Astros’ Hunter Brown enters playoff rotation conversation in Houston’s no-hit bid

HOUSTON — Hunter Brown’s bid for history never felt feasible. Allowing him to attempt it anyway seemed unwise, so the Houston Astros seized the chance to accentuate a positive. Brown began Wednesday’s start against the Oakland Athletics with a 6.08 ERA across his past 10 appearances.

Three of Brown’s past five starts ended before he could finish the fifth inning. He required 10 pitches to complete it Wednesday at Minute Maid Park. The 25-year-old right-hander sauntered to the first-base dugout with a no-hitter intact. Only 24 rookies have thrown one in the modern era.

Brown’s stuff suggested he could join them. Life and ride returned to a four-seam fastball that Brown had struggled to command. He wielded one of his best curveballs this season, vital against an A’s lineup littered with left-handed hitters atop it. Brown yielded two balls struck harder than 95 mph and needed no defensive gems to preserve his no-hit pursuit.

At 78 pitches, finishing it felt almost impossible. Houston’s foremost goal became ensuring he cherished that feeling.

“That’s the first real positive that he’s had in a few starts,” manager Dusty Baker said. “He probably only had one more inning, but we wanted to send him out on a high note.”

Four relievers took the bid Brown began into the ninth inning. Oakland first baseman Ryan Noda rolled a one-out single against Astros closer Ryan Pressly to end it, leaving Houston two outs shy of its second no-hitter this season.

The team settled for maintaining a one-game lead in the American League West with a 6-2 win Houston had to have after the Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers won. Each of the Astros’ next 15 games will arrive with similar stakes.

Brown met and exceeded them Wednesday, inviting wonder whether he could challenge for a spot in Houston’s postseason rotation, where uncertainty looms behind Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez. The next three weeks may morph into auditions. Wednesday, Brown aced his first.

“I think in the big leagues every outing is as important, but obviously coming down the stretch, we really wanted to win and needed to win tonight and that’s what we did,” Brown said.

Brown’s rookie season is better than many of his numbers may indicate. According to FanGraphs, only the New York Mets’ Kodai Senga and Cleveland Guardians’ Tanner Bibee entered Wednesday worth more wins above replacement among rookie pitchers. Both of them boast sub-3.10 ERAs.

Wednesday, Brown lowered his to 4.61. Pair it with a 4.00 FIP and .343 batting average on balls in play — the second-highest among pitchers with at least 100 innings — and blaming bad luck for Brown’s inflated numbers is logical. Pitch inefficiency, too many foul balls and bouts of bad command are problems Brown himself can control.

Thirty-two of Brown’s first 40 pitches Wednesday were strikes. He struck out five of the first nine A’s he faced, harnessing some of his best fastball command all season while sprinkling in some chase curveballs against Oakland’s left-handed-heavy lineup. Of the nine swings Oakland took against Brown’s two breaking balls, five were whiffs.

“My curveball was probably better than it’s been in a month or so,” Brown said. “I felt the line out of hand was a lot better, and then pair that with the fastball that I thought had a little bit more ride today, that was definitely a difference maker for me.”

Brown struck out seven, walked two and, during the fifth, hit Jordan Diaz in the helmet with a 94.8 mph fastball. The scary incident seemed to rattle Houston’s rookie right-hander, who required a visit from pitching coach Josh Miller to settle down while trainers tended to Diaz.

Diaz remained in the game after a brief discussion with Oakland’s medical staff. Brown appeared to apologize as Diaz walked down the first-base line. Kevin Smith skied Brown’s next offering to Kyle Tucker in right field, finishing the inning and — as it turned out — Brown’s outing.

Brown has now thrown 146 1/3 innings this season. He never threw more than 130 during any before it. An opposing scout who watched Brown recently remarked how fatigued he looked and wondered whether skipping his turn in the rotation would be beneficial.

Baker said afterward the team did not enter Wednesday’s game intending to monitor Brown’s workload. A 28-pitch fourth inning torpedoed any chance he may have had to finish the no-hitter himself. Most of Houston’s high-leverage relievers had not pitched since Saturday, creating a circumstance the Astros chose to exploit. Giving Brown a breather became a byproduct.

Brown’s seven strikeouts moved him past teammate Luis Garcia for the second-most by a rookie in franchise history. Tom Griffin struck out 200 batters in 1969.

Brown has 169 this season with at least three more starts to make. If they are anything like Wednesday’s, he could cement a spot in Houston’s postseason rotation. Fellow rookie J.P. France has channeled far more consistency — and is perhaps the favorite to start a third playoff game — but Brown’s pure stuff is more tantalizing.

“The key for him is he was calm every single pitch,” catcher Yainer Diaz said through an interpreter. “We had a lot of success with his fastball, so we continued to use it. Whenever we fell behind in the count, that was the pitch we used to get back in it and fastballs were consistent. He was executing it and the curveball was really good.

“His fastball is always really good, but today the curveball was also really good. He was able to command it, throw it down and he even told me he felt really good about that pitch.”

Perspective is paramount. Brown bullied baseball’s worst lineup — and did so for the fourth time this season. He awoke Wednesday with a 0.95 WHIP and 2.37 ERA across 15 previous innings against an A’s team that boasted baseball’s lowest batting average, slugging percentage and OPS.

That Brown handled Oakland’s lineup a fourth time isn’t a surprise, but these are the same hitters who whacked around Valdez and Verlander during the first two games of this series and put Houston on the precipice of an embarrassing sweep.

Brown’s next scheduled start against the American League-leading Baltimore Orioles may provide a far better indicator of where he resides. He’s undergone a series of mechanical adjustments across the past month, including a total overhaul and tone-down of his delivery. Brown credited veterans Pressly, Verlander and Kendall Graveman for supplying some advice and subtle tweaks.

“It was good to see results, but you don’t want to get attached to those,” Brown said. “I think I’ve had some times where I’m throwing the ball well, my mechanics are good and the results aren’t there. It feels good to feel good in those mechanics and see some of the stuff we were expecting to happen tonight.”

(Photo of Hunter Brown pitching in the first inning Wednesday against Oakland: Carmen Mandato / Getty Images)

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