MINNEAPOLIS – When the Astros roared through the postseason last year, going 11-2 en route to their second World Series title in six seasons, they did it on the strength of their pitching staff, with some big-time clutch hits along the way from Yordan Alvarez, Jeremy Peña and others.
Astros pitchers posted six quality starts in 13 playoff games, with the bullpen suffocating the opposition to the tune of a 0.83 ERA in 54 1/3 postseason innings. Houston had so much starting pitching in 2022 -- led by Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier and Lance McCullers Jr. -- that it stashed Luis Garcia and José Urquidy, who had combined for 28 regular-season wins, in the bullpen in October.
Those pitching luxuries disappeared quickly in 2023, with McCullers getting injured in the spring and lost for the season following arm surgery, and Urquidy and Garcia going down with significant injuries a month into the season.
Not surprisingly, the Astros’ starting pitching hasn’t been as strong, especially in the second half of this season, and Houston’s depth will be tested in Games 3 and 4 of the American League Division Series against the Twins.
“Every year it's different,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “We started the year not knowing we were going to lose Garcia from the very beginning, not knowing we were going to lose Urquidy from the very beginning, not knowing that we were going to lose Lance from the very beginning. So we've mixed and matched and pieced it together the best that we could and the best with the ability that we have.”
Javier, who finished strong after a wobbly regular season, will get the start in Game 3 against the Twins at Tuesday afternoon at Target Field. He posted a 3.05 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in his final four starts, including an 11-strikeout game on Sept. 20 against the Orioles.
“I've heard there are big expectations of me for my next outing, but I'm just going to do what I do every single time, which is go out there and compete,” Javier said. “… Just like in my previous postseason outings.”
The starter for Wednesday’s Game 4 will be either rookie J.P. France or Urquidy, a decision the Astros are still working through. France had a breakthrough rookie season but has never pitched in October; Urquidy is a seasoned playoff pitcher who’s struggled for much of this season when healthy.
Astros general manager Dana Brown said Baker and pitching coach Josh Miller will make the decision on the Game 4 starter, but the Astros could use some clutch starts the next two days.
“I’m comfortable either way,” Brown said. “Whatever decision we make, both options are pretty good. We have managers and coaches that are in the grind with these guys and they have their comfort levels and who they want to go with it. I support it. I think either option is good. J.P.’s been outstanding, Urquidy’s really got the experience. They both have enough stuff and command to get through six [innings]. I’m fine either way.”
Javier scuffled much of the summer but threw six scoreless innings in his final regular-season start in Arizona on Oct. 1, allowing three hits while striking out four in the Astros’ win over the D-backs. He was clutch in the postseason a year ago, posting a 0.71 ERA in three games (two starts), spanning 12 2/3 innings.
“I think Javi has been throwing the ball really good lately,” catcher Martín Maldonado said. “That guy, I don’t think it’s [too] big [of a] stage for him. I think that guy knows what he can do to go out there and execute pitches. He has done it in every situation.”
France was 11-6 with a 3.83 ERA in 24 games (23 starts) this year, and the Astros must consider whether they want to give the ball to a rookie if the season is on the line. The safe choice could be Urquidy, who has three World Series wins under his belt. He pitched mostly in relief after coming off the IL in August but threw six scoreless in a spot start in place of France on Sept. 29.
The Astros can only hope the Game 4 starter will take the mound with a chance to end the series … instead of having to save Houston’s season.
“Everybody is part of this team that you depend on when you try to make guys feel as important as possible and that they're all part of this,” Baker said.