Have yourself a birthday, José Urquidy.
Urquidy celebrated his 26th trip around the sun with one of the best outings of his career in the Astros’ 3-1 win over the Rays on Saturday at Tropicana Field, tossing seven shutout innings with five strikeouts and one walk. For the right-hander, who had mixed results in April, the dominant start is an encouraging sign.
“Couldn’t have pitched any better on your birthday,” said manager Dusty Baker.
Urquidy’s first month of the season wasn’t bad, per se, but merely OK. The right-hander finished April with a 4.57 ERA, but he was the only member of the starting rotation who hadn’t truly clicked. So to start his new birth year off right, Urquidy tweaked his plan of attack.
The most noticeable difference in Urquidy’s game was his pace. Urquidy worked fast -- for the Rays hitters, Urquidy’s tempo was uncomfortably quick. Once Urquidy received the ball from catcher Martín Maldonado, he was ready to go. Baker said pitching coach Brent Strom challenged Urquidy to work faster, and the move paid dividends.
Urquidy’s pace seemed to have a tangible effect on Houston’s defense as well. Right fielder Kyle Tucker made a nice running play to take away an extra-base hit away from Brandon Lowe, while shortstop Carlos Correa rifled some throws across the diamond. Urquidy’s pace kept the defense on its toes, and the defense rewarded their starter accordingly.
The result was a relatively stress-free outing, save for the sixth inning. The Rays put runners at the corners with two outs for Randy Arozarena, who tormented the Astros in last year’s ALCS. Urquidy handled the budding star without much drama, inducing a groundout to end the threat.
“The hitters don’t have time to think about what’s coming, and that’s good for me,” Urquidy said.
Another wrinkle in Urquidy’s start was the emphasis on his changeup. Urquidy has gone to the changeup sparingly this season, throwing it only 74 times -- about 15 percent of all pitches thrown. Against the Rays, Urquidy went to the pitch early and often.
Urquidy threw 31 changeups to Tampa Bay’s hitters, by far the most in a single outing this season. The pitch worked wonders, generating 11 called strikes plus whiffs. With an already potent fastball and breaking ball combination, the addition of a consistent changeup could add another layer to Urquidy’s repertoire.
“Before this outing, I was trying to throw a changeup just to practice for the feeling -- figure out my release point,” Urquidy said. “I think that worked.”
Urquidy’s strong start was needed on an afternoon where Houston’s offense fell silent after a loud start.
Houston jumped on Josh Fleming in the first inning, scoring three runs and sending eight batters to the plate. Fleming appeared destined for a quick exit, especially with shaky command. Yet, Fleming found his rhythm and turned in six quality innings. As the innings wore on, Urquidy’s dominance became less of a luxury and more of a necessity.
“There are a number of ways to win games, and good teams win games a number of ways,” Baker said.
Urquidy finding his rhythm should be cause for concern for the rest of the AL West. In its last 10 starts, Houston’s starting rotation has yielded just 11 earned runs in 54 1/3 innings (1.83 ERA). Urquidy’s great performance comes on the heels of Lance McCullers Jr.’s seven shutout innings against the Rays on Friday. That’s not insignificant for a staff that had many unknowns coming into the season.
“You like to have your starting pitching put pressure on each other,” said Baker. “One guy has a great start. The next guy snowballs, and it puts the pressure on. Nobody wants to be the weak link in the rotation. One guy builds off another one, and that’s what they’re doing.”