Astros' arms gain invaluable experience

November 3rd, 2021

HOUSTON -- Even as the Astros wrapped up the American League West title, the questions had started -- just how far could they last in a postseason without those top-of-the-rotation horses they had leaned on so heavily in the past?

And later, when was declared unable to pitch as the Division Series was wrapping up, questions popped up again: No , no Gerrit Cole and, now, no McCullers -- can they pull this off?

Turns out, they almost did. Though the Astros fell to the Braves in the World Series, losing Game 6, 7-0, there are bright spots that give reason for optimism moving forward.

A largely untested starting trio of , and , along with , a swingman who embraced the role of ace piggybacker, all contributed mightily to the Astros’ push past the Red Sox en route to the AL pennant.

While not perfect, these four had their moments in the World Series, too. Absent the luxury of horses at the top, the Astros had to piece their pitching together, day after day, week after week, all the way into November.

There were times, especially during the AL Championship Series, when the simple act of figuring out how to navigate Astros pitchers through one nine-inning game seemed to be a challenge. And yet, here the Astros were, one of the final two teams standing and with a chance to force a Game 7 in the Fall Classic.

“We’re really proud of these young guys,” veteran catcher said. “Hopefully, they embraced this and will keep moving forward. Having Javier, Framber, Urquidy, those guys ... they’re going to be here a long time. They got a taste of the playoffs and World Series, and we’re going to be counting on them next year.”

If experience matters, Garcia could emerge next year as the ace. Consider the jump he made from one year to the next: In 2020, he pitched a total of 12 1/3 innings in the big leagues. This year, he passed that in the postseason alone, throwing 15 2/3 innings in October (and November). That’s on top of the biggest workload he’s ever had in a regular season at any level. He threw 155 1/3 innings, up from 108 2/3 that he logged at two Minor League levels in 2019.

Was it a little unfair to have him start Game 6 on short rest? Perhaps. Garcia was earmarked for around three innings, possibly four if he kept the damage to a minimum. The first two innings were nearly flawless – he struck out three batters and kept the pitch count low. But the third inning began with an Ozzie Albies single to right field, and things unraveled from there. Eddie Rosario walked with two outs, and Jorge Soler sent a 446-foot homer out of the ballpark over the façade in left field, putting the Braves ahead, 3-0.

“I went to the mound and I told him that was his last hitter, and to empty the tank,” said Brent Strom, who revealed he won't return as Astros pitching coach in 2022. “He tried too hard on a cutter and left it middle in. Soler does what Soler does -- he hit a missile.”

The immediate aftermath of losing a World Series leaves a bitter taste, and it’ll be a while before Astros pitchers will be able to look back at the month and draw positives. But here’s one advantage to playing this deep into a calendar year: Spring Training rolls around quickly. And while there will be inevitable roster turnover -- on the pitching side, is a free agent -- Astros pitchers will feel a lot of familiarity when they gather in Florida in a few months.  

“Just keeping focused on next year,” Garcia said. “Working on some of the things I’ve adjusted for these last couple outings that I felt really good about. Just keep focused, be ready to work and focus on everything that’s coming next year.”

The October run, while incomplete, could pay dividends moving forward. Urquidy now has three years of postseason experience. Valdez, a stabilizer in the rotation during the regular season, logged nearly 20 innings in the playoffs, and Javier could inch his way back into the rotation next year.

“The future’s really bright for those young guys,” Strom said. “They’re under control for a few years, and they’re only going to get better.”