HOUSTON — In 2017, the Astros kicked off their (successful, if ultimately tarnished) championship run by starting Dallas Keuchel, the owner of an American League Cy Young Award, in Game 1 of the World Series.
In 2019, for what turned out to be an unsuccessful run, they turned to Gerrit Cole, a top overall draft pick in 2011 and a three-time All-Star to that point, who proceeded to earn a nine-year, $324 million commitment from the Yankees that winter.
For 2021, manager Dusty Baker announced Sunday at Minute Maid Park, it’ll be Framber Valdez against the Braves.
Now, Valdez, a 27-year-old lefty, is not chopped liver. Did you know he received a fifth-place vote for the 2020 AL Cy Young Award, placing him 11th overall? I didn’t until researching this column. However, it’s clear that, if the Astros are going to capture the second title in their franchise’s history, they’ll need to carve a different path than they did in their last two Fall Classic appearances, both of which featured currently injured Astro and future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander.
On the mound, they’re gonna have to go a lot more green.
“[Zack] Greinke is basically a guy who’s been there and done that. [Ryan] Pressly to some extent,” Houston pitching coach Brent Strom said, following a team workout. “But if you look at the rest of the pitching roster, there’s not a whole lot of guys who did what we just did.”
Greinke, whose résumé can rival any other active big league pitcher’s, threw live batting practice Sunday.
“I like what I saw,” Strom said. “He threw all of his pitches and got his work in. I feel very, very bullish about Zack helping us this series.”
While you can’t rule out Greinke delivering a gem, no one would dispute he’s past his prime at 38. He put up a 4.16 regular-season ERA and, after pitching infrequently late in the season due to neck soreness, lasted just 1 ¹/₃ innings against the Red Sox in starting Game 4 of the American League Championship Series — which turned out to be the series’ turning point, the Astros rallying late against Boston’s bullpen to prevail.
Furthermore, Lance McCullers Jr., the Astros’ best pitcher this season and this club’s closest approximation of a veteran ace, hasn’t even begun throwing after injuring his pitching (right) elbow in the AL Division Series, Baker said Sunday. It would surprise greatly to see the Astros place him on their World Series roster.
No, these Astros will not rely on acclaimed horses to deliver. Rather, their pitching staff carries more of an “All hands on deck” feel, and those hands turned around in the ALCS to prove very effective.
The 27-year-old Valdez, who made his big-league debut in 2018 yet didn’t pitch in the postseason until 2020, shined last week at Fenway Park, twirling an eight-inning, one-run masterpiece to defeat the Sawx.
Said Strom: “I’m sure [Bob] Gibson and [Tom] Seaver and those guys were looking down from heaven saying, ‘That was kind of refreshing to watch.’ ”
Luis Garcia, who blanked the Bosox for 5 ²/₃ innings in the clinching Game 6, seems like the strongest candidate to start Game 2, and then Greinke and Jose Urquidy, who got knocked around for six runs (five earned) in ALCS Game 3, will enter the picture. You could argue that the Astros do pose an “older-school” look, if not the oldest-school methodology of counting on their starters to go deep. They at least possess a deep bullpen, a contrast to the Red Sox and Dodgers leaning on their starters to contribute to relief work between starts.
“If you think about the young guys we had last year, they went a long way in taking Tampa to seven games in the ALCS,” Strom said. “But we were doing that in an empty stadium [due to COVID-19 restrictions]. The [Enoli] Paredes and [Andre] Scrubbs and the people we had last year did a miraculous job and I think surprised everyone.
“But I think [Houston general manager] James [Click] realized that group, as talented as it was, was not going to be able to hold up and waste the talent that we have on the field with the everyday players. As good as our everyday players are, you think about our infield and what they’ve accomplished since I’ve been here, you really don’t want young pitching to dictate a result when you have a chance to get somebody, the [Yimi] Garcias and the [Phil] Matons and the [Kendall] Gravemans. Those kinds of people. I can’t say enough about James getting those guys [in the middle of this season].”
They are The Other Guys, like the Will Ferrell-Mark Wahlberg film. Can they, too, prevail in the end? It just might determine whether that acclaimed position-playing group can gain some vindication.
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