March 31, 2023

© Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

PHILADELPHIA – Momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher, and once Cristian Javier is in motion, he tends not to stop. The 25-year-old, nominally Houston’s no. 4 starter, had one of the best high-stakes starts you’ll ever see. He and three relievers threw the second no-hitter in World Series history, and the first combined no-hitter in any round of the MLB playoffs.

Just 24 hours ago the Phillies teed off on Lance McCullers Jr., sending 45,000 fans at Citizens Bank Park into a lusty froth. Five home runs for the Phillies and an offensive no-show from the Astros made an upset run to a title seem as real a possibility as ever. But Javier and the Astros came back with a vengeance, giving as good as they got and then some to win 5-0 and level the series.

Astros right-hander Ryan Pressly, who closed out the game, called Javier one of the most underrated starters in baseball.

“There’s not a moment that’s big enough [for him],” Pressly said. “He just goes out there and does what he wants to do… He doesn’t get the credit [for] how he goes out there and handles his business. The lights aren’t big enough. I mean, we’re on the biggest stage in baseball and he goes out there and does what he normally does.”

Coming off Tuesday’s brutal 7-0 loss, the Astros — in addition to the obvious historical significance of the no-hitter — accomplished three things that had not been done this postseason. First, they became the first team to beat the Phillies twice in a single playoff series this year. Second, they won a game on the road in Philadelphia. Third, they gave the Phillies the genuine gut punch loss they’d avoided all postseason. There was no late-inning comeback to keep the game close, no moral victory to spin forward. The Astros were, for the first time this World Series, the demoralizing, baseball-conquering machine they were advertised to be, and inflicted a defeat the likes of which the Phillies have not suffered this postseason.

Javier’s parents had flown in from the Dominican Republic to see his start, and he said after the game it was the first time his father had seen him pitch in the majors. Based on the results, he should invite them back for every game.

“It was the best gift that I could have ever given them,” Javier said. “I know that they’re really proud of me for what I was able to accomplish today.”

It was also a gift for an Astros team that, after blowing a lead in Game 1 and getting dingered to death in Game 3, was in dire need of some zeroes.

In the fifth inning, Houston ground five runs out of Aaron Nola and José Alvarado. As much as postseason offense is driven by the home run anymore, the Astros lit up two of Philadelphia’s best pitchers the old-fashioned way.

Nola used three different fastballs and a change-up to keep the Astros off his curve. He attacked the edges of the zone against Houston’s most dangerous hitters while staying away from the middle of the plate. The result was a handful of singles but no walks and only one extra-base hit, a double. The Astros hit the ball hard but either at or in front of the Phillies’ outfielders, and crucially nothing over the fence.

That worked, but only for four innings, or almost exactly two trips through the order. The Astros started the top of the fifth by stringing three singles together with their first three hitters, loading the bases with nobody out for Yordan Alvarez — just about the worst combination of hitter and base-out state a pitcher could encounter this postseason. Alvarado, pitching for the first time since Friday, hit Alvarez with his first pitch to bring home a run. Then Alex Bregman doubled in two more, Kyle Tucker hit a sac fly to bring in Alvarez, and Yuli Gurriel singled home Bregman. In minutes, a tense 0-0 game had been busted open with a five-run inning. And there, at 5-0, the score remained until the game’s conclusion.

If there’s a nit to pick with how the Astros played, it’s that they only managed to break through once in nine innings. But Houston made the one outburst count, with precisely the kind of methodical, sequential, steamroller offense they’ve employed for years.

And those five runs turned out to be more than enough when Javier, Bryan Abreu, Rafael Montero, and Pressly not only held the Phillies without a home run, but held them without a hit of any kind.

Javier is the least well-known of the Astros’ starters. Obviously the likes of McCullers and Justin Verlander have been around long enough to become household names. And Houston’s other young pitchers, Luis Garcia and José Urquidy, had memorable postseason starts while Javier pitched out of the pen in the 2020 and ’21 playoffs.

Javier was superb in his first postseason start, which amounted to 5 1/3 innings of scoreless one-hit ball in Yankee Stadium. When tasked with a similar challenge in hostile territory with higher stakes, he was even better.

His first time through the order, Javier threw nothing but the four-seamer and slider; those two pitches combined to make up 88% of his arsenal in the regular season and 95 of 97 total pitches he threw on Wednesday. Five Phillies hitters — Kyle Schwarber, Bryce Harper, Nick Castellanos, Bryson Stott, and Jean Segura — saw only one of those two pitches their first time up. And nobody could do anything with it. Even Harper, who saw nothing but fastballs in two plate appearances against Houston’s starter, never really seemed like he had a handle on a pitch that was tailing away from him half the width of the plate.

“I think that’s the best fastball right now in baseball,” catcher Christian Vázquez said.

If Javier could confuse the hottest hitter in the Phillies’ lineup without even showing a secondary pitch, well, you probably saw what that meant for everyone else.

Through six innings, Javier struck out nine of the 20 batters he’d faced, and walked two. He not only didn’t allow a hit, he didn’t allow a batted ball with an xBA over .100 until Brandon Marsh’s routine groundout to start the bottom of the sixth inning — this, ironically, was the point at which Fox dropped the “NO HITTER” tag onto its scorebug. Astros batters, at one point in the sixth, accounted for the 15 batted balls most likely to drop for a hit.

“He was electric,” Dusty Baker said in his postgame press conference. “He threw the ball up, down, and that shows you that the best pitch in baseball is still the well-located fastball.”

Or in more qualitative terms: Schwarber led off the bottom of the first with a pretty hard-hit fly ball. The next 19 Phillies hitters either walked, struck out, popped the ball up, or hit a routine grounder to an Astros infielder.

In a regular season no-hitter, the stakes are raised in the later innings as the players involved realize the historic import of the last few outs. One oddity unique to a World Series no-hitter is that the stakes are already at the highest possible level from the moment the first pitch is thrown. So while the Astros were cognizant of what Javier and his merry men were in the process of accomplishing, they had to remain focused on the win.

Asked when it dawned on him that they might actually finish the no-hitter, Bregman — the man who fielded the final ground ball — said: “For me, when Yuli [Gurriel] caught the ball at first base to end it. I promise you every single person just wanted one thing today, and that was to win.” (Pressly was a little more optimistic; he said he thought the game was over when Bregman came up with that grounder.)

But as historic as the no-hitter was, and as breathtaking as Javier’s performance was, the boring baseball cliché rings true: The victory was the most important thing. Just one day before, the Astros had been rocked back on their heels by a team that had more self-confidence than it knew what to do with.

Now, the Astros know that no matter what happens in Game 5, this series will be decided in Houston. And in addition to reclaiming home-field advantage, the Astros will oppose the weakest starting pitcher due to pitch this series — Noah Syndergaard — with Justin Verlander.

If momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher, the Astros have to like their chances.

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