Urquidy Rebounds as Astros Tie Series with Game 2 Win

After a rough Game 1 loss to the Braves, Astros manager Dusty Baker spoke confidently about his team: “I’ve never seen these guys worry. They know they can play.” His confidence was reflected in his decision to stick to the script and start José Urquidy in Game 2 rather than go with a fully rested Luis Garcia, the star of Game 6 of the ALCS. Part of the logic of having Urquidy pitch Wednesday came down to his fly ball tendencies and the availability of the DH, which allowed the Astros to run out their best outfield defense (in Games 3, 4 and 5, the Astros will likely be somewhat compromised in the field by starting Yordan Alvarez in left). In Urquidy’s disastrous first postseason outing, he only managed to get five outs while allowing five earned runs, mostly due to command struggles that led to a grand slam by Kyle Schwarber. But when Urquidy is right, he throws endless strikes and gets weakly hit fly balls and pops ups with a plus fastball that he throws over 50% of the time.

Urquidy looked sharp to start the game, pumping fastballs and working tremendously quickly. He has pretty strong reverse splits thanks to a nasty changeup that he features to lefties, and he got Atlanta’s hottest hitter, Eddie Rosario, to strikeout swinging on a changeup to lead off the first. It was a glimpse of things to come. His other key secondary offering is his slider, which is his main weapon against righties. After Ozzie Albies reached with two outs on a swinging bunt (55.8 mph exit velocity), the right-handed heart of the Atlanta’s lineup came up. It quickly became clear that Urquidy didn’t have his slider. Austin Riley drilled one into right field for a base hit, after which Urquidy hung a couple to Jorge Soler before getting him to strikeout on a fastball to end the threat.

Unlike the Astros, the Braves didn’t really have any questions about who they were running out for Game 2. Max Fried was their ace during the second half of the season and one of the best pitchers in baseball over that span. The injury to Charlie Morton in Game 1 put even more pressure on Fried to step up and deliver not one, but two strong outings in this series. A matchup with the Astros isn’t easy for any pitcher but it’s especially difficult for a lefty like Fried, as Houston posted a 117 wRC+ against southpaws this season, tops in baseball.

The game plan against Fried was clear from the start, as the Astros came out swinging early and often. Jose Altuve swung at four of the five pitches he saw in his first-inning at-bat and began the game with a double down the line. The aggressive approach continued and after two quick sacrifice flies from Michael Brantley and Alex Bregman, the Astros were up 1-0. In the first inning, the Astros swung at nine of the 16 pitches Fried threw and didn’t whiff on any of them.

Urquidy was back at it in the second, working quickly and pounding the strike zone. He got Joc Pederson, another lefty, to flail at a changeup for strike three, but he still had yet to establish his slider. This finally backfired when right-handed Travis d’Arnaud saw six straight fastballs and ripped the final one into the Crawford Boxes to tie the game. Dansby Swanson followed with a hard hit single before Rosario lined out to end the inning. Urquidy was through two innings but the contact against him wasn’t pretty.

In his half of the second, Fried adjusted to the aggressive Astros by featuring his breaking pitches earlier in the count. It didn’t exactly work in his favor. He got Carlos Correa to strike out on a couple of big curveballs but that was followed by two straight singles to Kyle Tucker and Yuli Gurriel. With runners on first and third and one out, Fried had finally reached the supposed weak spot in Houston’s lineup, with rookie Jose Siri and defense-first catcher Martín Maldonado due up. It was not the reprieve Braves fans hoped for. Siri immediately caused some small-ball chaos by chopping a 51 mph infield hit to Albies to drive in the go-ahead run. Maldonado followed with a knock to left, and Siri aggressively took third. When Rosario’s throw arrived at the base, the only one there was Siri himself, who then scampered home as the ball rolled toward the backstop. After four straight singles, the bottom of the order had put up a crooked number, but the Astros weren’t done. After an Altuve lineout, Brantley stroked a two-strike, two-out single to drive home Houston’s fifth run of the night.

Pitching with a four run lead and facing the heart of Atlanta’s order for a second time, Urquidy once again worked at a Mark Buehrle-esque speed and cruised to a shutdown inning on just seven pitches. In total, the half inning only took two minutes and 13 seconds (yes, Urquidy’s pace made me break out the stopwatch). The quick inning had added importance considering how long Fried’s second inning was. He barely had time to catch his breath before heading back out for the third. He showed no ill-effects from his quick break, however, as he also had his strongest frame of the game, headlined by a nasty slider to strike out Alvarez.

