Friday, May 1, 2020

The Astros dominated game 4 and are world series favorites once Again

The Astros

 Houston won Game 4, 8-1, to even the series at two games apiece. No home team has won a game yet in this series. And now the World Series is back where it began: even in games, with pitching matchups between Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer, and then Justin Verlander and Stephen Strasburg, on tap.

Houston’s starter in Game 4 didn’t inspire quite the same sort of enthusiasm as any of that quartet. Even intense baseball fans would have been hard-pressed to name Urquidy just a few months ago, and even this month, his team didn’t seem to have much faith in the inexperienced starter.

At the very least, Houston didn’t trust Urquidy enough to start in either of the previous two playoff rounds. Against Tampa Bay in the ALDS, the Astros used Verlander on short rest instead of Urquidy in Game 4; Verlander allowed four runs in 3 2/3 innings, the shortest postseason start of his career. (Technically, Verlander threw just one inning in a 2011 postseason start, but that start comes with an asterisk: He left after a lengthy rain delay pushed the rest of the game back a day.) And in the final game of the ALCS, Urquidy was the fourth Astros pitcher in a full bullpen game, throwing only 2 2/3 innings.

On Saturday, however, Houston didn’t have much choice. The Astros couldn’t start Cole, their Game 1 pitcher, unless they wanted to use both him and Verlander—in Game 5—on short rest. And they couldn’t repeat the full ALCS bullpen game after using five relievers in Friday’s Game 3 win, and with another game Sunday—the third in three days—on the schedule. So they called on Urquidy, veteran of 41 regular-season MLB innings, and hoped that he could offer both length and enough poise to keep pace with Nationals starter Patrick Corbin.

Nobody could have predicted such a crucial role for Urquidy before this season. Until 2019, he had never pitched above the Single-A level, and he wasn’t even a peripheral prospect of note. In the offseason, Urquidy was so lightly regarded that he didn’t even warrant a mention on FanGraphs’ list of the top 39 prospects in Houston’s system. But the 24-year-old climbed the minor league ladder this season, posting impressive strikeout and walk numbers in both Double- and Triple-A, and earned an MLB call-up in July. He ended up throwing in nine games for Houston (seven starts) and was especially effective down the stretch: In four games in September, he amassed a 1.50 ERA while allowing an opposing slash line of .161/.200/.274.

There’s quite a leap from a September start against the Angels—missing Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani—and a World Series start, on the road, trailing two games to one, with Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto toeing the batter’s box. But Urquidy remained unfazed.

In the first inning, already staked to a 2-0 lead after the Astros tagged Corbin for four consecutive singles, Urquidy allowed a two-out Rendon single but sliced through the rest of the top of the lineup. In the second, he went 1-2-3 with two strikeouts. In the third, he worked around a leadoff double by keeping the next three batted balls on the infield. And then Houston catcher Robinson Chirinos homered in the top of the fourth, doubling the lead to four runs, and the Astros could taste a 2-2 series tie.

Urquidy ultimately threw five shutout innings and retired the last nine batters he faced. He didn’t walk a batter and he struck out four, and he threw more pitches (67) than he had in any game since September 27, nearly a full month ago. Given the misfortune for other Astros starters in this series, Urquidy’s outing was even more surprising than his background would suggest. Before facing Urquidy, the Nationals had beaten both Cole and Verlander, and though they couldn’t do the same with Zack Greinke in Game 3, that failure was more a matter of struggles with runners in scoring position than an inability to hit the former Cy Young winner at all: Greinke allowed 10 base runners and couldn’t complete five innings.

The same pattern has held true to some extent in the other direction, with Houston causing problems for the Nationals’ aces. Based on regular-season numbers, this series looked like the best matchup of rotations in World Series history, and the early-round performance of pitchers like Cole, Strasburg, and Aníbal Sánchez furthered that suspicion. But besides Urquidy, no starter has turned in a World Series gem; here their performances are ranked by game score, a holistic measure of box-score performance in which 50 represents an average start.

Corbin appears near the bottom of the list after allowing four runs in six innings—a workable start in the regular season, perhaps, but less than he would have wanted in a key playoff contest. The game wasn’t yet out of reach when Corbin departed, but it soon unraveled for the Nationals, demonstrating again why the Nationals can’t trust any member of the bullpen other than Daniel Hudson, Sean Doolittle, and perhaps a starter throwing in relief.

In the bottom of the sixth, Washington threatened but scored only one run after loading the bases, and in the top of the seventh, Houston showed how to score with the bases filled. Tanner Rainey walked two hitters, Fernando Rodney came in and allowed a single, and then the slumping Alex Bregman launched a Rodney fastball toward the left-field bleachers. Houston’s lead grew to 8-1; the announcers, the two teams, and their fans began looking forward to Game 5.

That one will feature a mouthwatering matchup on the mound, a rematch for Cole and Scherzer after uneven showings from both in Game 1. On Tuesday, back in Houston, Verlander and Strasburg offer yet another anticipated duel. Had the Nationals learned before this series that they’d be in a tie through four games against the heavily favored Astros, with both Scherzer and Strasburg fresh and able to pitch on full rest the next two games, they almost certainly would have been thrilled.

The path the series has taken to this point, though, leaves much colder feelings. The Nationals raced to a two-game lead but couldn’t cement that advantage at home—and on Saturday in particular, they entered with the most lopsided pitching edge of the series but fell behind before taking a single swing, and then couldn’t trouble Urquidy despite finding success against his more accomplished teammates.

By no means is the series over, or certain to go Houston’s way now. The Nationals already beat Cole and Verlander and could do so again, or they could break through against the Astros’ sometimes shaky bullpen, or they could win just one of the next two games and pull out all the pitching stops—Scherzer and Strasburg and Corbin in relief–to take Game 7. But a best-of-seven is now a best-of-three, and the Nationals have squandered every ounce of the advantage they earned earlier in the week. Now it’s time to see if any of the celebrated starters in this series can rise to the occasion, or if Urquidy will retain the best result of the series, despite by far the least hype coming in.