ARLINGTON – In the lobby of the Houston Astros’ team hotel Tuesday, catcher Martín Maldonado told right-hander Cristian Javier he would have a surprise for him in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series.
Pitching coach Josh Miller rapping the scouting report? Bad Bunny becoming the voice on PitchCom? No, but Maldonado’s surprise was almost as fun: A pair of orange cleats that were custom-made by an acquaintance in Puerto Rico, cleats painted like reptile skin in honor of the pitcher nicknamed “El Reptil.”
El Reptil 🦎
Martín Maldonado had his cleats painted like reptile skin in honor of Cristian Javier starting tonight 🔥 pic.twitter.com/p4unYe702P
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 19, 2023
Javier liked the cleats, proclaiming them bonito — pretty — after his latest postseason domination on Wednesday night. The Astros, after their 8-5 victory over the Texas Rangers, still trail the ALCS, two games to one. But their chances are starting to look prettier, too.
Not to get ahead of ourselves, but if this series goes to a Game 7, Javier would be the Astros’ starter. The Rangers, who were no-hit by Javier for 4 2/3 innings and managed only two runs off him in 5 2/3, cannot be overly excited about the possibility.
By Javier’s standards, the two runs he allowed on Josh Jung’s fifth-inning homer actually qualified as something of an October regression. In his first three postseason starts, including the combined no-hitter he started in Game 4 of last year’s World Series, he had given up just two hits in 16 1/3 scoreless innings. Including 12 relief outings, his postseason ERA is 2.08.
Javier, 26, has what Astros closer Ryan Pressly calls “the slowest heartbeat in the world.” Hall of Famer Pedro Martínez has said Javier is the pitcher who reminds him most of himself. Maldonado spoke before Wednesday night’s game about Javier possessing a “different mentality” in October, a mentality he learned from Martinez, his fellow Dominican.
“These moments are extremely special for me,” Javier told me in his postgame interview on FS1, with Jenloy Herrera interpreting. “I always try to think back to Pedro Martinez, those big games, Red Sox-Yankees.”
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 19, 2023
What distinguishes Javier is his fastball, which hitters perceive as rising because it does not drop as much as other fastballs. Yet, for all his gravity-defying tricks, Javier struggled for an extended period during the regular season. From June 21 to Sept. 15, he had a 7.13 ERA in 14 starts.
The Astros believed Javier’s issues stemmed from his adjustment to starting regularly for the first time. At one point, they skipped his turn in the rotation, citing arm fatigue. But back in February, they signed him to a five-year, $64 million extension, projecting him as at least a No. 3 starter.
On Sept. 20, at home against the Orioles, Javier began to find himself again. Before his start, Javier told Maldonado, “Don’t panic.” That night, he matched his season-high with 11 strikeouts in five innings, and allowed just one run.
“I feel like the stretch he had for two or three months, his confidence was down a little bit. He was falling behind a lot,” Maldonado said. “From that game on, he’s been the guy we missed.”
Javier threw six shutout innings in Arizona on the final weekend as the Astros grabbed the AL West title from the Rangers. He threw five shutout innings in Minnesota in the Astros’ Division Series clincher. Pitching on the road again Wednesday night, he opened with 15 straight fastballs, a statement if there ever was one.
His first slider was an on 0-1 count to Rangers catcher Jonah Heim in the second inning. Javier bounced it, but Maldonado refused to give up on the pitch. “I kept calling it in counts that wasn’t going to hurt me, just for him to get the feel for it,” Maldonado said. “When he found it, it was game over.”
Javier wound up throwing 64 percent fastballs while also mixing in an occasional changeup and curve. The Rangers’ average exit velocity off his fastball, 89 mph, would have been even lower if not for a 109.2 mph double by the last batter Javier faced, rookie sensation Evan Carter. By contrast, the average exit velocity off Max Scherzer’s fastball Wednesday night was 98 mph.
As Tom Verducci mentioned on the FS1 broadcast, a number of Rangers tried to prepare for Javier before the game by hitting foam balls off an advanced pitching machine. The foam balls maintain their plane better than actual baseballs, enabling the Rangers to experience the kind of ride Javier gets on his unique four-seamer. Alas, their efforts proved futile.
“Tonight, he was electric. He had good stuff. And he pitched a heck of a game,” Jung said. “We took some good swings. But we were just missing. We were just clipping under it. Hopefully we don’t face him again. But if we do, we’ll just have to make adjustments to get on top of it a little bit more.”
Easier said than done, and the scary part for the Rangers is that they might indeed see Javier again. The pitching matchup in Game 4, José Urquidy vs. the Andrew Heaney/Dane Dunning combination the Rangers used in Game 1 of the Division Series, arguably favors the Astros. Then it would be Justin Verlander vs. Jordan Montgomery in Game 5 and Framber Valdez vs. Nathan Eovaldi in a potential Game 6, with Javier presumably drawing Scherzer again in a potential Game 7.
If it happens, or if the Astros win the next three games and Javier’s next start is in the World Series, Maldonado will have his reptile cleats ready. Javier said afterward he had yet to discuss the cleats with his catcher, but Maldonado wasn’t expecting much of a reaction, anyway.
“He’s a quiet guy,” Maldonado said. “He doesn’t say much.”
Pressly said Javier will occasionally crack a smile in the clubhouse. But on the field, in the most important games, he betrays no emotion. As Pressly put it, “He’s a special pitcher in big moments.”
Maldonado wore the cool cleats. But for Javier in October, the shoe just fits.
(Top photo of Cristian Javier: Carmen Mandato / Getty Images)