There are six high-profile starters in the World Series. Three on each team. The advance press was that either club could claim to field the best pitching staff in the game.
Cumulatively, those six men cost their organizations more than US$160-million. This year.
During the last off-season, any team in baseball could have had Astros’ Game 4 starter Jose Urquidy for a few grand. He started the year in Double-A. He didn’t appear in his first major-league game until September.
And just right now, when it actually counts, Urquidy is the best of all of them. Over five innings on Saturday night, he was masterful. Two hits, no runs, less than zero sweat. There is cool, there is Steve McQueen cool and then there is Jose Urquidy-in-the-World Series cool.
The result is a championship that has been turned on its head. Two days ago, this was an underdog story. It’s an overdog one now. The Houston Astros won 8-1, have the series tied 2-2 and are on the march.
Against Urquidy, the Nationals sent out one of their bold-face names: Patrick Corbin and his knee-buckling slider.
Coming out of a pitcher’s hand, the slider looks like a fastball. Just before it gets to you, it begins to ‘slide’ off the plate.
When thrown by a left-hander, it breaks in to right-handed batters. What you thought was headed for your sweet spot ends up nearly hitting you in the feet. Thrown correctly, the slider is an unhittable pitch. No left-hander in baseball throws it more effectively than Corbin.
There’s one problem with the slider. In order to sell it to good hitters, you need to set it up with an actual fastball.
In the first inning, Houston treated Corbin’s warm-up offerings like batting practice.
Four, early-in-the-count consecutive singles in that frame put Houston up 2-0. In this era and in the post-season, that’s the equivalent of 10-0.
In the third, in a position to push a runner to third, Corbin pooched that, too. His bunt only made it as far as Houston pitcher, Jose Urquidy. Easy out. Rally ruined.
Urquidy, who makes nickels, looked more like the $140-million Washington is paying for Corbin. Lacking any particular asset other than power, Urquidy pushed the Nationals around like they were the Blue Jays.
These days, throwing five innings makes you Walter Johnson. It’s like running a baseball marathon.
Throughout, Urquidy looked supremely blasé. Once he came out, Astros reliever Josh James came in. He walked two, got pulled and very definitely did not look blasé as he watched subsequent inning unfold without him. That’s how fine the margins are. Those walks didn’t matter in the end, which may have saved James’ position in Houston.
Baseball really isn’t a sport. Not like football or soccer. In order to perform most duties, you don’t need to be superhumanly fit. What you need is superhuman focus. This is especially true of pitchers.
Some guys have that focus, some guys have the stuff and some guys have a sense of occasion. On the evening, Urquidy had more of all three than anyone else on the field.
It’s a lot of fun to watch a guy who was a nobody become a somebody. Urquidy, 24, of Mazatlan, Mexico, did that on Saturday night. He had what may turn out to be the most transformational night of his life.
After the Nationals pulled Corbin, it all went to hell. Tanner Rainey walked a couple of guys. Fernando Rodney gave up a grand slam to Alex Bregman. Then he started walking guys. The crowd wasn’t just neutralized, but neutered.
Baseball these days is about pitching. You can’t have any weak links. The Nationals have been exposed here in Washington, while the Astros have plugged their rotational leaks.
Now Houston goes back to its strengths – Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander. Both were miserable in their first two championship starts. History suggests they won’t be miserable again.
Game 5 on Sunday should be quite an occasion, and not just because of the baseball. U.S. President Donald Trump is slated to attend. I’m sure that won’t be a distraction to the Nationals.
On the field and in reality, this World Series is still up for grabs. But it doesn’t feel that way any more.