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Astros proof starting pitching still matters

@RichardJustice
October 7, 2019

HOUSTON -- So you were starting to think starting pitching might not be as important as it once was? You’ve heard that openers and bullpen games are going to be the next great thing. You’ve wondered if a quality start might soon be a guy going through an opposing lineup

HOUSTON -- So you were starting to think starting pitching might not be as important as it once was? You’ve heard that openers and bullpen games are going to be the next great thing. You’ve wondered if a quality start might soon be a guy going through an opposing lineup once or twice and heading for the shower.

Game Date Result Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 4 HOU 6, TB 2 Watch
Gm 2 Oct. 5 HOU 3, TB 1 Watch
Gm 3 Oct. 7 TB 10, HOU 3 Watch
Gm 4 Oct. 8 TB 4, HOU 1 Watch
Gm 5 Oct. 10 HOU 6, TB 1 Watch

Guess again. This opening week of the 2019 postseason has reminded an entire sport that great starting pitching is as important as it has ever been. For sure, we’ve seen it from Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander with the Astros. We’ve also seen first-rate starting pitching from Mike Foltynewicz (Braves), Walker Buehler (Dodgers), Stephen Strasburg (Nationals) and Masahiro Tanaka (Yankees).

Starters so far are working significantly deeper into games and understanding the importance of it.

“I grew up watching guys that did that,” Cole said. “I've been doing it since I was 17. I don't know what to say. It’s a blessing.”

While some teams are forced to come up with ways to work around a subpar rotation, every single team would prefer to do things the way championship teams have done them for more than a century.

“As long as I've got the type of top-end rotation, then I certainly firmly believe in the starting pitcher setting the tone and doing all the things that a normal, traditional starting pitcher would do,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said.

He understands why some teams have tried to do things another way. Great starting pitching is a rare commodity and an expensive one. He happens to have three of the best in Cole, Verlander and Zack Greinke.

The Astros are an extreme example. Including the playoffs, they’re 52-17 in starts by Cole and Verlander this season, and that dominance has been on display in Games 1 and 2 of their American League Division Series against the Rays.

Verlander threw seven scoreless innings, struck out eight and didn’t allow a runner to get into scoring position as the Astros won Game 1 on Friday, 6-2. That turned out to be a warmup act for what Cole delivered in Game 2 on Saturday in a 3-1 Astros victory.

In short, a postseason masterpiece. He pitched 7 2/3 scoreless innings, struck out 15 and didn’t allow a Tampa Bay base runner to reach second base for seven innings.

This is where the Astros’ greatness -- 107 regular-season wins and 2-0 ALDS lead -- begins. The Rays were in both games until the end. But when the Astros walk into their clubhouse and see the names of Cole, Verlander or Greinke printed on the lineup card, they think they’re going to win.

“That’s the highest compliment you can pay someone in this business,” Hinch said.

This is the new blueprint. Or the old blueprint that’s new again. In 10 playoff games, starters already have gone at least seven innings four times and at least six innings eight times. In 33 postseason games in 2018, starters went at least six innings 20 times.

In the 2018 postseason, starters and relievers pitched almost the same number of innings (309 to 305 1/3). In this postseason, starters have pitched 101 2/3 innings, relievers 71 1/3.

“I feel like, if I did my job as a starting pitcher throughout the season, that our bullpen should be fresh and ready to thrive,” Verlander said. “I know what you're asking because I have an old-school mentality.”

It’s not just the Astros. The Braves and Cardinals are also bullish on their starting pitching. In Game 2 of their NLDS on Friday, both starters went seven innings, a rarity these days.

Foltynewicz nursed a 1-0 lead against Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty into the seventh when the Braves scored a pair of runs that must have felt like a dozen.

The Dodgers won Game 1 against the Nationals in the other NLDS when Buehler, their prized young righty, pitched six shutout innings. Strasburg helped even things for the Nationals a day later with a six-inning, 10-strikeout performance.

Verlander and Cole both emphasize that they take pride in getting deep into games. Rather than not facing a lineup a second or third time, they feed off the challenge. (Cole threw a career-high 118 pitches on Saturday. His 116th pitch hit 100 mph.)

“Philosophically, whether it's about the new-age opener or pulling guys third time through [the order], most of the people that support that haven't had Verlander or Cole on their team,” Hinch said. “I'm going to roll with these boys while we have them. If I have to manage differently because of the game, then so be it.”

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.