HOUSTON -- In a rotation that includes American League Cy Young Award candidates Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole and steady lefty Wade Miley, it was rookie Jose Urquidy who delivered one of the Astros’ most important starts of the season Saturday night.
Urquidy, called up from Triple-A Round Rock to try to fill a hole at the bottom of Houston’s unstable rotation, struck out nine batters in seven innings and retired 21 of the 23 hitters he faced to lead the Astros to their fourth consecutive win, 6-1, over the Rangers at Minute Maid Park.
“First and foremost, for a young pitcher to come up and do that, I feel so great for him,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “Just an incredible, incredible performance. From the team perspective, we absolutely needed it.”
Here are three observations from the Astros’ Lone Star Series-clinching win over the Rangers:
Urquidy gets creative
In their first nine games after the All-Star break, the Astros were 5-1 in games started by Verlander, Cole or Miley and 0-3 in games started by anyone else. That included a woeful start by Framber Valdez to start the second half and a pair of losses at the Angels earlier this week when the Astros used an opener.
Because of injuries to Brad Peacock and top pitching prospects Forrest Whitley and Corbin Martin and some rough starts by Valdez, the Astros were scrambling for starting pitching. Enter Urquidy, the 24-year-old rookie who allowed seven runs in six innings in his first two big league starts earlier this month.
“I felt great,” he said after his first Major League win. “Just thinking about when I heard the news yesterday, I knew I had to focus on this start. And I was really happy I was able to execute on what I envisioned.”
Urquidy showed great poise, composure, stuff and execution. He got creative by relying on his changeup more than previously and retired the first nine batters he faced before Shin-Soo Choo hit a solo homer to center. He sent down the next 11 before Hunter Pence beat out an infield hit with two outs in the seventh, which was the first time he pitched out of the stretch.
“There’s a creative side he showcased today on why the organization has been high on him,” Hinch said. “They’re not going to sour on him after a couple of bad outings, but it was nice to see him pitch the way we were told he pitches.”
Adjustments keep Gurriel hot
After grounding out and striking out in his first two at-bats, Gurriel uncorked on the first pitch he saw in the fifth from Rangers starter Ariel Jurado and slugged a game-changing, three-run homer. Gurriel has 13 homers and 28 RBIs in his last 21 games and has homered in five consecutive games at Minute Maid Park.
Earlier this month, Gurriel -- whose 60 RBIs are second on the club behind Alex Bregman (62) -- credited former teammate Carlos Beltran for telling him to open up his stance more and keep both eyes on the ball. That may have helped, but it’s not that simple, Hinch said.
“He’s not as rotated on his setup as he’s been in the past,” he said. “His approach has changed. He’s not just hitting off the fastball. He’s been able to hunt a few off-speed pitches, and he’s getting the ball in the air a little bit more.
“When he first got here, he smothered the ball on the ground quite a bit and was one of the lower-trajectory guys off the bat, which is a little bit of a conscious decision but a little bit of pitch selection and what you’re trying to hit.
“You can’t just hit the ball in the air and expect home runs. You have to do a lot of things mechanically to be correct. He’s a quick learner. Give credit to [hitting coaches] Alex Cintron and Troy Snitker for unlocking a few of keys that have allowed to open us his power.”
Kemp, Straw show stuff
Because they’re carrying 13 pitchers, they will remove a pitcher from the 25-man when Diaz returns in the next couple of days, but to make room for Correa on Friday, it likely means a choice between Myles Straw and Kemp.
Both started and played well Saturday. Kemp hit a solo homer in the sixth inning, and Straw went 2-for-4 with a double, a stolen base and a run scored. Straw’s speed and newfound ability to play shortstop -- in addition to outfield -- will help his case, but Kemp can play outfield and infield, too, and is out of options, which will weigh heavily into the decision.
“These guys are real pros,” Hinch said. “This is an incredible culture. We have a good team. We support each other. We know that things are going to change at some point. There’s all this talk of trades and guys coming back healthy. It has nothing to do with tomorrow’s game. We’ll try to come out and sweep the Rangers.”