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Houston Astros: Surprising Cinderellas

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The Astros were anything but a death star this year. But an unlikely cast of characters have taken them to the ALDS. Hate them or love them?

Los Angeles Angels v Houston Astros
Astros rookie Cristian Javier, August 25th, 2020.
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Baseball. We’ve heard you loud and clear. In fact, the ringing in our ears never stops.

The Astros are bad people. Very bad.

They are nothing but cheaters. It’s almost all the ESPN talking-heads could squawk about for two days. We know. You hate the Astros. They are the worst human scum to ever don a baseball uniform. And if you don’t say how much you hate them as often as possible, you’re just as bad. Very very bad.

Yesterday Twinkie Town published an article entitled “Don’t make me hate the Astros worse than I already do.” Speaking, no doubt, for all baseballdom, and like all baseballdom, the author asserted: “having the opportunity to end the Astros’ season is outstanding, given that...well...everyone now properly despises the cheating Astros. This allows the Twins to get the kind of universal acclaim that they seldom receive from the national media.”

Yes, by all means, hate the Astros, for they alone have sinned. Above all else, hate them, beat them, humiliate them, and you’ll finally be somebody. You’ll finally be noticed. You’ll have your 15 minutes of fame. The other haters might even initiate you into their country club.

Oh wait.

It didn’t work out that way in the movie. And it didn’t work out that way on the baseball field these last two days either.

(Admittedly, I never heard any Twins trash-talk the Astros. They have a great team, overcame a lot, and anyone can understand the injustice of such a great team getting eliminated in two games to a team with a losing record)

But the truth is, it wasn’t the despicable Evil Empire that beat the Twins the last two days. The Twins were mostly beaten by a bunch of guys that most Twins fans and maybe even some players had never heard of before this week. They were shut down in large part by a group of sophomores and rookies, not even highly rated ones for the most part.

The 2020 Astros aren’t a group of super-villains. So far, they are more a Cinderella team. Given the departures, injuries and slumps of just about the entire core group, it’s amazing the Astros even got to the playoffs at all. We’ve been tracking these Cinderellas here all season, waiting for their inevitable demise. But instead of demise, these unlikely heroes are leading the Astros to their fifth ALDS in six years.

Who are the Cinderella Astros.

Here’s a short list of 2017-19 mainstays who played little or not at all in 2020. They include: Cy Young winner Justin Verlander and runner-up Gerrit Cole, closer Roberto Osuna, set-up man Will Harris. versatile relief/starters Colin McHugh and Brad Peacock. Let’s not forget ROY masher Yordan Alvarez. And many others. George Springer and Alex Bregman lost considerable time to injury.

Here’s the list of never-played-in-the-big-leagues rookies who came up to fill the void: Pitchers Carlos Sanabria, Brandon Bailey. Nivaldo Rodriguez, Humberto Castellanos, Luis Garcia, Brandon Bielak, Enoli Paredes, Blake Taylor, Andre Scrubb, Cristian Javier and OF Taylor Jones.

Yes, Tl;dr.

Here’s the list of rookies with some big league innings before 2020 who appeared this year: Bryan Abreu, Cionel Perez, Chase De Jong, Brooks Raley, Cy Sneed, Jose Urquidy, Abraham Toro, Myles Straw, Jack Mayfield and Garret Stubbs.

With one less at bat in 2019 Kyle Tucker would be in this list. Framber Valdez isn’t very many innings from being a rookie either.

Rookies pitched 272+ innings for the Astros this year, yes, this almost anonymous group of never-have-beens and supposed never-will-bes. Not one of them was ever a Top 100 prospect before this year. That group pitched more than half the innings the Astros played this year.

Introducing below, the four main unsung, unknown, Cinderellas who stymied the mighty Twins this week.

Framber Valdez.

After pitching 70 innings in 2019 with a 5.86 ERA, Valdez broke out as the best starter on the Astros this year, again pitching 70 innings but with a 3.57 ERA and 1.2 bWAR.

Valdez was the winning pitcher of Game 1 with the Twins, going five scoreless innings in relief and allowing only two hits.

The Twins had seen Valdez for only nine innings total in 2018-19. They didn’t know what hit them. Or rather, they couldn’t hit the strange pitches Valdez threw them.

Jose Urquidy.

Urquidy pitched 41 innings in 2019 with a 3.95 ERA. He gained national attention by winning Game 5 of the World Series. This year a positive COVID test delayed his season debut, but he was strong in five starts with a 2.73 ERA.

Urquidy started Game 2 against the Twins, going 4.1 innings, allowing two hits, two walks and one run. The run was scored on a hit by Nelson Cruz allowed by reliever Brooks Raley, who otherwise held the Twins to no runs after that in .2 innings.

Urquidy had only appeared in 14 regular season, MLB games before yesterday, none against the Twins.

And they thought after Game 1 the Astros had no more weapons.

Cristian Javier

There’s not much to say about the prior career of Cristian Javier before 2020. He never pitched in the majors. In fact, he only had 11 innings of experience at AAA.

But he filled one of the many holes in the rotation like a vet, going 54.1 innings with a 3.48 ERA.

Yesterday he held the Twins to no runs in three hitless innings. Another no-name Astro the Twins got to know all too well.

Kyle Tucker

Outfielder Tucker is the only player on this list with a pedigree, a 5th overall draft pick in 2015, But his first two cups of tea in the bigs in 2018-19 left many observers underwhelmed. This year, after a slow start, the whispers of “bust” were growing louder. Then, Tucker broke out, slugging 123 OPS with nine homers and 42 RBI for the year, first on the team.

In a series dominated by pitching, Tucker was probably the best hitter in the Astros lineup, leading the team with three hits. His two RBI in Game 2 were the margin of victory.

What are they going to say now?

Well Trevor Bauer, Joe Kelly, ESPN, and all baseball, the Astros won the first round of the playoffs. There’s a disturbance in the Force. They are heading to LA for Round 2 where they will surely be greeted by jeering fanatics. As Carlos Correa said, “I know a lot of people are mad. I know a lot of people don’t want to see us here. But what are they going to say now?”

Angry, hateful things for sure. No doubt many of you in the baseball world hate the Astros in victory more now than you did before. Time to double-down the hate. It’s such an easy temptation. If I weren’t an Astros fan I’d probably succumb myself. But that doesn’t do anybody any good.

That’s because, clinging to your grievances, real or imaginary, “feeling the hate,” as it were, never affects long-term positive change. And even if it did, how foolish to let your soul be so consumed in rage by a kid’s game that’s supposed to be fun.

And don’t forget the Cinderellas. You just can’t hate Cinderella. Americans love rags to riches stories. The Cinderellas brung the Astros this far. Who knows how much farther they can take them still?

Admittedly, two wins in a Wild Card series do not make the Astros favorites to win the World Series. They have a long way to go against brutally tough competition. But If, if, the Astros continue their improbable advance in the playoffs, the story of the surprising Cinderellas, not the cheating, may end up being the real story of the 2020 Astros.

Go Stros.

Go Cinderellas.

Enoli Paredes, advertising canolis for Sweet Martha’s in Fayettville, North Carolina, while playing for the A+ Woodpeckers last year. He had a 3.05 ERA in 20 innings this year with the Astros. How can you hate a man with a smile like that?