When the Astros were in the American League Championship Series last year, they had Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke available to start two games each because of the built-in days off in the series. In other words, it was going to be difficult to oust them from the postseason, which no one did until the Nationals stunned Houston and rallied to win Game 7 of the World Series.
The state of the Astros’ pitching staff has changed dramatically in the past year. Cole left for the Yankees in free agency, Verlander was lost for the season -- and all of 2021 -- after only one start, and he eventually had Tommy John surgery. Greinke, now 36, isn’t even Houston’s most effective starter.
As the Astros prepare to face the Rays in the ALCS beginning with Game 1 on Sunday in San Diego, they will try to piece together their rotation without last year’s aces and sans a day off in the best-of-seven series. A possible seven games in seven days presents unique challenges.
Enter lefty Framber Valdez, who came out of nowhere this year to become a workhorse starter for the Astros. He’ll throw in Game 1 against Tampa Bay’s Blake Snell, with Lance McCullers Jr. -- who missed all last year following Tommy John surgery -- going in Game 2. Greinke might not get the ball until Game 3 for the Astros, and Jose Urquidy will get a start, too. It’s not last year’s rotation that featured the top two finishers in AL Cy Young Award voting, but it’s good enough to compete, especially if Houston swings the bats like it did in the AL Division Series.
“We need to make sure we prioritize flexibility and being reactive to the game decisions,” Astros general manager James Click said. “I think we have done a very good job over the past six games of being aggressive about putting our best pitchers in the biggest spots and making sure we line up the leverage of the situation with the guys we want in those spots. If we continue to do that, I think we’ll have a lot of success.”
Perhaps the biggest question surrounding the Astros’ pitching staff is how they’ll use right-hander Cristian Javier. He had a solid rookie season this year as a starter, and he has been a huge asset in relief in the postseason. He threw three scoreless innings in Game 2 of the AL Wild Card Series against the Twins, one scoreless frame in Game 1 of the ALDS against the A’s and 2 1/3 innings in Game 4.
“We’re leaning towards him [as a] reliever, but I can’t tell you everything,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “They don’t need to know all our plans; we don’t know their plans.”
With Greinke and Urquidy starting in some order in Games 3 or 4, the Astros still need to find an answer for Game 5. If they want to keep Javier in the 'pen, that could mean a start for Luis Garcia. If the ALCS had its usual days off after Games 2 and 5, Houston could have used a four-man rotation and kept Javier in the relief role at which he excelled earlier in the postseason with no problem. Now the club may have to see what it can get from the 23-year-old Garcia, who showed flashes in five appearances (one start) during the regular season, with a 2.92 ERA and a 0.97 WHIP over 12 1/3 innings.
Regardless, the Astros could still use Javier in relief earlier in the series and worry about who starts Game 5 later. What’s for sure is that they will need more length from their starting pitchers than they had earlier this postseason. Valdez, who threw seven innings in Game 2 of the ALDS, is the only starter to go past the fifth inning in Houston's six playoff games so far this year.
“You hope to get it out of the starter as deep as you can,” Baker said. “That works into our plan how to use our bullpen. It depends on game to game and the score and how they’re doing against them.”
The emergence of Valdez has been an important and surprising storyline for the Astros this year. He went 5-3 with a 3.57 ERA and threw 70 2/3 innings, which was sixth-most in the AL, and struck out 9.68 batters per nine innings. Valdez has one of the best curveballs in baseball -- his spin rate for that pitch ranks sixth in the Major Leagues at 2,982 rpm (min. 100 curves thrown), and he has been able to refine his focus and concentration, thanks to the work he did in the offseason with a psychologist.
“It’s interesting talking to people about how much progress he’s made, how much he’s matured as a person and over the course of the season,” Click said. “I didn’t have the same history with him as a lot of people do. That’s both good and bad. I don’t look at him as, ‘He was a different pitcher than he was last year.’ I look at him as the pitcher he is right now, and hopefully, he can maintain this going forward. And if he can, he has the potential to be an anchor of the staff going forward.”
No one could have envisioned a year ago that Valdez would get the ball to start Game 1 of the ALCS. And fewer would have believed the Astros would hand him the ball with confidence.
“I feel really proud and really thankful for the opportunity this year,” Valdez said. “It means a lot to me for the manager to show that much confidence in me. I’ve demonstrated they can have that confidence in me with the effort I put forth this season. I’m super thankful for the moment and super happy to be here.”