In the pregame narrative, I said it was unrealistic to expect the 2023 Astros rotation to perform as consistently as the 2022 staff.
Then, the very picture of pitching inconsistency, Cristian Javier, put the Astros in overwhelming command of the 2023 ALDS.
Coming into the game with a 6.28 ERA since June 21, Javier was almost unhittable. But he was also clutch, removing himself from at least three critical jams without allowing a run in five innings pitched. He only allowed one hit, but five walks and a hit by pitch kept him under pressure for much of his appearance. But when he needed to, he came up with the big strikeout, nine in total. Nineteen of his 87 pitches were whiffs.
The Astros opened strong against the supposedly invincible Twins ace Sonny Gray. Astros leadoff hitter Jose Altuve opened with a single, followed by a double by Yordan Alvarez, later (erroneously) scored an error. Kyle Tucker knocked in Altuve with an opposite-field single.
And then, one of this year’s favorite goats (not GOAT), Jose Abreu, smashed a Gray curve 440 feet into the left field seats to give the Astros a 4-0 lead.
Cloudy with a chance of meatballs. pic.twitter.com/jGmaL6ZOw4— Houston Astros (@astros) October 10, 2023
All eyes were on Cristian Javier in the bottom of the first. He’s been perfectly capable of giving up a four-run lead this season, but he started sharp. He struck out the first two batters...Oh, wait, the ump called a clear strike three ball four on Jorge Polanco. It looked like, “Oh no, here we go again,” when Max Kepler doubled Polanco to third. But then Javier struck out Royce Lewis and, yes, Carlos Correa to end the threat.
In the bottom of the second, Javier established his dominance, striking out two more and getting the third out on a harmless pop-up to catcher Martin Maldonado. At that point, he had 12 swings and misses out of 30 total pitches.
In both the second and third innings, the Astros stranded runners in scoring position with no outs.
In the bottom of the third, Javier allowed the first two runners on after a hit-by-pitch and a walk. However, Javier struck out Polanco and got flyouts from Kepler and Lewis to hold the Twins scoreless after three.
The Astros got the lead-off hitter on in all of the first five innings. That is, if you count Alex Bregman’s fifth-inning leadoff homer as a runner on base. His just-barely dinger over the left field wall was followed by another Alvarez double down the right field line and a Tucker walk.
The double chased Twins starter Gray, but Emilio Pagan got the next three Astros to keep the Astros lead at 5-0.
The Astros had remarkable success against the Sonny Gray sweeper, rated the most unhittable pitch in all MLB. Seven of their eight hits were against sweepers, including both home runs.
Cristian Javier walked three batters in the Twins’ fifth with one out. On ball four on the third walk, the replay clearly showed that the pitch was a foul tip caught by Maldonado, but the call was not reviewable.
However, Javier struck out Kepler and then Max Lewis, the home run hero of the Wild Card Series, Javier’s eighth and ninth of the game, to keep his shutout.
BIG GAME JAVI.— Houston Astros (@astros) October 10, 2023
ALL 9 PUNCHOUTS. pic.twitter.com/OxwYOYpqPw
In the sixth, the Astros once again opened with a runner on base, this time a walk to Jeremy Pena followed by a Maldonado single, sending Pena to third. After Altuve smoked a lineout to Correa at short, Bregman singled in Pena.
Hunter Brown came in the sixth, and things started getting nervous. He promptly allowed a weak single to Correa and a one-out walk to Matt Wallner. Then Will Castros singled in Correa.
But an amazing play by shortstop Pena on a Ryan Jeffries hot one-hopper resulted in an incredible inning-ending double play that doused Twins hope and left the Minnesota fans in stunned silence.
In the seventh inning, Dusty Baker went to his big gun in the bullpen, Bryan Abreu, who struck out the first batter on three pitches, got a quick ground out, and then another K. Abreu threw 12 pitches in the inning, 10 for strikes.
It probably wasn’t necessary. In the ninth inning, a Yordan Alvarez solo homer, his fourth in the series so far, and another homer by J. Abreu, a two-run shot that traveled 440 feet like his first one, put the Astros up 9-1.
Rafael Montero did mop-up work in the ninth, easily preserving the Astros’ 9-1 win and giving the Astros a commanding 2-1 lead in the 2023 ALDS.
The Astros had 14 hits, three (really four) by Yordan Alvarez, two doubles, and a homer. He has four homers in the series, is hitting .500, and his OPS is a ridiculous 2.205.
And maybe it's time to stop hating on Jose Abreu, whose late-season surge helped get the Astros into the playoffs and, in the playoffs, has a rather nifty 1.058 OPS with two monster homers. Rumors of the demise of Abreu’s power game were greatly exaggerated.
Even Maldonado had two hits today. And it’s scary to think how many runs the Stros could have scored with Michael Brantley in the lineup instead of Yainer Diaz, who struck out four times.
See you tomorrow at 1:07. We’ll have a big celebration on the Thread after the game, I feel confident.