Jeff BassonESPN4 minutes of reading
MINNEAPOLIS — Another stingy October trip Christian Javier put the Houston Astros one win away from another American League Championship Series.
In his first postseason start since last year’s combined World Series no-hitter, Javier limited the Minnesota Twins to one win over five scoreless innings and the Astros hit four home runs in a 9-1 win at Target Field on Tuesday. Houston takes a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series and can clinch a seventh consecutive ALCS appearance with a win on Wednesday.
Taking advantage of the shadows cast over the field as early as 3 p.m., Javier leaned heavily on his slider — normally difficult to get square, positively nasty with elements that mar hitters’ vision — and produced 11 swings and misses at the pitch. After Max Kepler’s first-inning double, the 26-year-old Javier led a dangerous doubles lineup without allowing further damage. He walked five and struck out nine as he worked his way out of jams in the first, third and fifth innings, late in the season with back-to-back strikeouts of Kepler and Twins cleanup hitter Royce Lewis.
At first, Twins fans unanimously began counting down the pitch clock in an attempt to get inside Javier’s head. For a player whose elusiveness is as defining a feature as his invisible fastball and sneaky slider, the results went as expected.
“I used that to my advantage,” Javier said. “At that point, I stopped paying attention to the clock as they counted and only paid attention to the catcher.”
His catcher, veteran Martin Maldonado, laughed at Javier being thrown off his game.
“I think you can only hit him if you hit him,” Maldonado said. “I’ve spent time with him off the field, and that’s who he is. The same thing you see on the mound.”
Everyone saw a fair bit of what Javier had to offer last October. In Game 3 of the ALCS, his first playoff start, he threw 5⅓ shutout innings and allowed just one hit. Eleven days later, in Game 4 of the World Series, he pitched six hitless innings along with three relievers for the second no-hitter in World Series history.
In his three postseason starts, Javier has a .040 batting average (2-for-50). Hall of Famers Whitey Ford and Christy Mathewson — Became fourth pitcher in history with at least three consecutive scoreless starts, joining Hall of Famers Whitey Ford and Christy Mathewson.
Astros manager Dusty Baker considered pulling Javier, especially after he walked the bases loaded in the fifth, but gave him the benefit of the doubt.
“We had to make a decision about whether to leave him there or go to someone else. He came,” Baker said. “He can smell a victory—or he can smell it when I take him out.”
The team’s success was never in question. First baseman Jose Abreu, in his first season with the Astros, hit a three-run home run in the first inning off Twins starter Sonny Gray and capped the scoring with a run shot in the ninth. In between, the Astros got homers from Alex Bregman and Yordon Alvarez, who now has four in the series.
“It was a tough day,” doubles manager Rocco Baltelli said. “So it’s very, very important that they jump out early. Whichever team does that will definitely be in the driver’s seat because the game times we’re in now and our ballpark makes it very difficult to see the ball.”
It’s even tougher with Javier on the mound. While he struggled in his first full season as a starter — his 4.56 ERA this year was two runs higher than last year — Javier’s October version was flawless. Especially when his slider was there, as he thought, “Huge. … I thought it was good. Luckily I was able to throw it into the strike zone. My whole plan was to use it and try to hit.”
Minnesota, whose home run-happy offense helped it clinch the AL Central title, recorded a pair of hits to score a run in the sixth off reliever Hunter Brown. Bryan Abreu, Phil Maton and Rafael Montero combined for five strikeouts to hold the Twins hitless over the final three innings.
The Twins plan to start Joe Ryan in Game 4, where he will be opposed by Houston’s Jose Urgudi. Bulls for both teams are expected to play a major role in the game.