BOSTON – This is not how the Houston Astros are accustomed to rolling through the playoffs.
Since acquiring Justin Verlander in August 2017, high-end starting pitching was the backbone of a club fronted, for better and worse, by offensive superstars. They fell one victory shy of a 2019 World Series title with a front three – Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke – whose largest contracts total $710 million.
Now, three victories away from a World Series, the Astros face what appears to be an uphill climb against a suffocating Boston Red Sox lineup in an American League Championship Series tied 1-1.
With Cole a Yankee, Verlander shelved after 2020 Tommy John surgery, a diminished Greinke confined to bullpen or emergency starter and current ace Lance McCullers Jr. out with a forearm injury, they will first confront reality before the Fenway Park masses in Game 3.
“We have to go with what we have,” says venerated Astros pitching coach Brent Strom, who will try to beat Boston’s baseball team while still a fan of its basketball squad. “It’s kind of like Rick Pitino once said when the Celtics were struggling, ‘Well, there’s no Bird, McHale and Parish walking through the door.’
“We are what we are, and we’ll see where it takes us.”
What they do have is a trio of pitchers whose humble beginnings are both a testament to the organization’s top-to-bottom pitching apparatus – and their own determination to be great.
José Urquidy, Framber Valdez and Luis Garcia converged on the Astros’ training complex in the Dominican Republic from three countries but with similar pedigrees – largely overlooked, and far from financially secure.
Urquidy and Valdez were signed two weeks apart in March 2015, Urquidy just two months shy of his 20th birthday and Valdez already 22, ancient by international signing standards. The Astros’ largest investment in Urquidy was negotiating his release from a Mexican League club, while Valdez received a $100,000 signing bonus out of the Dominican Republic.
Two years later, four months before the Astros claimed the 2017 World Series title, Garcia was signed out of Venezuela for just $20,000.
Now, they are the 1-2-3 the Astros hope will take down the Red Sox, the culmination of climbing eight organizational rungs to land at the game’s penultimate stage.
2021 ALCS: Red Sox flex their muscles in Game 2 victory
They lack the overwhelming stuff and obvious physical attributes that define the 16-year-olds who become international signees – and millionaires – as soon as the July signing period begins.
Yet their delayed professional launches also had upside – time to mature, physically and mentally, and develop a stubborn belief as they kicked around lower-level ball and showcases in their homelands, hoping for a chance from a major league club.
“The younger that you are, the more naïve and immature you are and think everything has to be given to you,” says Rick Aponte, a pitching coach at the Astros’ Dominican academy and a member of their organization for 44 of the past 46 years. “As you get older, they have a better view of life and been through a lot of things before they come to us.
“Most Latinos that play in the big leagues and been outstanding players are often not the young guys. Very seldom do you find young guys from the Dominican or Mexico that become Miguel Cabrera or Manny Ramirez or Vinny Castilla. The Latinos develop later. The organizations that get them at 16, 17 years old, the frustration they go through in the minors, can take away the drive and then it fades away.
“But the guys that have been through many obstacles to sign – those are the guys that are hungry. If you get little money, you are humble. You don’t think about big things – you think about your family, your wellbeing, and you focus more.”
While the Astros aren’t the players’ family, they aim to create an environment for international players that can buttress their player development and cope with life as a professional.
'Get guys that spin it’
It always starts with the scouts, and while the Astros were on the leading edge of shifting from in-person to video scouting, and the use of batted ball and pitch data, it was plain old eyeballs that unearthed their three playoff starters.
In Mexico, area scout and coordinator Raul Lopez and scout Carlos Alfonso identified Urquidy’s advanced pitchability and command, and pried the pitcher, then an amateur, from his team there. Valdez’s advanced curveball caught the eye of scout Roman Ocumarez, and endorsed by David Brito, now a cross checker for the Seattle Mariners.
Garcia’s physical skills were less obvious, and his signing bonus reflected it. Yet all three shared attributes – strength in the lower half, athleticism, body coordination and control – that cannot be taught.
