HOUSTON — Before a game the Astros had to win against a team they hope to see again, Martín Maldonado summoned his starting pitcher for their morning meeting. Seven losses in the past 10 games prompted concern in a clubhouse not conditioned for a divisional dogfight. Yordan Alvarez’s absence from Wednesday’s starting lineup sounded alarm everywhere but inside the battery’s meeting room.
Cristian Javier arrived there without any worry. Teammates and coaches call him El Reptil for his measured personality and slow-moving style, similar to a snake slithering toward its prey. If the 26-year-old feels any pressure, the public can’t see it. At one point on Wednesday, the emotionless right-hander reassured his catcher.
“He told me ‘don’t panic,’” Maldonado said. “He had been struggling lately. I guess, as a catcher, you always want the best for your pitcher and, overall, I think he was telling me ‘I’m going to be who I am.’”
And then he was. The version of Javier Houston has longed to find reappeared with the American League West lead dangling in the balance. He struck out a season-high 11 batters across five innings, bullying a Baltimore Orioles squad that scored 17 runs in the series’ first two games and put Houston on the precipice of falling out of a playoff spot.
Instead, the Astros will spend Thursday’s off day still ½ game ahead of both the Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers atop the American League West. Mauricio Dubón’s walk-off single gave the Astros a 2-1 win while preserving the work of Javier and four relievers.
Pitching performances like Wednesday’s propelled Houston to the 2022 World Series. This September, the staff has threatened to precipitate a collapse. Hand-wringing about sitting Alvarez on Wednesday or some of manager Dusty Baker’s other decisions feels, in part, like misplaced ire. The Astros are averaging six runs and 9.9 hits in the 51 games since both Alvarez and Jose Altuve returned from the injured list. Their 4.56 ERA across that same timeframe is 20th in the sport.
The Astros have enough offensive firepower to compete with anyone but are going nowhere if they continue to pitch this poorly — a fact Baker all but acknowledged after Tuesday’s 9-5 loss. His staff awoke on Wednesday with a 4.86 ERA since the All-Star break and a 4.83 ERA in September, a month that’s already featured six games against two of the sport’s sorriest offenses: the Kansas City Royals and Oakland A’s.
“If you look at last year, maybe we ran a little good. I don’t know. I think we’ve run bad this year as a whole,” pitching coach Josh Miller said on Wednesday. “I think largely our stuff has been good, consistent. Our work ethic has been good, we just haven’t been as fortunate as we were. Maybe we haven’t executed quite as well as we did last year, but there’s some variance in baseball and you saw the bad side of it, especially recently.”
Stabilizing things fell to someone who hasn’t met expectations, the man who signed a $64 million contract extension this winter and has withered ever since. Javier brought a 4.74 ERA to the ballpark on Wednesday, including a 6.99 mark across his past 14 starts. His enigmatic season has deprived the Astros of dependability and experience this pitching staff desperately needed after season-ending injuries to Lance McCullers Jr. and Luis Garcia.
“Front of the rotation arm,” Miller called Javier on Wednesday. “We saw it last year and that’s why we locked him up to an extension. He’s a dominant force, if we can harness that and get it there consistently.”
If Wednesday began that process, so many of Javier’s second-half shortcomings will be forgotten. He struck out six of the first nine Orioles he saw and elicited 11 whiffs during his first trip through the order. Eight arrived against his trademark four-seam fastball, the invisiball that’s been ineffective for so much of the second half.
“I thought (the fastball) was really good for me, really great. I compare it to how it was last year,” Javier said through an interpreter. “I thought I was able to get a lot of really good reps and I thought that’s why I was able to get a lot of swings and misses with it.”
Javier’s 11 strikeouts were his most in a start since May 10. He generated 20 swings and misses for just the third time this season, flashing the form Houston sorely needs to see as September ends.
Javier threw 68 percent of his pitches for strikes and surrendered just three hits. He landed nine of his 23 sliders for called strikes. Seven others generated swings.
“He was throwing the offspeed for a strike. It didn’t have to be early or late (in the count),” Maldonado said. “When you have a guy with a fastball like that (and) he’s throwing you offspeed for a strike, I think that’s when later in the game, they were caught in between.”
For the first time since July 22, a span of nine starts, Javier did not allow a home run. Astros pitchers entered Wednesday allowing 1.91 home runs per nine innings in September. No American League pitching staff has allowed more. Only the Washington Nationals entered Wednesday with more total home runs surrendered since the All-Star break.
“That’s the best that Javier has looked this year,” Baker said.
Two starts remain to decide whether Wednesday was another chapter in an inconsistent season or an actual inflection point. Nothing could increase Houston’s World Series odds more than Javier rediscovering his prior form, especially for a team still searching for a third playoff starter behind Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez.
Both of the other candidates, J.P. France and Hunter Brown, have thrown more innings than any season in their professional careers.
Though neither rookie has complained of fatigue, their workloads cannot be ignored. France has a 6.69 ERA across his past seven starts. Brown’s is 8.20 during his past six. That Houston altered its starting rotation for neither of them to pitch in next week’s monumental three-game series against the Mariners is evidence enough of the club’s skepticism.
Javier is not without concerns. He needed his turn skipped in the rotation earlier this season with arm fatigue. Some of his most inefficient outings invite wonder if it is still a factor. Wednesday allayed it.
“It just looked better,” Miller said. “It all lined up. He’s made strides, a couple steps forward and a step or two back during his last eight or ten starts — but there’s been glimpses of it. Today, he put it together.”
“That’s the guy we’ve been looking for.”
The question now: will that guy stay?
(Photo: Bob Levey / Getty Images)