By Alyson Footer
Following the Astros’ 2-1 win over the Tigers on Wednesday, manager Dusty Baker confirmed what he had strongly hinted at prior to the game: Justin Verlander is headed back to the Astros’ rotation, and will pitch Friday at home against the A’s.
That means another arm will have to be bumped back to the bullpen, and that pitcher likely is Cristian Javier, who did very little to merit a demotion while helping the Astros wrap up a three-game sweep in Detroit.
Including the six scoreless innings he threw in the finale with the Tigers, Javier has a 1.93 ERA in his past seven games. All but one were starts.
Those are not normally numbers you see for the odd man out, providing further evidence that the Astros are in perhaps the best position of any playoff-bound team heading into October and November. There are few holes on this team. There are none in the rotation.
Javier has served the Astros well during his three-season tenure with the club. He starts. He relieves. He can move back and forth between the two seamlessly, giving the Astros a quiet weapon — one with a deceptive fastball and sweeping slider that never stops baffling opponents, and probably merits a more permanent spot in the rotation.
But as it currently stands, the Astros’ postseason rotation will likely consist of Verlander, Framber Valdez, Lance McCullers Jr. and Jose Urquidy.
That’s been Javier’s story this year and in the past — on a team filled with aces, he gets lost a bit in the shuffle. He’d be at or near the top of the rotation on more than a few teams in baseball.
For Houston, he’s the not-so-secret weapon with a good chance to make a difference when the calendar flips to October, the games get more intense and the Astros rev back up after spending much of the season coasting to their sixth consecutive division title (after Wednesday’s win, their magic number dropped to 7).
Javier allowed two hits against the Tigers, as he yielded a base hit to Kerry Carpenter in the second inning and then retired 13 straight, before Riley Greene singled with two outs in the sixth.
Javier struck out eight and induced 14 swings and misses — double that of his Detroit counterpart, left-hander Joey Wentz.
“Just the command of his fastball and the change of speeds on his breaking ball,” Baker said when asked what stood out the most about Javier’s outing. “He threw some hard, threw some real slow and he was good. He was very good. That was kind of the ballgame.”
Javier pitched with a razor-thin lead, something he’s used to. The Astros haven’t had many offensive outbursts when he starts. In fact, in his most recent three losses, the Astros provided one run of support. But opponents batted .176 off him during that stretch.
Wednesday’s finale in Detroit was a bit of a repeat performance in that respect. Kyle Tucker drove in the first run in the fourth inning with his 27th homer of the year, and Alex Bregman’s sacrifice fly in the fifth tacked on one more. That was all the support he’d get, in a game in which each team logged five hits.
“I just stay focused,” Javier said. “Trying to attack the strike zone, trying to attack the hitters. I attacked the strike zone as much as possible and got the hitters out as quick as possible. I think that helped me.”
“You’ve got to win those kind of games,” Baker said. “You’re not going to beat everybody every day. You’ve got to win some 2-1, 3-2. Just find a way to win. What stands out is the way that Javy pitched. He was ahead of the count most of the time.”
Last October, the Astros were running on fumes for much of the postseason. They lost McCullers in the middle and pitchers struggled to get past the fourth inning. And still, they made it to Game 6 of the World Series.
This year, they appear to be in a better situation. McCullers is fresh after returning from injury, and they’ll have two starting pitchers — Javier and Luis Garcia, assuming there’s no room for him in the rotation either — available out of the ‘pen.
“We’ve all been doing a good job,” Javier said. “And we’ve all been able to stay healthy. We all have the same objective, which is to stay healthy, attack the strike zone and do the best we can. We just stay united and stay together.”