As the game entered the middle innings, both starters began to look locked in and it was beginning to have the feel of the increasingly rare postseason game where the starting pitching is the focal point. The fourth inning was much the same as the third for both starters, with no runners reaching base. Urquidy still didn’t quite have his slider but it caused him to mix in his changeup off of the fastball he threw more than half the time. He rarely throws his changeup to righties, but without confidence in his slider, he resorted to it in some key spots. Against Soler in particular he threw multiple changeups, including a two-strike change that had Soler way out in front. Urquidy threw 16 changeups on the night and got five whiffs; the only ball put in play against the pitch was the swinging bunt from Albies in the first. Even if he didn’t throw it a ton, it had a huge impact on the game and kept Atlanta’s fastball-hunting off-balance.

The Braves were finally able to chip away at the Astros’ lead in the fifth when d’Arnaud led off the inning with a single. A passed ball and a groundout from Rosario put Atlanta’s catcher at third with two outs and Freddie Freeman stepping into the batter’s box. He laced an opposite field line drive to bring home a much needed run, and get the Astros bullpen geared up. Urquidy got out of the inning but his day was done; he left the game with a 5-2 lead:

José Urquidy’s Game 2 Start
Statistic Game 2 Performance
Innings 5
Hits 6
Runs 2
Earned Runs 2
Strikeouts 7
Walks 0
SwStr% 16.2%
Average Exit Velocity 90.9 mph

As for Fried, he stopped the bleeding and ended up giving the Braves some much needed length. The whiffs started to pile up the third time through the order as he was working quickly and threw a ton of curveballs. He looked completely locked in through five innings and retired 10 straight Astros after the two-out RBI knock from Brantley in the second. After having only four whiffs in the first two innings (43 pitches, 9.3% SwStr%), he went on to get nine whiffs over the next three (36 pitches, 25% SwStr%).

Fried’s second life was cut short in the sixth, however, when he allowed a leadoff walk to Alvarez. This was quickly followed by a line drive single from Correa, who was sitting on the curveball that he’d already seen five times on the night. Fried’s day was finally done — much later than had seemed possible an hour earlier, it should be said — but he left quite a mess for Dylan Lee and the rest of Atlanta’s bullpen. Lee was brought in to get a double play and gave his infield two chances with back-to-back groundballs. A wide throw on the first grounder led to just one out, and a dropped force at second by Albies on the next grounder compounded the mess and allowed a run to score. The lead was back to four and the Astros began counting down the outs.

Max Fried’s Game 2 Start
Statistic Game 2 Performance
Innings 5.0
Hits 7
Runs 6
Earned Runs 6
Strikeouts 6
Walks 1
SwStr% 17.4%
Average Exit Velocity 87.0 mph

The Astros bullpen got off to a great start after Urquidy was pulled. Cristian Javier and his nasty slider were up first; he got four outs before giving way to Phil Maton, who retired Rosario and Freeman to close out the seventh.

The bottom of the seventh is when it really started to feel like the Astros had the game in the bag. Altuve ambushed the first pitch Drew Smyly threw for a solo home run to stretch the lead to five, or as Joe Buck put it, “a Texas welcome for Drew Smyly.” Brantley continued the welcome party with a double but Smyly eventually settled down and didn’t allow any more runs even after loading the bases.

With six outs to go, Houston had a five run lead. Baker took nothing for granted, though, and rolled out two of his big guns in Ryan Pressly and Kendall Graveman to get the final six outs. Graveman got Swanson swinging to end the game and tie the series at one game apiece. Baker’s confidence in Urquidy paid off in a big way and while the series now shifts to Atlanta, the Astros have to feel pretty good going into a Game 3 on Friday night with Garcia on the mound.

Luke Hooper is a designer and writer at FanGraphs. He lives in Portland, Oregon, longing for a major league team to materialize.

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1 year ago

That’s two double plays in two games the Braves have lost both outs from just trying to be a bit too fast (though they got screwed on that transfer call last night, but a run would still have scored). Braves defense has been lights out until this series and you just can’t give back outs to the Astros.