Javier (11 K's) helps give Astros much-needed boost

May 11th, 2023

ANAHEIM -- Considering the instability of the Astros’ starting rotation, the club desperately needed to follow the lead set by staff ace Framber Valdez a night earlier. Valdez struck out 12 batters in eight innings on Tuesday to halt the Astros’ three-game losing streak, and Javier struck out 11 in six innings in a 5-4 win over the Angels on Wednesday afternoon at Angel Stadium.

With that, the Astros climbed back over .500 and won their first series since they went on the road in late April and went 5-1 against the Braves and Rays -- a stretch of games which served notice to the rest of baseball that the defending champions are as dangerous as ever. Or are they?

The Astros responded by losing six of their next nine games to drop under .500, as well as losing a pair of key starting pitchers to injury -- José Urquidy to a shoulder injury that will keep him out until the All-Star break and Luis Garcia to Tommy John surgery.

Both of those are huge blows that thrust rookie J.P. France to the big leagues for the first time and put unproven Brandon Bielak in the rotation. That’s what made the stellar outings by Valdez and Javier so crucial in that the Astros needed their proven pitching commodities to deliver.

“We needed it badly,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “We won the series, we’re back to 3-3 on this road trip and will take a day off and then on to Chicago.”

Javier (3-1) allowed three hits, two runs and one walk while reaching double-digit strikeouts for the second time in eight starts this year. He generated 24 swings-and-misses while relying mostly on his fastball-slider combination. His sole blemish came in the second inning, when he allowed a two-run homer to Hunter Renfroe.

“Javi was good,” Baker said. “He had his high fastball working and he only made one mistake. The homer was a hanging slider, but other than that, he was good. He was excellent.”

Javier began the game by striking out Taylor Ward, Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani in succession and ended his outing by duplicating that feat in the sixth inning. The top three hitters in the Angels’ lineup were a combined 0-for-9 against Javier with seven strikeouts.

“When I see the ball get to good locations, that’s the first thing that tells me the pitch is feeling good -- and also, the swings from the hitters,” Javier said.

Javier’s “invisi-ball” fastball topped out at 94.3 mph -- Valdez touched 98 mph on Tuesday -- and appears to be much faster to the hitters because of its rising action. He struck out four on sliders and seven on his rising fastball.

“It's just got so much ride on it,” said Angels manager Phil Nevin. “Really, his release point is a little lower than most and the fastball has so much ride. He can really hit that top rail consistently, which not a lot of guys can do. It’s just a tough pitch. Back in my day, we’d say, ‘Get the ball down,’ and when guys swung through pitches up, we didn’t understand why. But with technology now, we know that pitch has ride and it looks like it’s in a certain spot, but it’s not. It’s a really tough pitch to hit, obviously.”

The Astros took advantage of some shoddy defense in the fourth and sent 10 batters to the plate, scoring four times. A two-run single by put Houston ahead, 5-2. Javier retired 13 of the final 14 batters he faced, and the Astros survived a two-run homer by Ohtani in the ninth off closer .

The Astros’ last eight games have been decided by two runs or fewer, and they’ve gone 3-5 in that span. Wednesday was their second one-run win on the road this year. They beat the Rays, 1-0, on April 26, in St. Petersburg.

“We held on,” Baker said. “You never know which run is going to be the winning run, and it feels good to win a one-run game on the road.”