases loaded in the fifth inning scored a pair to snap a tie and send the Astros to a 4-1 win in the series opener Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park.
“I felt really good out there,” Urquidy said. “Even when they took me out, I felt I had a little left to give. Obviously, it’s the manager’s decision and I respect that. I didn’t get tired today. I didn’t feel like I did the last couple of outings. I felt I had something left in the tank.”
With Verlander nearing a return and the re-emergence of Urquidy, the Astros suddenly have rotation options for October.
They’ll only need three starters in the Wild Card Series round, one of which will be veteran Zack Greinke. Lefty Framber Valdez hasn’t pitched as well lately and could be moved to the bullpen. Lance McCullers Jr. returns from the injured list to start Wednesday and has maybe three starts remaining before the postseason to show he’s healthy and effective.
“He can pitch,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said of Urquidy. “We expect him to get even better, because this is like his Spring Training. He has a chance [to start in the playoffs], a good chance.”
Urquidy retired the first 13 batters he faced and the final seven after Ronald Guzmán’s single in the fifth tied the game. The Astros had taken a 1-0 lead on a leadoff homer by George Springer, the 39th of his career. The win got the Astros back to .500 (24-24) and moved them two games ahead of the Mariners for an automatic postseason spot in the AL.
“We need to start a good streak of playing well,” Bregman said. “We haven’t had the best last week or two weeks. Hopefully, we can build on this.”
Urquidy has gotten stronger and more effective with each start, reaching a season high in innings and pitches (90) . He said he could have returned to the mound for the eighth, but after the Astros scored twice in the seventh, Baker turned the game over to the bullpen. Brooks Raley and Ryan Pressly closed out the four-hit effort.
“We know he is a strike thrower,” Rangers manager Chris Woodward said. “He attacks the strike zone. He’s got four plus pitches. He doesn’t light up the radar gun, but it’s 93-95 [mph]. His fastball has a lot of life to it. He’s got a really good plus changeup he can throw in any count, and he can throw his breaking ball in any count. I thought he pitched better today than his first couple of starts. Kept our guys off balance.”
The key Tuesday for Urquidy was the return of the effectiveness of his slider, which he didn’t have when he threw six innings Thursday in Oakland. He has an elite changeup (on which he got four strikeouts against the Rangers), but he got three swings and misses on the slider.
“[Catcher Martín] Maldonado told me, when I was warming up in the bullpen, some adjustments to throw the slider, and it’s helped me a lot,” Urquidy said.
Maldonado, who added a homer in the eighth, said Urquidy is throwing the ball like he did last year, when he allowed one run in 10 postseason innings, including five scoreless innings in a start in Game 4 of the World Series.
“He had good command of his balls, mixed in his secondary pitches,” he said. “He got some velo back. It was nice to see the command. It’s some of the best command I’ve seen from him since he came back.”