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A Tale of two Underdogs. Jose Urquidy, the Brandon Backe of 2019.

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Another in this week’s series of Astros underdog stories

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s note: This is a slightly modified reprint of an article published last September 29th, before the playoffs. Here we were calling for Urquidy to fulfill the playoff underdog role so famously performed in an earlier time by Brandon Backe.

In fact, Urquidy made four appearances in the 2019 playoffs, throwing 10 innings, with a 0.90 ERA, and winning game four of the World Series in five shutout innings. In the final Game 6 of the ALCS, a game without a designated starter, Urquidy’s 2.2 IP were the most by any Astros pitcher. He allowed his only run of the post-season, and was credited with a hold.

Will Jose Urquidy Be the Underdog Playoff Hero that Brandon Backe Once Was?

We at the Crawfish Boxes like to call ourselves “the thinking man’s Astros fan.” And that’s why all of us knew, back in Spring Training, that Jose Urquidy would end up pitching in the playoffs.

Uhh, Wait a minute. Jose Urquidy wasn’t even on the Spring Training roster. (Editor’s note. He was, under a different name.) And, I hate to say this, but he wasn’t on the Crawfish Boxes Top 30 prospects list either. Or anyone else’s for that matter, that I can find anyway. Yes, after an excellent campaign in AAA, he has finally ascended to #12 in the mid-season MLB Astros Top 30, and #20 in the Fangraphs rating, but even that doesn’t look like it’s sniffing #4 starter in the playoffs. Fangraphs rates his future value at 40; basically, the fringiest of major leaguers.

I know, I’m jumping the gun a bit. Urquidy hasn’t been nominated for #4 starter just yet. But after last night’s six inning shutout of the Angels (yes, Trout-less, Ohtani-less, toothless Angels, I admit), there sure doesn’t seem to be much of an alternative.

The night before, against pretty much the same lineup, Urquidy’s competition, Wade Miley, allowed three runs, six hits, and two walks in four innings. It was his second best performance all September. In five starts he has a 16.88 ERA, and even if you say he’s had an unlucky month, even the peripheral stats say he’s been about a 6.50 pitcher in September.

On the other hand, Urquidy in September has had legitimate middle of rotation numbers; 1.50 ERA, 3.39 FIP, 4.82 xFIP. OK, ERA looks even elite, but the peripherals do suggest some regression.

On September 5th, when Miley gave up five runs without getting an out, Urquidy came in and faced the same lineup for four innings, allowing only one run and two hits. In 18 innings in September he has allowed only 3 runs, with a WHIP of 0.72.

Say it’s small sample, he can’t be for real. You might be right. Say he’s come from nowhere too fast, he can’t be for real. You might be right. But in game four of any championship series, where else can the Astros now turn, except to this dark horse from the back of the pack.

The Astros have been here before.

In my opinion, in 2004, the Astros had a team which was potentially as good as the current generation of championship era Astros teams. They had sluggers. Lance Berkman had a career year. Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, the oft over-looked Jeff Kent hitting 27 homers at second base. And of course, the trade deadline acquisition that catapulted an under-achieving roster straight to the Wild Card berth, Carlos Beltran.

But it was the pitching that was supposed to make this the Astros’ best hope ever for attaining the elusive World Series Trophy. Roy Oswalt in his prime. But even better, Roger Clemens, the Rocket, and his championship buddy, Andy Pettite, both of whom had just opted out of the NY frickin Yankees to join the Astros. The Astros also had a potential top of rotation starter in young Wade Miller, and there were even great expectations for fifth starter Tim Redding.

By mid-season this awesome quintuplet was down to two due to injuries, Oswalt and Clemens. To finish the stretch run the Astros had to fill in not one, not two, but three positions in the starting rotation from among a bevy of totally unqualified options. They used Carlos Hernandez for nine starts, 6.43 ERA. They tried Brandon Duckworth for six starts starts, 6.86 ERA. They relied heavily on Pete Munro, whose short-lived career produced a 4.88 ERA, but in 2004 he was even worse, 5.15.

And out of nowhere, a minor league position player, came Brandon Backe.

