ARLINGTON, Texas — No American League hitter handles four-seam fastballs worse than Martín Maldonado, a constant source of scorn for one of baseball’s most spoiled fan bases. He is faulted for whatever ails the Houston Astros, even when most of it is out of a catcher’s control.
Maldonado does not hide from his deficiencies. His defensive metrics are dwindling. He permitted nine passed balls last season and 12 more during this one, more than any other catcher in the sport. Maldonado’s career is a 13-season case study in inept offense. Most of his employers have not cared, perhaps none more than his current one.
“I think you can ask every pitcher on this staff and they understand what my value is,” Maldonado said.
Belief can be a baseball player’s best motivator. The Astros trust their catcher despite all available metrics that suggest they shouldn’t, even when he arrives with two outs, the bases loaded and a future Hall of Famer on the ropes.
Wednesday night, Max Scherzer fired a first-pitch four-seam fastball to Maldonado. It caught the inside corner and put him behind 0-1. Maldonado slashed .162/.213/.293 in 213 regular-season plate appearances after falling behind 0-1. His negative-17 run value against four-seam fastballs trailed only the Milwaukee Brewers’ Brice Turang for baseball’s worst mark.
Scherzer spiked a slider to even the count. Catcher Jonah Heim could not block it, allowing Yordan Alvarez to scamper home, score the game’s first run and minimize Scherzer’s margin for error. Jose Altuve stood on deck and a game already stood in the balance. Beating one of baseball’s worst hitters would stabilize it.
“I didn’t know he was going to challenge me. Scherzer is a veteran pitcher that throws any pitch in any count. Because he bounces a slider, that doesn’t mean he’s going to come back with another slider,” Maldonado said. “I just wanted to see something up and put a good swing on it.”
Scherzer threw the sport’s worst fastball hitter a 93.9 mph four-seamer. Maldonado pulled the elevated pitch 101.1 mph down the line. Texas Rangers third baseman Josh Jung could not pick it. Two more runs scored. Those in Houston’s dugout exhaled when they did.
“Everyone can breathe a little bit easier when you can jump out on Max Scherzer,” closer Ryan Pressly said.
The Astros had one hit with a runner in scoring position during the series’ first two games. Maldonado’s single gave them two in the second inning of Wednesday’s game.
Houston struck more, finished 5-for-12 and — for the first time in this American League Championship Series — resembled what this team is billed to be. The Astros’ 8-4 win made this a series again and stopped Texas’ seven-game postseason winning streak.
Team win. pic.twitter.com/sSDKrbfklU
— Houston Astros (@astros) October 19, 2023
Seven of Houston’s nine starters had hits. Alvarez continued his October coronation with two more hits and, if not for the catch of Leody Taveras’ life, would have added his seventh home run of this stupendous postseason run. Altuve struck a solo home run to spoil his hitless start to the ALCS. Kyle Tucker took four productive plate appearances before bludgeoning a double in the ninth inning, breaking his 2-for-23 funk this October.
“I thought we did a heck of a lot better job passing the torch to the next guy,” said third baseman Alex Bregman, one of the two starters without a hit.
The Astros aren’t winning this series without those superstars performing as such. Wednesday demonstrated their clearest path to something greater. Defending their World Series championship will require contributions from an entire club, be it the catcher who can’t hit, the center fielder who isn’t sure if he’s the starter or the stoic outfielder with a surgically repaired shoulder that he finally got to heal.
“A lot of guys had some huge at-bats tonight for us,” Michael Brantley said. “We kept pressure on them all night, got some big hits, got some crooked numbers on the board, and we responded in every inning.”
During the best regular season of his life, Mauricio Dubón played 132 games. Only eight of them featured more than one ball struck 102 mph or harder. Dubón gained weight this winter in hopes of increasing his exit velocities. He finished the year averaging 87 mph, somewhere in the 14th percentile of major-league hitters.
