Welcome to Everyone’s Having Fun Without Us: An Occasional Postseason Diary. The Sox are done, but baseball isn’t and, on most nights — when we’re not too bitter to watch the Yankees, or too tired for the West Coast games, or when the people we live with don’t tell us “enough with the goddamn baseball, already! This has been going on for six months!” — we’ll be here, providing some quick thoughts about the postseason.
So, not a great night for Lance McCullers, Jr., huh? I’m not all that interested in the “was he tipping his pitches” debate. He and Dusty Baker insist he wasn’t, and I’m not going to be convinced by grainy screenshots posted on Twitter. Sometimes pitchers just don’t have their best stuff, and when that’s combined with an almost total abandonment of the fastball, it’s a recipe for disaster. The bigger issue is: why was he out there at all?
Frankly, there’s an argument to be made that McCullers isn’t even one of the Astros’ four best starting pitching options right now. There’s no denying that he’s been outstanding for Houston in recent seasons; he was an All-Star in 2017 and finished seventh in the Cy Young voting last year. But he was shut down with a flexor strain after the first round of last year’s postseason, and he didn’t make it back to the mound until mid-August. Granted, he was excellent in his eight starts after returning from injury, posting a 2.27 ERA and giving up just 4 home runs. But there’s a slight caveat to those numbers: they came agaisnt some pretty bad competition. Of McCullers’ eight starts, six of them were against below league-average offensive teams, including two starts against the A’s, the second-worst offensive team in baseball, and two more against the Angels, the sixth worst.
Meanwhile, the Astros cruised to 106 wins on the strength of one of the deepest pitching staffs in recent memory. Everyone knows how good Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez are, but even outside of those two, the staff is overflowing with outstanding starting pitching options. Game four starter Christian Javier fell just 13.1 innings short of qualifying for the league leaders, but his 152 ERA+ would have been good for 10th in all of baseball. Luis Garcia was last year’s runner-up in the Rookie Of The Year voting and was outstanding down the stretch, surrendering just 6 earned runs in his final 29 innings. Hunter Brown, the Astros number one prospect, was called up in September and has done nothing but completely shut down opposing hitters as both a starter and reliever since then, striking out 22 hitters in 20.1 innings and giving up just 2 earned runs. Jose Urquidy slipped to merely league-average this year, but was one of Houston’s best pitchers in last year’s World Series and was extremely well rested, having not thrown a single pitch in this postseason coming into last night’s game.
And those are just the starters.
The Astros’ bullpen was the second-best in all of baseball this season, led by the trio of Ryan Stanek, Bryan Abreu, and Rafael Montero. All those guys have done in the postseason so far is allow just 1 earned run in 19 innings.
This is what makes the 2022 Astros so great: the fact that, if any one pitcher doesn't have it on any given night, there are six more guys Dusty Baker can call on to come in and completely shut the opposition down, giving the lineup a chance to get back in the game. And last night he . . . just didn’t do it.
If the Astros don’t come back and win this series, a lot of people are going to point to Dusty’s mismanagement of the pitching staff last night as one of the principal culprits. That wouldn’t necessarily be untrue, but it would be a damn shame. There’s already a segment of baseball fans who reflexively blame Dusty for ruining the careers of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, as if they’re the only two pitchers who’ve blown out their arms over the last 20 years. If “pitching mismanagement” becomes a permanent part of Dusty’s legacy, it’ll overshadow one of the most fascinating careers in all of American sports.
Dusty Baker was a really good baseball player, slashing .278/.347/.432 for his career, and once finishing fourth in the MVP voting. He was on the receiving end of the first high-five in human history. He was in the on-deck circle when Hank Aaron set the new home run record, and in the dugout managing when Barry Bonds did it again. He owns a winery. He owns a company that produces sustainable energy. He smoked weed with Jimi Hendrix. He deserves to be a legend.
But, Dusty, come on, dude. You’ve got a garage full of blue and orange Ferraris. Don’t leave them in there collecting dust.