The Astros snuck into the Wild Card in 2004 by beating out the San Francisco Giants by one game. Backe came on at the end of the season and started nine games, winning five and losing three, with a respectable 4.30 ERA. Did he win one or two games that Hernandez or Duckworth wouldn’t have? Quite likely.

But it is Brandon Backe’s post-season performances that are most legendary in Astros lore. In the 2004 ALDS against the Braves the Astros would not even have their top 2 pitchers fully available, as they had to burn Roy Oswalt in the game before the playoff to get into the playoff. The Astros’ bats did their job in this series, but besides one game from Clemens, and a game five from Oswalt, the Astros had to face the Braves with pitchers named Micelli and Springer. (no relation to you know who) And of course, in game 3, the only pitcher for the Astros to win a game in this series not named Clemens or Oswalt was Brandon Backe, who pitched six innings, scattering five hits and two walks, to allow just two runs.

In the epic seven game NLCS against the Cardinals, Backe was called upon to be the starter in Game One. This legendary Cardinals lineup, with Albert Pujols in his prime, overwhelmed Backe, but in game five he turned the tables, pitching eight one-hit innings, giving the Astros a 3-0 win and a 3-2 advantage in the series. Of course, having to rely on Pete Munro and an entirely over-worked Roger Clemens to close out the Cardinals was a bridge too far in 2004. What could have been, had only Andy Pettitie and/or Wade Miller been healthy in the playoffs?

In 2005, a team without Carlos Beltran, Jeff Bagwell, or Jeff Kent, would overachieve its way to the World Series almost entirely on the golden arms of Roy Oswalt, Roger Clemens, a healthy Andy Pettite, and Brandon Backe.

To be fair, Backe doesn’t deserve to be included in this list, one of the best pitching trios of all time, right up there with the Astros’ current big three. He did eat 149 innings, managed to get credit for ten wins with a 4.76 ERA. Still, a decent fourth starter on a weak hitting team.

Again, it was in the playoffs that Backe earned his fame.

Although it seemed like a fail at the time, Brandon Backe started Game four of the ALDS against the Braves by allowing five earned runs in 4.1 innings. But the game was still in hand, and for the rest of this game the Astros relief staff allowed only one run as the offense pecked away. Then in the 18th inning the final pitcher, Roger Clemens, got the win, thanks to Chris Burke’s walk-off homer, one of the greatest in Astros history.

In the 2005 rematch with the Cardinals for the NL Title, Backe started game four, and although he did not get the decision, he held the potent Cardinals to one run in 5.2 innings in a game the Astros would win 2-1. The Astros would win the series and the NL pennant.

Unfortunately, Backe’s greatest triumph was also his greatest tragedy. In the World Series, with the Astros down 3-0 to a superior Chicago White Sox team, Brandon Backe was the definition of clutch, throwing seven shutout innings, allowing only five hits and no walks. There is no bigger pressure than pitching in an elimination game in the World Series, but Backe was about perfect.

But as we all know, the weak Astros lineup would get shut out for the game, and Brad Lidge would lose his second game of the Series, allowing a run in the eighth. Brandon Backe’s seven shutout innings on the biggest stage in baseball ended in the agony of defeat.

I looked and looked for a YOUTUBE video of Backe’s amazing World Series performance. Alas, they do not make videos for losers. I did find this.

Backe would struggle through injuries for four more years with the Astros, but would never again register any more success than his humble pedigree would have predicted.

Let us hope that Jose Urquidy is this year’s Brandon Backe. For if Urquidy can over-achieve like Backe did, he may address a gaping weakness that could hinder the Astros’ chances in the post-season. And let us hope for more, for despite Backe’s heroic personal efforts, the Astros ultimately lost in 2004 and 2005. If Jose Urquidy ends up starting in three playoff games that the Astros end up winning, I think we all know what else the Astros will be winning.

Go Jose Urquidy.

Go Astros.

(Editor’s note: Correction, Jose Urquidy was on the Spring Training roster. At the time his name was Jose Luis Hernandez. Thanks to GoSTROS for the correction.)