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‘These guys are mean’: Houston thrives on unexpected stars


PHILADELPHIA — Morgan Ensberg saw this four years ago, from the batter’s box in the bullpen in Buies Creek, North Carolina. A former All-Star third baseman, Ensberg sometimes stood there to take a closer look at the pitchers he managed for the Houston Astros. Class A farm team. There was plenty to admire.

“There were guys that weren’t on any prospect list,” Ensberg said, “but if you were there and watching, there were guns constantly.”

Ensberg spoke late Wednesday night from his California home after watching one of those pitchers, Cristian Javier, start the second no-hitter in World Series history. Javier and three relievers outscored the Philadelphia Phillies, 5-0, to tie the World Series in Game 4 at Citizens Bank Park.

The Phillies, who hit five home runs on Tuesday, felt the same helplessness Ensberg felt during those bullpen sessions in the Carolina League. Javier’s fastball spins so much, Bryce Harper said, it appears to be going 97 miles per hour when it’s actually 93.

“It’s almost like it’s late,” Ensberg said. “You see it a tick late, and it’s by you.”

That’s an apt description of Houston’s flood of pitching talent: By the time most people noticed how deep it was, the Astros had passed their rivals. Five years after their only championship, the franchise has continued to thrive with a surge of pitching that has never been better.

The Astros had the lowest ERA in team history this season, at 2.90, while holding their opponents to an ERA of .212, also a club record. Javier and the Game 4 relievers — Bryan Abreu, Rafael Montero and Ryan Pressly — have combined to average 11.6 strikeouts per nine innings this season. They stoked 14 in the no-hitter.

Javier, 25, was never going to finish it; his career high for innings is seven, and he needed 97 pitches to work six innings on Wednesday. But he is clearly ill-chosen as the No. 4 starter.

“Javy goes out there and does what he does,” Pressly said, the closer, nonchalantly, “and honestly, I think he’s the most underrated pitcher in the league.”

Javier went from outfielder to pitcher at 16, the age at which many Dominican Republic prospects turn pro. He signed just before his 18th birthday for $10,000, the same bonus the Astros gave Framber Valdez, a Dominican left-hander, in 2015. The team gave José Urquidy a $100,000 bonus that year. , a right-hander from Mexico, and $20,000. in 2017 to Luis Garcia, a right-hander from Venezuela.

Add it all up and the Astros spent $140,000 to sign four pitchers from Latin America who combined to make 112 starts this season. None of the four have ever been listed as a top 100 prospect by MLB.com.

“When I got here, I only knew what I had read, that the system is a bit empty,” said reliever Ryne Stanek, who signed with Houston before last season. “But then you see these guys coming in and you’re like, ‘What do you mean, empty? These guys are mean. Obviously, lead ranking means nothing when those guys weren’t leads.

Ensberg said the Astros essentially doubled their starter inventory using a piggyback system; that is, two pitchers working four innings each each time during the rotation. That way, the organization had more options for pitchers who could be turned into starters at higher levels — and more types of starters who knew relief.

“Not many teams do it at all, but starting pitchers are the most valuable and the Astros wanted to develop and harvest starting pitchers – and they’re very good at it,” said Ensberg, who now manages in the system. of the Tampa Bay Rays.

“But what’s most important is that the Astros were really good at figuring out how to teach pitchers to throw their pitches with certain throwing shapes – figuring out what would be most effective and figuring out what the body needs to be capable of. to do to produce this.”

Some of the architects of the Astros system have moved on. Jeff Luhnow, the former general manager, was fired at the start of 2020 after revelations about the team’s illegal sign-stealing scheme during its title season. Oz Ocampo, a top international scout, will soon become Miami’s assistant general manager. Brent Strom, the influential former pitching coach, now works for Arizona.

But the prospects they cultivated continue to carry the Astros to the World Series, even after the departure of stalwarts like Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke. Urquidy beat Washington in the 2019 World Series and beat Atlanta twice last fall. Garcia blanked Seattle five innings to claim an 18-inning streak last month.

Valdez and Javier have the Astros’ World Series wins. Valdez — a first-time All-Star this summer — worked six innings and a third with nine strikeouts in Game 2, and Javier also whipped up nine in Game 4.

Meanwhile, the only Astros pitchers to make MLB.com’s Top 100 Prospects list between 2017 and 2021 — Forrest Whitley and Josh James — have been derailed by injuries. The international signees teamed up with personnel ace Justin Verlander to keep the Astros on top.

“We always felt like our guys’ ratings were light,” said Josh Miller, the team’s pitching coach. “We feel like we have a lot, and we always have. But I would be lying if I told you that most of these guys would become high end starters and big bullpen chunks at this point. They exceeded expectations.

Ocampo, who signed Javier, Valdez and Garcia, tweeted a photo of the trio after Javier’s match 4 win, complete with a lizard emoji. It was a nod to Javier’s nickname, El Reptil, given to him in Buies Creek by Ensberg and a trainer, Drew French.

“This guy is cold-blooded,” Ensberg said. “He never seems nervous, he’s always cool and calm all the time. Nothing bothers him at all. I was always like, ‘Does he know how good he is?’ »

After an indelible performance in the World Series, the secret is out.

Ben Shpigel and Jacques Wagner contributed report.




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