Martin Maldonado (right) has been a solid role player. Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images
This Astros team is not a flash in the pan. This team is not a one and done fluke. In fact, last year this team won and done was the talk of a franchise that couldn't win the big one. They don't play in a media hotbed like Los Angeles or New York, instead they played through those two cities on their way to bringing the title home to Houston. This season it's starting to feel like not only are they in the perfect position to do it again, but they look like a club that is ready to go on a run competing for several more over the next few years, instead of settling for just that one.
Even with George Springer dealing with a thumb injury that won't be right the rest of the year, Carlos Correa merely a shell of his normal self as he fights a back injury that has hindered him most of the second half of the season and Jose Altuve trying to mange the lingering affects of a late knee injury, this team continues to win. Sure they have star power and a great mix of veteran experience and rising young talent, but more than anything else, they have a great supporting cast that steps up big in the biggest of situations and makes sure the stars are never on an island looking for help that never shows up.
The Astros opened up the divisonal round of the playoffs and defense of their World Series title this weekend with a visit from the Cleveland Indians. The Tribe came in as a more than formidable opponent having won their division again with the help of 2 Cy Young candidates and a lineup full of All-Stars and a former league MVP. They have an outstanding manager and good depth on the bench. Most people thought this was the best match up of all the divisional series, a matchup sure to go the full five games, with the winner being the favorite to win the pennant regardless of regular season record.
What we have seen in the first two games is the "X Factor" for the Astros is alive and well and ready to show the world that even though the names may change, the results stay the same. The supporting cast for the Astros is extremely talented and as much as Springer and Justin Verlander and Alex Bregman and Gerrit Cole did to protect the home field and put the team up 2-0 in the series, the role players were heard from loud and clear.
Last year the best backup singers in baseball had the likes of Brad Peacock emerging as arguably the best pitcher on the staff, Josh Reddick with an individual best .314 batting average and one of the top home hitters in all of baseball, Marwin Gonzalez having a career year statitically accrss the board at the plate and Chris Devinsky making the All-Star team as the most trusted reliever in AJ Hinch's bullpen. In the postseason it was Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers to the rescue in relief and Marwin and Bregman stepping up offensively to give the lineup key hits and big time at bats. This year it has been more of the same and although the faces or roles may have changed, the results remain the same. I realize it's only two games into what we all hope is a long playoff run, but the contributions of the so called "other guys" have to get some love too and a bit of the credit to boot. Let's look at the "Usual Suspects" doing unusual things so far to help Houston:
Martin Maldonado - As valuable as Brian McCann was last year managing the pithing staff and adding key hits when needed, this year he needed knee surgery and Martin Maldonado was brought in to step in, step up and save the day. Nicknamed the "machete" for his ability to cut down runners trying to steal he has done that and so much more as he has lived up to billing as one of the best defensive catchers in the game. He has also earned the trust of the pithing staff and called great games for Verlander, Cole and company. He also supplied a key insurance run with a huge home run in Game 1 that helped cement the victory.
Tyler White - Evan Gattis was the DH for the historic run the Astros went on a year ago, providing leadership, experience, power and verstility as he was also the team's emergency catcher. This year the "caveman" has ben hot and cold and was eventually replaced by White as the big bat at the bottom of the lineup and a guy that can play both infield and outfield if called upon. Through 2 games against the Indians he is hitting .600 with a slugging percentge of .800, OBP of .750 and OPS of 1.550.
Marwin Gonzalez - As big as his home run in the 9th inning of Game 2 of last years' World Series was, not to mention his huge regular season a year ago where he set career marks across the board at the plate, this year was a dissappointing step back. He was still great defensively as a utility man extraordinaire, but at the plate he returned to the offensive output that has defined his career. The good news is, his postseason magic seems to be back where the team loves it to be as his .714 average leads the team and his huge double in Game 2 against the Tribe turned the tables, gave the team the lead and got the offense going after a sluggish start.
Josh Reddick - A mirror image of Marwin a year ago he hit .314, which was the best year of his career, was incredible defensively and as mentioned, was the best bat in the American League at home a season ago. His playoffs unfortunately was the complete opposite as he went 5-for-49 in the ALCS and World Series. The hangover continued this year as his average fell 72 points and he presssed and struggled through a good portion of the summer. The fresh start of the playoffs have been just what Josh and the team has needed through the first two games as he had two big hits in Game 1, another in Game 2 as he is hitting .500 with 2 RBI.
Yes, Springer and Bregman have been huge as they have lead the squad to two big victories, but with Carlos Correa still wallowing in a huge slump and Altuve hitting a paltry .250 the other bats at the bottom of the order have stepped up big and helped build the impressive 2-0 advantage over the Indians. Of course this team will always rely on the "Core 4" to lead them, but if the team is to make a deep run as they attempt to repeat as World Series champs, it's a pretty good sign that the reserves have come to play and contribute in a very big way. For as good as the stars are on this team, it's the rest of the roster that gives so many baseball experts the opinion that this team is loaded and ready to be contenders for the foreseeable future. Let's hope that's the case as we all buckle up and prepare to enjoy the ride.
As the Astros prepare to play their first game of spring training against the Nationals this Saturday, we're starting to see reports about how the players approached the offseason, and what tweaks they made to improve in the 2024 season.
Cristian Javier is a player Astros fans are hoping bounces back this year, as his ERA jumped from 2.54 in 2022 to 4.56 in 2023. Workload was thought to be one of the main factors causing his regression, he dealt with a dead arm last season and threw more innings than ever before (162).
Another explanation could be the pitch clock. This was another new element all pitchers had to deal with last year, and that also likely played a role in his struggles.
But according to The Athletic's Chandler Rome, Javier believes he was carrying some extra weight last season. Add that to some mechanical issues he was experiencing, and his struggles in 2023 make a lot more sense. And to be fair, he wouldn't be the first person to get a little fat and happy after winning a World Series.
Cristian Javier said he lost around 15 pounds this offseason. He acknowledged that some of his struggles last year could be attributed to some extra weight he was carrying around in addition to the already-documented mechanical flaws he had.
— Chandler Rome (@Chandler_Rome) February 22, 2024
In an effort to get back on track in 2024, Javier said he lost around 15 pounds this offseason. With the pitch clock not going anywhere, pitchers need to be in better cardiac shape than ever before.
Hopefully this modification helps Javier return to form and put up jaw-dropping numbers like he did in 2022. This rotation needs Javier to be the dominate pitcher we all know he's capable of being. With Justin Verlander behind schedule and Framber Valdez trying to bounce back from his own down year, Houston will depend on Javier like never before.
The Astros are certainly counting on it after giving him a 5-year, $64 million contract last season. Javier will definitely be a player to watch this spring.