HOUSTON — The decision to send right-hander Cristian Javier to the alternate training site after just two outings to begin the season caught him a bit by surprise, he admitted. Javier had pitched well in two starts, but the addition of veteran Jake Odorizzi into a temporary four-man rotation made Javier the odd man out.
Javier’s return to the mound for the Astros was impressive Thursday night. He struck out a career-high nine batters in five scoreless innings as the Astros enjoyed their biggest offensive outburst in two weeks and clubbed the Angels, 8-2, in the series opener at Minute Maid Park.
“I went down there to Corpus [Christi] and handled my business,” Javier said. “I worked on my slider a little bit when I was down there and just tried to make the most of my time. I was pretty much staying focused on attacking the zone and that’s all I wanted to think about.”
Javier, who was sent to the alternate training site after his April 8 start to build up his pitch count, struck out eight of the first 10 batters he faced — all swinging. He’s the first Astros pitcher to record his first eight outs by strikeout since Jim Deshaies fanned the first eight Dodgers he faced on Sept. 23, 1986.
“Early in the game, he was extremely sharp,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker, who earned his 1,900th career win. “He had good velocity and a good breaking ball, and when he didn’t have a good breaking ball, [catcher Martín Maldonado] did an outstanding job of blocking balls in the dirt. He gave us what we needed. We were hoping for one more inning, but that long at-bat by [Kurt] Suzuki took an inning away from him. That’s what tired him some.”
Indeed, Suzuki, the Angels’ nine-hole hitter, battled Javier for 12 pitches in the third with a runner on second and no outs. Suzuki fouled off six pitches before Javier struck out him on a slider. The Angels fouled off 23 pitches total, which is partly why Javier needed 98 pitches to finish five innings.
“That was a tough at-bat,” Maldonado said. “Everything he threw, it felt like he was fouling it off. If you take away that, that’s why he didn’t go another inning.”
Javier got 21 swings and misses — 11 on his slider and eight on his four-seam fastball. He said he worked extensively on his slider and his changeup while he was in Corpus Christi and could tell the Angels were taking some bad swings against the slider. Four of his strikeouts came on the slider.
“It felt good and I was also reading the hitters and it looked like they were not comfortable with that pitch, and I tried to stay focused and kept on using it,” he said. “Thankfully, it kept working.”
Maldonado was impressed. The veteran backstop said Javier, who finished third in the 2020 American League Rookie of the Year voting, handled the game plan perfectly, which made for a seamless night for the young starter.
“The team is a good-hitting team and Javier throws really good fastballs, so they had to respect the fastball,” Maldonado said. “When he started throwing the offspeed pitches, that’s when the swings became more with the sliders and changeups.”
The Astros’ bullpen took it from there, with Bryan Abreu, Brooks Raley, Joe Smith and Ryan Pressly holding the Angels to five hits and two runs — on a two-run homer by Albert Pujols off Abreu — in four innings. The Pujols homer appeared to curve in front of the foul pole, but a replay review was inconclusive and the original call of a homer stood.
“I was surprised that wasn’t overturned,” Baker said. “They’ve been pretty good in New York getting the plays right, and I don’t think they got that one right.”
With the way Javier threw the ball and the Astros swung the bats, it didn’t matter.