Urquidy makes it look easy to help Astros level World Series vs. Braves

The Houston Astros used a four-run inning, all driven in through singles and Jose Urquidy went five innings of two run ball to take Game 2 of the World Series with a 7-2 win over the Atlanta Braves.

Dominant pitching and timely hitting. That’s the simple formula behind how the Houston Astros topped the Atlanta Braves Wednesday night, 7-2, to even the World Series.

Festivities now shift to Georgia for the next three games this weekend.

But before we get there, these are your Game 2 takeaways.

Urquidy makes it look easy

The last time Jose Urquidy was on a World Series mound, he was a 24-year-old rookie with only 11 MLB appearances under his belt. But what he lacked in experience he made up for in moxie, allowing only two baserunners over five shutout innings against the Washington Nationals in Game 4 of the 2019 fall classic. The Astros entered that game down one in the series. Largely thanks to Urquidy, they exited it tied.

Two years later, Urquidy was back in a similar spot — trying to help his team level a World Series. The difference now is Urquidy has established himself as a staple of Houston’s young, homegrown rotation, pitching to a 3.62 ERA over 20 starts this season with a 4.5 per cent walk rate that ranked fifth among the 129 MLB pitchers to throw at least 100 innings. That’s why this time around he was starting Game 2 rather than 4.

And while Urquidy wasn’t quite as dominant as he was two years prior, he was more than good enough, holding Atlanta to two runs on six hits while striking out seven over five innings. He threw a mistake fastball to Travis d’Arnaud in the second, coughing up an early solo shot. And he left a two-out heater up to Freddie Freeman in the fifth, letting the Braves first baseman drive in d’Arnaud’s leadoff single for a second run. But otherwise, Urquidy had Atlanta hitters off-balance all night.

Fastballs up; curveballs downs; sliders away from righties; changeups on the outside edge to lefties. Urquidy had it all working, bouncing back well from a blow-up outing in Game 3 of the ALCS against Boston.

Houston was an offensive force this year, leading MLB in runs scored. But the strength of this club in seasons to come is almost certainly going to be a young, controllable, homegrown rotation headlined by Lance McCullers Jr. and Framber Valdez, along with Luis Garcia and Urquidy, neither of whom will even qualify for arbitration next season. Mix in Cristian Javier, plus top pitching prospect Hunter Brown, and the Astros rotation is as well constructed as any in the game for years to come.

Nickeled and dimed

Atlanta starter Max Fried is a much better pitcher than he often gets credit for, having pitched to a 1.74 ERA over 93 second-half innings this season, and boasting MLB’s fifth-lowest ERA (2.84) since the beginning of 2020. For reference, Max Scherzer’s ERA over that span is 2.81. Gerrit Cole’s is 3.11.

Yeah, Fried is one of the best arms going. But he doesn’t get the job done with flashy, high-velocity, high-spin tools, relying instead on command and control of a four-pitch mix he’ll throw to either side of the platoon (plus a show-me changeup right-handers have to keep in the back of their minds) to generate weak contact at an elite rate.

And that was the case Wednesday. Of the 11 pitches Houston hitters put in play off Fried through Game 2’s first two innings, seven came off bats at 89 m.p.h. or slower. The hardest exit velocity Fried allowed through four innings was a 102.3 m.p.h. fly ball off Alex Bregman’s bat. The problem was all that weak contact was finding holes in Atlanta’s defence. And the Astros were happy to keep the line moving.

A run came in the first as Jose Altuve — the Astros second baseman led off by serving a pitch in and off the plate up the left field line at 83.8 m.p.h. for a double — came home on a pair of fly balls, including Bregman’s. And four more came in the second as the bottom of the Astros order strung together four consecutive singles, none hit harder than 94.4 m.p.h.

An Eddie Rosario throwing error in the middle of it all didn’t help. Neither did a two-out, two-strike curveball Fried left a little too high on the plate later in the inning to Michael Brantley, who came up with a single of his own at the end of a patient plate appearance.

This being the World Series, no one would have been shocked to see Braves manager Brian Snitker get an itchy trigger finger and yank his starter before a rough outing spiralled into a disastrous one. But this was a clear case of results not reflecting process. Fried was varying his pitches well, staying off the heart of the plate, and getting weak contact. The Astros were just finding holes.

It’s certainly worth noting that Snitker desperately needed his starter to pitch deep into Game 2, after he asked his bullpen to get 20 outs a night earlier when Charlie Morton left his start in the third inning. But the way Fried was pitching had to make it easier to stick with him. And naturally Fried responded by retiring 10 straight after Brantley’s second-inning single.

Incredibly, Fried pitched deeper into the game than Urquidy, taking the mound for the beginning of the sixth inning. But a Yordan Alvarez walk and Carlos Correa single finally got Snitker up and out of the dugout, ending an 86-pitch outing in which Fried deserved better than his line in the box score would suggest.

Finishing the job

We mentioned Cristian Javier as a starter earlier, but he’s spending this October logging bulk innings out of Houston’s bullpen, making hitters look foolish with his overpowering fastball-slider mix. It’s an incredible weapon for Astros manager Dusty Baker to have at his disposal when he pulls his starter from a game, as was the case Wednesday when Javier followed Urquidy in the sixth inning.

Javier’s typically very good. But on Wednesday, his slider was unfair. Javier threw it 15 times in a 27-pitch outing, earning five swinging strikes. He struck out Austin Riley with it. He popped up Adam Duvall with it. And he got d’Arnaud to chase one that ended up nowhere close to the plate.

Javier’s inning-and-a-third — he’s now thrown nine scoreless innings this post-season — helped quell any hope of a late Braves rally, while Astros hitters continued to tack on insurance runs. One came as the Braves botched a double play attempt in the sixth, letting Alvarez score from third. And another came in the seventh when Altuve took the first pitch of Drew Smyly’s relief outing 374-feet over the wall in left.

From there, Ryan Pressly held the Braves to a walk in the eighth, and Kendall Graveman went three-up, three-down on 10 pitches in the ninth to seal the win. Dominant pitching and timely hitting is a pretty good recipe for winning a ballgame. And it’s why this series is now tied.

Up next

The series now shifts to Atlanta, where National League rules will be in effect when Game 3 begins Friday night at 8:09 p.m. ET.

That means probable starters Luis Garcia and Ian Anderson will make plate appearances (in potentially the final World Series contested without a universal DH — but that’s a topic for another day). It also means the Astros will likely start Yordan Alvarez in left field, accepting a defensive liability to keep the 24-year-old’s red-hot bat in the lineup. It’s at least a seamless fit with rookie Jose Siri going to the bench, Kyle Tucker shifting to centre, and Michael Brantley taking over in right.

Atlanta will have a tougher decision to make. The Braves will no doubt want to keep Jorge Soler — the club’s designated hitter over the first two games — in the lineup as a corner outfielder, meaning Snitker and co. will have to choose one of Joc Pederson or Adam Duvall to send to the bench. Both were hitting well earlier this post-season, but neither has done much since the midway point of the NLCS, save for Duvall’s homer in Tuesday’s Game 1. Maybe that — plus Pederson’s three strikeouts in Game 2 — gives him the edge.

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