WASHINGTON — After the final out of Friday’s Game 3—after he’d run with five different relievers to work the last five-plus frames of the evening—Astros skipper A.J. Hinch turned to rookie pitcher José Urquidy. You’re starting tomorrow for Game 4.
It was news, but it wasn’t wholly unexpected. The Astros have worked with just three true starters in the postseason so far: Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, and Zack Greinke. (Wade Miley, who’d previously filled the role of fourth starter, was left off the roster after a dreadful September.) In the ALDS, Houston covered the gap by having Verlander start on short rest. In the ALCS, they covered it with a bullpen game, and in the World Series, it originally looked like they would do the same. Before the series started, Hinch said he was considering a ‘pen game for Game 4, though he declined to officially declare so when asked before Game 3. Afterward, however, with Hinch's team clawing out a 4-1 win to force at least a Game 5, he made a different call: Urquidy. It won’t be a bullpen day—unless, well, it is.
“Every World Series game is a bullpen game, mostly, at some point,” said Hinch, slightly in jest, but certainly not joking. “Urquidy will start, and he can go as long as he's good. I don't have necessarily a predetermined plan on how many innings.”
It will be Urquidy’s first start in nearly a month. (While he’s made two postseason appearances, one in the ALDS and one in the ALCS, both have been in relief.) The 24-year-old made his major-league debut in July, and while he’s certainly acclimated well—do check out his change-up—he still has scarcely three dozen big-league innings to his name and is far more of a wild card than any of the established names at the top of the rotation.
It is not particularly surprising the team did not turn to him for a start in the ALDS or ALCS. But, given what played out in Game 3, nor is it particularly surprising that it’s turned to him for the World Series.
A conventional bullpen game—like the Astros did in the ALCS, when they used seven pitchers, each one for less than three innings—requires an opposing lineup that makes sense to try it on. It’s beneficial to be playing in the AL, where pitchers can be swapped out for one another without any consideration to their spot in the lineup. And a decently rested relief corps is key, too. But none apply in this case.
“Turner, to Eaton, to Rendon, to Soto,” Hinch said, going over the top of the lineup for the Nationals, which goes righty-lefty-righty-lefty. “You take the first four hitters, when you think about starting a game—if you're going to go bullpen, you better have somebody that's pretty good at a little bit of everything. Those are four distinctly different guys.”
And Houston doesn’t have a reliever who has that. In fact, the greatest strength of Houston's bullpen may just be how distinct individual pitchers’ skills and approaches are. Game 3 was a perfect example: Josh James’s high heat turned over to Brad Peacock’s sliders to Will Harris’s breaking balls to Joe Smith’s sidearm to, finally, Roberto Osuna with some more heat. Sure, they’re all righthanded. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have staggering variety in every other area.
“We've got guys that can throw 98. We have guys that throw 88. We have guys that cut it, sink it, we've got guys with big curveballs, we've got Peacock throwing a slider,” said Harris, who pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings on Friday. “I think it allows A.J. to kind of mix and match how he sees fit, and know that we're not just carbon copies of one another that are kind of rolling out there. I think that helps.”
This can make it difficult, if not impossible, for opponents to find any sense of rhythm against Houston. (The Astros' 3.75 bullpen ERA was second best in baseball in the regular season.) But it doesn’t play up in a situation where a team is looking for one reliever to make a crucial start against a varied top-of-the-lineup. That call can likely be better answered by Urquidy, who has four pitches that he mixes well—fastball, slider, change-up, curve—with the range of a starter.
While Urquidy is unlikely to go particularly deep in the game—in his seven regular-season starts, he averaged slightly less than five innings—the possibility of him going even four or five frames could take some real pressure off the bullpen.
Hinch said each of the five relievers he used in Game 3 should be available for Game 4, but “available” does not automatically equal “at their best.” A heavy relief workload is normal for October, of course, and the ask here would not necessarily be unusual for some; Osuna made nearly a third of his appearances on no rest in the regular season, and Smith worked more on zero rest than in any other situation. But it’s trickier for a pitcher like Harris—whom Hinch called his "security blanket” after Game 3, fondly describing his reliability—who is now coming off a rare multi-inning outing. Starting Urquidy can (ideally) limit the relievers' exposure. And, at the very least, he’ll almost certainly limit it more than would have been the case with a full-on bullpen game directly after an already-bullpen-heavy game.
“That’s just how it goes in the postseason,” Smith said. “Most teams are going to turn to their bullpen pretty quick and ask a lot out of them, and obviously, we’ve got a luxury with JV and Gerrit and Zack, but at this time, you never know how long it’s going to last before we start going to guys in the pen.”
“Urquidy and ‘pen” is not the most naturally inspiring matchup to oppose the Nationals' Patrick Corbin. It’s probably not ideal. But it’s likely the best one that’s available.
“We’ve got, what, four games, max, left?” Smith said. “You leave it all out there and see what happens.”