Maldy the stabilizing force behind Astros' success

July 3rd, 2022

HOUSTON -- Let’s all take a moment and stop and appreciate the work of veteran Astros catcher Martín Maldonado. Everyone knows how invaluable Maldonado has been behind the plate and in the clubhouse this year for the Astros, but his struggles on offense have made him an easy target for critics, as well.

The consummate professional, Maldonado has brushed off the naysayers, though no one has been more frustrated than him at times. In case you haven’t noticed, Maldonado has picked it up at the plate recently and enjoyed his best game of the season in Saturday’s 9-1 win over the Angels at Minute Maid Park.

Maldonado went 2-for-3 with two tape-measure home runs while guiding another Astros starting pitcher through a stellar outing. Right-hander José Urquidy gave up one run on a solo homer and struck out eight batters in six innings to send Houston to its 50th win of the season. The Astros have won 16 of their last 20 games.

“He’s been hitting the ball good for the last couple of weeks, almost a month,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “He didn’t miss a couple of pitches. He was on them and he squared them up, and when you square them up, good things can happen. That was a very good day for Maldy and a good day for our offense.”

Maldonado was hitting .078 on May 10, but he is hitting .196 with five homers and 13 RBIs in 34 games since. Not eye-popping numbers by any means, but a marked improvement over the first six weeks.

“I get frustrated, yes,” he said. “I want to be out there and have every day be a game like today, but overall, I know the reason why they got me here. They didn’t sign me to an extension to hit in the two-hole in the lineup. I’m doing what I’m supposed to do and taking care of my pitchers, and that’s my No. 1 priority.”

Astros starting pitchers have a 1.51 ERA with 33 hits, 22 walks and 80 strikeouts in 77 1/3 innings in the team’s last 12 games. Maldonado has started eight of those games; Jason Castro has started four. 

“Overall, I feel like Dusty and [pitching coach] Josh [Miller] have done a pretty good job of putting people in a position to succeed, and that’s the reason why everybody so far is having a good year,” Maldonado said.

Maldonado hit a 407-foot homer off Angels starter Patrick Sandoval -- whom the Astros traded to the Angels in exchange for Maldonado in 2018 -- that went onto the train tracks above left field. He tagged reliever Andrew Wantz for a 429-foot homer to center fielder in the sixth. Jose Altuve followed him in the sixth with a homer -- two of five homers the Astros hit Saturday.

“I’m happy for him,” Altuve said. “Even though he’s doing a tremendous job behind the plate, calling good pitches and making his guys win a lot of games, he obviously wants to swing the bat, too. A day like today is good for him and he can create some momentum for him to keep going.”

Just as some were clamoring for the Astros to trade for a catcher by next month's Trade Deadline, Maldonado -- whom the Astros acquired via trade in the Deadline in 2018 and again in ‘19 -- has reminded everyone the club is in good hands behind the plate. In the last month alone, he became the first player in history to catch two immaculate innings in one game and the first catcher in history to catch two combined no-hitters.

One of the big reasons the Astros’ pitching staff is ranked first in the Majors in ERA (2.90), tied for first in opponents’ batting average (.211) and third in WHIP (1.10) is the work Maldonado has put in to prepare the game plan. When the pitchers get to the park on any given afternoon, they have no doubt what they have to do to be successful.

The truth is, adding a catcher at the Deadline and cutting into Maldonado’s playing time would do more harm than good when it comes to club chemistry. The pitching staff respects and admires Maldonado, who’s ostensibly a manager of the field. Earlier this week in New York, he gathered the entire pitching staff in the outfield for a strategy talk. When Maldonado talks, you listen. 

The Astros don’t need Maldonado to be an offensive force in their lineup, though the occasional homer is welcomed. 

“Do I get excited when I get a day like this?” Maldonado said. “Yes, but for me, it’s even better when I go 0-for-4 with a win than 4-for-4 with a loss. I take more pride in my defense than anything else.”