Dubón plays with nothing promised. Earlier this season, he blossomed into one of the sport’s best defensive second basemen and became the first Astro with a 20-game hitting streak since Hunter Pence in 2011. Altuve returned from his fractured thumb and relegated him to the bench. Chas McCormick’s emergence made Dubón expendable in center field, too.
Wednesday morning, Dubón was named a Gold Glove finalist at two positions: second base and utility. That evening, manager Dusty Baker asked him to play center field in a must-win game. Dubón had not started since Game 1, when he struck two balls 101.8 mph or harder. Both were outs.
Wednesday, he struck two more for singles off Scherzer. The last one afforded Houston a five-run cushion and prompted wonder whether Dubón has cemented his spot in the lineup for however long Houston’s postseason run lasts.
“I was telling somebody today that, yeah, I got smarter, I got a little stronger. But my ability hasn’t changed,” Dubón said before the game. “For me, it was a matter of getting a chance. And the Astros gave me a chance to get out there and show people what I can do.”
Of the 12 balls Houston put in play against Scherzer, seven were struck 100 mph or harder. Scherzer had not pitched since Sept. 12. He secured 10 outs against an offense that appreciates hitting anywhere but Minute Maid Park.
Houston has now won six consecutive games at Globe Life Field, outscoring the Rangers 61-33. The Astros have won 15 of their past 18 road games.
“We know how well we play in this stadium,” Maldonado said.
Scherzer wielded fine velocity but made far too many fatal mistakes against a lineup capable of crushing them. His slider did not have its usual bite. The Astros averaged a 97.3 mph exit velocity on the 12 balls they put in play.
“This guy is a future Hall of Famer,” Dubón said. “We’re going in there not doubting anybody, especially him. He’s a dog. We came in focused like he was pitching the whole year (for) a Cy Young. I think that’s what helped a lot this game.”
Brantley hasn’t averaged a 26-feet-per-second sprint speed in any regular season since 2020, one he played at age 33. Now, at 36, he has a suspect, surgically repaired right shoulder and swirling questions surrounding his availability. Baker has often mentioned him in the same breath as Kawhi Leonard, another oft-injured star who seems to heal just in time to be heroic.
Brantley has grown tired of discussing his durability. This month, he has thrice declared himself 100 percent available to play. Baker has started him in five of Houston’s first seven games as a result.
Wednesday, the manager asked him to orchestrate a lineup overhaul. Dropping Tucker to sixth in the batting order meant Brantley would bat second, the same spot he stayed throughout the 2021 postseason.
Brantley finished hitless in five at-bats. Still, he found a way to save the game. A runner stood in scoring position with two outs in the sixth inning when Adolis García struck a 372-foot fly ball. Brantley and Dubón converged upon it. Allowing it to fall would bring the tying run to home plate.
“I was just trying to take the proper angle. I kind of put my foot down, tried to get to a spot, picked the ball back up,” Brantley said. “Kind of undercut it a little bit.”
Because he did, Brantley tumbled to the turf and caught the baseball on the way down. He covered 86 feet and traveled 27.8 feet per second to secure the frame’s third out.
“I’m not that fast anymore,” Brantley said with a grin, “but I’m just glad to make the play.”
“In this clubhouse, if you ask, everyone loves Michael,” Maldonado said. “I think he’s one of the best teammates we’ve ever had in this locker room. He works hard, really hard, to be in this position and be here for us. I don’t think there’s a guy that wants to be here with us as much as Michael.”
Ten minutes after Brantley’s acrobatic catch, Maldonado made his way into the batter’s box. Houston held a three-run lead with no one aboard. Rangers reliever Chris Stratton fired him two four-seam fastballs. Maldonado lined the second into center field for a single. Houston’s lineup turned over as a result. Altuve and Alvarez struck singles. Between them, Bregman worked a walk.
“I believe in what I can do. I’ve been in many playoffs; you just have to get a good pitch and do the job,” Maldonado said. “I put a lot of hard work in on it. Dusty has a lot of faith and belief in me.”
(Top photo of Martin Maldonado hitting an RBI single during the second inning Wednesday night: Kevin Jairaj / USA Today)