Houston winning the arms race this year

Twirled Series: Astros' pitching continues to show why Houston is the best team of 2022

The Astros will look to Framber Valdez to pitch Game 6 of the World Series. Composite image by Jack Brame.

They may not have finished the regular season with the best overall record in all of MLB, and they may not play in one of the toughest divisions in the league. Yet, the 2022 Houston Astros showed plenty of signs this season that their pitching staff was operating at an elite level, and paired with a more-than-adequate offense, they were the best team in baseball all along.

Pitching their way back into the series

The World Series isn't over yet by any means, with the Astros needing to get the final win in Game 6 or a possible Game 7 to finish things off, but the performance their arms put on in games 4 and 5 has to instill a sense of destiny about what's to come. Let's go back to Game 3, where, due to tipping or not, the Phillies offense completely dismantled Lance McCullers Jr. on their way to handing Houston a disheartening 7-0 loss.

That gave Philadelphia a 2-1 series lead after the first of three games at Citizens Bank Park and left Houston searching for a significant flip of momentum and quick. Boy, they got it, with Cristian Javier righting the ship with his spectacular start, going six hitless innings followed by a non-surprising quality night from the bullpen to finish the combined no-hitter.

That tied the series, setting up a big moment for Justin Verlander. After his Game 1 implosion continued his World Series woes, the presumptive Cy Young award winner must've felt some pressure heading into Game 5, knowing that another disappointing start may cost his team the series. Instead, he finally gets his first win in the Fall Classic, making it through five innings while allowing just one run before his bullpen would finish things off for him. Speaking of the bullpen...

Pressly for WS MVP?

Let's talk about Ryan Pressly and his ascension with the Astros. He joined the team via trade in 2018, coming in as a middle-innings reliever. In 2020, then-closer Roberto Osuna suffered an injury, and Houston decided to move Pressly to the closer role. That change has paid massive dividends for the team, and there's been no better display of it than Pressly's performance in this World Series so far.

In Game 1, he enters in a 5-5 tie in the top of the ninth and sits down the nine, one, and two hitters of the Phillies to give Houston a chance at a walk-off, though they would go on to lose in extras. In Game 2, he allows the only hit he's given up to the Phillies, which would score after an error but still held on to finish off the victory that tied the series 1-1.

After not appearing in the lopsided Game 3 loss, he enters in the ninth of Game 4, which despite being a 5-0 game, still had a high level of stress with a combined no-hitter on his shoulders, which he would get across the finish line. Then, the night after finishing that no-no, he has the most impressive outing so far.

In the midst of one of the most stressful games of the year for Houston, their bullpen allows a rare run in the bottom of the eighth, making it a 3-2 game and giving the Phillies a chance to put together a series-defining rally if they could take the lead and go up 3-2 in the series. Dusty Baker opts to trust his closer, bringing in Pressly with runners on first and third with one out in a one-run game, asking him to escape the jam and get a five-out save.

The first batter he faces, Pressly does precisely what he needs to do, getting a three-pitch strikeout to allow any out to end the inning, which he would get against the dangerous Kyle Schwarber to send the game to the ninth with the Astros still in front. Then he's faced with the heart of Philadelphia's order in the bottom of the ninth, with Houston still owning a one-run lead. Strikeout, fly out with a fantastic Chas McCormick assist, a hit batter, then a groundout to win the game.

There will be more offense to consider for Jeremy Peña, Alex Bregman, and others that are also firmly in the discussion should the Astros win the series. Still, with how Pressly's going, it's not out of the realm of possibility that Houston's closer takes home the World Series MVP trophy.

Run the playbook one more time

Before the trophies start getting handed out, Houston needs to check off that final box, which is getting one more win. Their recipe for success continues to be having one of their elite starters get as far into the game and with as minor damage as possible, then trusting their bullpen arms to navigate the rest of the way.

With the uncertainty of a Game 7, the Astros need that playbook to work in Game 6, where they'll have their "other ace," Framber Valdez, on the mound looking to replicate the success he had in Game 2, where he went six and one-thirds innings while allowing just one run. After the day off to rest the bullpen, if he can get into the middle innings with a close game, Dusty Baker will be able to piece together the rest with his cast of near-untouchable arms, and Houston will be champions once more.

Bench Framber

Astros Framber Valdez, Justin VerlanderBench FramberComposite image by Brandon Strange

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Can Hunter Brown replace an Astros legend like Peña did? Composite image by Brandon Strange.

It’s official. Justin Verlander’s time with the Houston Astros has come to an end after he agreed to a two-year, $86.7 million deal to be the newest pitcher for the New York Mets.

Now with the 39-year-old, soon to be 40-year-old, in a different shade of blue and orange, Houston’s starting pitching rotation has completely turned over a new leaf. What exactly is next for the group?

Verlander, who joined the Astros at the last hour in 2017, helped lead Houston to two World Series championships, and he was a key figure in the organization during his tenure. His latest season, coming off Tommy John Surgery, was nothing short of sensational.

He won his third AL Cy Young award by unanimous vote. He led Houston with a 1.75 ERA, a WHIP of 0.83, and an 18-4 record in his starts. In the postseason, Verlander’s run was filled with more ups and downs, but he also accomplished new accolades, including getting his first career win in the World Series in the pivotal Game Five. Replacing his production will be a tough task.

The Astros, overall, are in great position with their starting rotation. Framber Valdez presumably slides in as the new No. 1, although he is in arbitration with the team. The same goes with Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia, and Jose Urquidy, all of whom showed they can start, and who are also in arbitration or close to entering it.

Lance McCullers Jr. is the only starting pitcher with a long-term deal in place as of now, however, his health and ability to stay on the mound for Houston has been a long-time concern. The name that is interesting for the Astros is Hunter Brown.

The 24-year-old appeared in 10 games for the Astros in 2022, including three in the postseason. Coincidentally, Houston won every game in which he made an appearance. In the short sample size, Brown pitched in only 20.1 innings with a 0.89 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and a 2-0 record in the regular season.

Most importantly, Brown showed flashes of brilliance in the postseason. The most noteworthy performance came in Game Three of the American League Divisional Series against the Seattle Mariners.

With no room for error, the young pitcher came into a scoreless game knowing that one swing of the bat could hand Houston a loss. He not only managed to control the nerves in front of a hostile crowd that hadn’t seen a postseason game in over 20 years, and he pitched two scoreless innings, only allowing one hit.

Again, only a short resumé, but impressive nonetheless. Brown should have a rotation spot secured. Ultimately, the Astros need to see if his flashes were previews of a young, bright career. Best-case scenario, Brown could become the 2023 version of Jeremy Peña, which would be incredible for the Astros.

Owner Jim Crane said a week ago during José Abreu’s introduction news conference, Houston can never have enough pitching. The Astros could kick the tires on available free agents.

With the Astros saving $43 million in 2023 had they matched the Mets’ offer for Verlander, and Crane also saying the biggest needs were an outfield player and a catcher, it would not make sense for Houston to spend big on another pitcher, especially one that would be fourth or fifth in the rotation.

However, it would make sense to bring one on a budget, with the promise of competing for another championship.

Some names worth taking a look at could be Nathan Eovaldi, who is from Houston, Noah Syndergaard, who the Astros saw in the World Series, and Corey Kluber. All three pitchers had an ERA of 4.34 or less in the 2022 season, and according to Sportico, are anticipated to have a market value less than $17 million, which also offers the Astros flexibility to improve other positions.

What the Astros do, only Crane, and probably Jeff Bagwell, know. One thing is for sure, regardless if a new face is brought in or not, Brown deserves a spot in Houston’s 2023 starting rotation.

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