SAN DIEGO — Dusty Baker was pretty sure he knew what he wanted to do, but he was willing to be persuaded otherwise. He strolled to the mound in the sixth inning of Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, planning to look his starter in the eyes and hear what he had to say.
Well, what Zack Greinke had to say was nothing. But Baker liked the look in his eyes, and he liked what catcher Martín Maldonado had to say: “He can get this guy.”
So the Astros' manager turned around and walked back to the dugout.
“I can’t lie to you, there were some prayers involved on my way back to the dugout,” Baker said after it was over and those prayers had come true. Greinke got the final two outs of the frame. Stealing those outs allowed Baker to bypass his middle relievers and go straight to the firemen: righties Cristian Javier and Ryan Pressly, who had not yet appeared in the series. The Astros won 4–3 to save their season. They now trail the Rays 3–1 in the ALCS. They earned the right to play on Thursday.
Baker has been criticized over the years for going too often with his gut. But Greinke has found that approach to be a refreshing change of pace. “It’s nice having someone have confidence in me,” he said. “Since I’ve been here, they haven’t seemed to have confidence in my ability. It was nice having that happen at an important time like that.”
He was referring in part to 351 days ago, when his skipper made a different choice. Greinke started Game 7 of the World Series against the Nationals. (In typical Greinke fashion, he had responded to a question about the weight of the assignment with, “It’s gonna be a big game.”) He baffled Washington early, permitting only a single and a walk through six innings, as the Astros took a 2–0 lead. He got the first out of the seventh. His 75th pitch was a changeup over the middle of the plate. Anthony Rendon crushed it into the Crawford Boxes in left field. Greinke walked the next hitter, Juan Soto, on five pitches. That was enough for manager A.J. Hinch, who summoned righty Will Harris from the bullpen.
“It’s a decision I’ll have to live with,” Hinch said afterward.
Harris made the pitch he wanted to: a cutter low and away to Kendrick. Kendrick clanged it off the foul pole. The Nationals never relinquished the lead.
“That was one example,” Greinke said. “But there’s probably dozens if you look back on it.”
Hinch was fired after that season as part of the fallout from the Astros' cheating scheme. Baker replaced him. He was sanguine on Wednesday about how close he had come to disaster. Greinke had dazzled, but he will be 37 next week, and the team pushed back his last start after he suffered arm soreness.
Through the first five innings, Greinke dotted 89-mph four-seamers around the zone. He floated his changeup down and in to right-handed batters. He mixed in a few sliders and curveballs for good measure. The Rays swung and missed seven times. They struck out five. He made only one real mistake: a fourth-inning hanging curveball that Randy Arozarena, the hottest hitter on this planet or any other, swatted over the left-field fence.
Now Arozarena stood in the batter’s box again. Baker had his closer, Pressly, ready to go. But the manager stuck with Greinke.
“I was trusting him more than I was trusting myself,” he said.
Greinke threw Arozarena a changeup down and away. He swung through it. The second pitch was a changeup way inside for a ball. Next came a four-seamer on the outside part of the plate, which he fouled off. Then Greinke threw him a pitch almost identical to the first one. First base umpire Tim Timmons ruled that Arozarena was unable to check his swing in time. Baker nearly put a hole in the dugout wall pumping his fist.
The pitcher permitted a single but struck out Mike Brosseau for the final out of the sixth. He allowed a rare mid-game smile as he bumped gloves with Maldonado on their way into the dugout. They finished with 11 swings and misses and seven punchouts.
Three batters after Baker had come to find out what his pitcher had to say, Greinke uttered his first words on the topic. He mentioned that Baker had probably gone against the book by leaving him in.
“Yeah,” Baker said.
“Thanks,” Greinke said.