MINNEAPOLIS — Before it morphed into Minnesota’s largest mausoleum, Target Field rose as one to rattle El Reptil. Twins stood at second and third base, the tying run readied on deck and time ticked down on the pitch clock. A red-clad chorus counted the seconds in unison, clinging to hope Cristian Javier could crumble.
No shouts, sluggers or raised stakes seem capable. Javier’s career is a case study in seeming unflappable. When the calendar flips to October, he becomes unhittable. Few 26-year-old pitchers are as playoff-tested. Fewer have conquered the chaotic environments in which he continues to excel.
“The only way you can rattle him is if you punch him, probably,” catcher Martín Maldonado said. “I spend time with him off the field and that’s him. Same thing you guys see on the mound is what you see on a daily basis. Strike out somebody, doesn’t get amped. Guy hits a homer, doesn’t get amped … That’s why we call him El Reptil.”
The sobriquet is serpentine. Snakes are stalkers who move methodically toward their prey. Javier is always around, even if few notice. Teammates encourage him to talk or participate in conversations, but “he’s that guy that’s always in the group just laughing in the background,” shortstop Jeremy Peña says.
Everything Javier does is slow, from his postgame routines to delivering pitches. No Houston hurler has slower times to the plate, meaning none is more in danger of committing a pitch clock violation. Javier’s attention can sometimes waver as a result.
On Monday, Houston gave him a four-run lead before he threw a pitch. Jorge Polanco worked a walk, Max Kepler doubled off the wall and, within five minutes, the tying run walked on deck. Twenty seconds feel faster for Javier. Time ticked. The crowd chanted.
“I did notice it. So what I did? I used it in my favor,” Javier said through an interpreter. “At that point, I stopped paying attention to the clock because they were counting. I was just paying attention to our catcher.”
Royce Lewis and Carlos Correa saw seven pitches. Minnesota’s two most menacing hitters swung through five of them. Consecutive strikeouts stopped the stadium-wide countdown. Javier sauntered off the mound without so much as a fist pump.
“He’s ice cold,” Peña said with a smile.
Five more scoreless innings during Monday’s 9-1 win extended Javier’s postseason scoreless streak to 16 ⅓ innings. His past three playoff starts have occurred at Yankee Stadium, Citizens Bank Park and, on Monday, Target Field. The Yankees and Twins totaled two hits against him. Between both outings, Javier started the second no-hitter in World Series history, silencing a pugnacious Philadelphia crowd across six innings and changing the entire series’ tenor.
“It’s incredible,” slugger Yordan Alvarez said through an interpreter. “Nobody’s surprised about what he does in the playoffs. I know in the regular season he was a little up and down, but now he is the real Cristian Javier.”
The search for him has spanned the entire second half. Javier had a 4.84 ERA in 14 post-All-Star break starts. His four-seam fastball lost some of its vertical break and, as a result, some of its deception. His velocity dipped, command wavered and the pitcher who signed a $66 million extension last winter was nowhere to be found.
Javier’s regression further clouded an already fragile Houston rotation. His resurgence could take this club back to the World Series. No player is more vital to this team’s postseason future. Alvarez is already authoring the type of postseason few players can fathom. He struck two doubles and another home run on Monday, increasing his OPS to 2.205 across the series’ first three games. José Abreu, Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker broke out of mini-malaises with run-scoring hits. Houston’s bullpen is the most reliable group remaining in the American League playoffs.
Pairing Javier’s premier form with Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez atop the rotation would solidify their status as the American League favorite. Javier’s performance on Monday put Houston in position to clinch its seventh consecutive trip to the American League Championship Series on Wednesday. Javier muzzled the Twins’ strikeout-prone lineup with a slew of sliders it could not stop swinging through.
Javier generated swings on 16 of the 32 sliders he threw. Thirteen of them were whiffs, a season-high on his second-best pitch. Javier had not thrown 30 sliders in a start since Aug. 21.
“He threw it for strikes a bunch, so they had to respect it, then he got some swings and chases out of the zone on it,” pitching coach Josh Miller said. “The movement was good, but I would say normal for him. Commanding his stuff in the zone makes all of his stuff play up better.”
Javier threw his four-seam fastball 58.4 percent of the time during the regular season. Fifty-three percent of his pitches on Tuesday were fastballs, but an ability to land sliders early in counts allowed him to either finish Minnesota’s hitters with the four-seamer or be less predictable.
“He didn’t stick to any patterns, and it was very unpredictable,” Correa said. “His fastball, it’s the type of fastball that you either cheat to get to it, or you don’t. And if you don’t cheat and you get it, you will foul it off. And if you cheat, and you get an off-speed, you’re gonna chase. So we weren’t able to guess right many times.
Seven of the swings and misses against Javier’s slider arrived across the first two innings, when sunlight covered the mound and shade surrounded home plate. Diagnosing spin during midday games here is almost impossible. Pitchers with elite breaking balls often bully opponents as a result.
Few know the dilemma more than the Astros. Sonny Gray struck them out 13 times here on the afternoon of April 7, spinning one of the sport’s best breaking pitches while the shadows wreaked havoc.
Gray threw 576 sweepers across his 32 regular-season starts. Baseball Savant assigned it a run value of 19. Just eight pitches in the sport had a higher one. Opponents batted .097 and slugged .118 against Gray’s sweeper in the regular season. Of the 15 hits struck against the pitch, just four fell for extra bases.
Until Monday, none left the ballpark. Abreu annihilated a hanger 442 feet into the second deck during the first inning, giving Javier the four-run cushion he protected. Alex Bregman started the fifth with a solo shot against another subpar sweeper. Gray had not allowed multiple home runs in a start since Sept. 24, 2021.
“We knew he was going to be tough,” Bregman said. “He’s one of the best pitchers in baseball and doesn’t give up a ton of damage. We just wanted to grind out some at-bats and we were fortunate enough to put some good swings on the ball.”
Bregman’s bomb gave Javier a five-run lead. He returned for the home half at just 58 pitches — and then fell back into a season-long problem. Walks to Willi Castro, Eduoard Julien and Polanco loaded the bases. Phil Maton began to warm in the bullpen as inefficiency threatened to doom him, as it has for too much of this season. For as marvelous as Tuesday felt, frustrating glimpses still appeared. Javier walked five batters and hit another.
“There was some inconsistencies today, some command issues popped up in spots,” Miller said. “When he tries to do too much, it takes him out of his delivery and affects his command a little bit. If he stays within himself and trusts his stuff in the zone, it plays really good and that’s what we preach to him.”
Miller made a mound visit before Kepler and Lewis arrived for their bases-loaded at-bats. The crowd rose again, trying to will this teetering team toward something resembling a rally.
As he did during the first, Javier countered with seven pitches. Two strikeouts stranded the bases loaded. Silence befell the ballpark.
“That guy, the big moment is not too big for him,” Maldonado said. “His heartbeat doesn’t go up. He executes pitches and he won this game. He won this game.”
(Top photo of Javier: Adam Bettcher / Getty Images)