WASHINGTON D.C. — The predictably unpredictable 2019 World Series is now tied, with the Houston Astros returning serve thanks to a pair of unheralded yet critical players. On a 107-win team full of stars, Game 4 belonged to Jose Urquidy and Robinson Chirinos.
Both teams have two unquestioned aces anchoring their rotations, both backed by reliable and occasionally great former Diamondbacks workhorses. But where the Nationals’ pitching advantage seemed to lie was its depth, with four reliable rotation members — Washington starters have lasted at least five innings in all 14 postseason games this year, averaging an MLB-best six innings.
The Astros, despite their incredible depth, essentially have three starting pitchers this October. They opted to use Justin Verlander on short rest in the division series in Game 4; it didn’t work, with Verlander chase in the fourth inning, but Houston had fellow ace Gerrit Cole to clean up the mess two days later. In the ALCS they opted for a bullpen game in Game 6, and turned to Brad Peacock to get the first five outs.
After Cole, Verlander, and Zack Greinke, Astros manager A.J. Hinch had another choice for Game 4.
“Every World Series game is a bullpen game, mostly, at some point, it feels like it,” he said before Saturday’s game.
Only Urquidy made this feel like a traditional game. The 24-year-old rookie from Mazatlan was brilliant, allowing only two harmless hits in his five scoreless innings. Urquidy, just the third Mexican-born starting pitcher in World Series history after Fernando Valenzuela (1981) and Jaime Garcia (2011), struck out four. Having pitched twice in relief in the first two rounds, Urquidy has allowed just one run in 9⅓ innings this October.
“Emotionally he’s evolved to being a very, very confident, very calm, very poised pitcher,” Hinch said.
Not only was this not a bullpen game as originally thought, there was even second guessing when Urquidy was pulled after just 67 pitches, having retired his final nine batters faced. The Nationals scored their first run of the game in the sixth inning and put more runners on base against two Astros relievers in the frame (3) than they did in five innings against Urquidy (2).
After all, Urquidy started 18 of his 20 games in the minors this season, and started seven of his nine games in his first taste of the majors. He was allowed to face the dreaded third time through the order in four of his seven regular season starts, but was pulled in his first postseason start after just 17 batters.
“We didn’t want to get to greedy with him,” Hinch explained. “I was trying to be proactive.”
It wasn’t exactly by design that the Astros had to rely on an untested rookie in their most critical game of the season. In addition to trading for Greinke at the deadline, they had Wade Miley, who was 11th in the majors in ERA through August, only to completely implode in a nightmare September that saw him allow 21 runs on 28 hits while recording only 34 outs. That’s a 16.68 ERA if you’re scoring at home, while averaging a paltry 2.27 innings over those final five starts. Miley was ineffective in his lone relief appearance in the ALDS and was left off the Astros roster in both the ALCS and World Series.
I’m sure Houston would have loved the Miley who allowed just two runs in 14⅔ innings for the Brewers last postseason, helping Milwaukee to within game of the World Series. But instead they had to rely on Urquidy, and it paid off in a huge way.
Any second guessing of Hinch’s decision to pull Urquidy was quickly washed away when Alex Bregman, likely either the AL MVP winner or runner-up this season, put the game out of reach with a grand slam. Bregman is one of ELEVEN players on the Astros roster who was an All-Star at least once in the last three seasons.
Urquidy wasn’t all All-Star, which is understandable since he made his major league debut just a week before the midsummer classic. Neither was the veteran catcher Chirinos, who has loomed large in this World Series.
An above-average hitter throughout his career — an invaluable asset at catcher — Chirinos posted his highest WAR at age 35 this year. He hit .238/.347/.443 with 17 home runs during the regular season, with a 113 wRC+ that ranked sixth among major league catchers with at least 300 plate appearances.
Not bad for a catcher who played 10 seasons in the minors before making his major league debut in 2011.
Catchers with homers in consecutive World Series games
He’s valued behind the plate as well as at it, so much so that Verlander threw every single one of his regular season innings to Chirinos, a streak that ended when Chirinos was pinch hit for in Game 2 in Houston. Coincidentally or not, Verlander’s second pitch of the season without Chirinos was hit for a home run, a go-ahead one at that to start the Nationals’ relentless six-run rally.
“Obviously Chirinos has been incredibly important to me and he’s helped me out so much behind the plate,” Urquidy said. “He’s someone that I trust 100 percent with every pitch and he’s been an incredible help to me and to all the pitchers.”
Chirinos was just 2-for-24 this postseason before the World Series shifted to Washington D.C., but he had two hits in Game 3 alone, including a home run that stretched the Astros’ lead. He did some more stretching in the fourth inning in Game 4, smashing a changeup 404 feet and over the left field wall to give Houston a 4-0 advantage. Chirinos later doubled.
He’s one of only six catchers in World Series history to homer in back-to-back games, and the first since Ted Simmons in 1982. The list includes three Hall of Famers, an eight-time All-Star and another All-Star. It’s great company.
"Just never give up... To the kids in the minor leagues, just continue to believe, be your best, you never know. Many people said I was never going to make it to the big leagues!"— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 27, 2019
Robinson Chirinos with an inspiring message after hitting another World Series HR! (@Ken_Rosenthal) pic.twitter.com/YrCSD8rMnE
Maybe Chirinos, much like Urquidy, will be more heralded after their excellent work in Game 4.