If there’s an “eye test” guy among the bunch, it would be Valdez, a left-hander who at 5-11 and 239 pounds is “built like a fullback or linebacker,” as Astros manager Dusty Baker puts it. And there’s one pitch in particular that’s hard to miss.
“One thing I learned early from Brent Strom,” says Oz Ocampo, the Astros’ former director of international operations, “it’s get guys that can spin it in the organization.”
And Ocampo, now with the Pittsburgh Pirates, says Valdez’s curve was “the best we’d seen in quite some time. That curveball was a separator. It didn’t matter if he was 16, 18, 20, 23. We knew we wanted to sign him.”
Befitting his age, Valdez moved quickly, scaling five levels in two seasons and hitting Class AA in 2017. He struck out 69 in a 44-inning big league debut in 2019 and won two of his three playoff starts in 2020 as the Astros fell a game shy of consecutive World Series trips.
Urquidy, though, has already pitched in a Fall Classic – starting and winning a crucial Game 4 at Washington to tie that series 2-2. His star turn came one year after he was still in A ball, thrilling many in the organization.
“There’s two personalities – one where he’s just a good human being who cares about people around him,” says Ocampo, “and the other part, where he’s just competitive on the mound. He carries both with him at all times, but you see the shift when he goes onto the mound and all that work ethic and competitive fire comes out.
“While some might have been surprised from the outside, knowing him and what he was capable of, I wasn’t surprised at all.”
Handling the spotlight is one of the many skills the Astros hope to teach their foreign signees before they graduate from the Dominican academy. The glue to the effort is Caridad Cabrera, the team’s director of Latin American operations who guides players in everything from learning English to ensuring the prospects are well-fed.
“I can’t say it enough, but she’s the one that’s the head of the academy that makes everything fall into place,” says Aponte. “Without her, we wouldn’t have a great deal of the well-oiled (operation) that we do now.”
On the baseball end, the Astros have largely achieved an aim that every team desires: Unifying its instruction from the big league club to the lowest levels. From Aponte and Julio “El Capitan” Linares in the Dominican, to minor-league pitching coach Erick Abreu and Strom’s younger lieutenants in Houston, Bill Murphy and Josh Miller, executives at the highest level are effusive over the team effort.
Much of it starts with Strom, 73, who is perhaps the most revolutionary pitching coach in this advanced era. His work with Verlander and Cole is well-documented.
Less celebrated are his travels to the Dominican academy, where he pours his knowledge into the greenest of arms the furthest away from Houston.
“Brent comes here and visits us,” says Aponte, “and he doesn’t speak fluent Spanish yet our (prospects) say, ‘This is the big league coach instructing me!”
Says Astros general manager James Click: “Strommy will be the first to say it’s not just him,” says Click. “He will tell you they make him look good. But I will tell you, it’s fun to watch Strommy do his work and learn from him and see how he gets the most out of these pitchers and how to identify their strengths at the big league level.”
Now, a short-term challenge: Repelling the Red Sox.
‘We’ll see if they rise’
Boston and Houston spent the first two games of the series pounding the other’s pitching, with Valdez lasting just 2 ⅔ innings of Game 1 – a 5-4 Astros win – and Garcia yielding a first-inning grand slam in Game 2 before leaving that 9-5 loss in the second with knee aggravation.
Urquidy says he’s not worried about stepping in front of this runaway train.
“I know the feeling,” he says through an interpreter. “I know what it means to play in that kind of series. I'm very excited for competing. I'm very happy to be here again.”
Baker figures to start Valdez in Game 4, though it’s likely he brings him back on three days’ rest if the Astros lose Game 3. Garcia threw just 33 pitches in Game 2 and, after his knee felt better Sunday, could possibly start as soon as Game 4.
Baker is grateful Urquidy is first up at Fenway.
“We’ll see if they rise to the occasion or not,” he said of his young trio. “They’ve done it in the past. José was a little rookie pitching in the World Series and he’s calm, cool and mature. If anybody can handle it, we feel José can handle it.”
They will be pushed to their limits by Kiké Hernandez and Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts, World Series champions all, amid the Fenway bandbox. Failure, in fact, is an option.
Yet if they do fall short, it won’t be for lack of effort. Nor should it be the last of them in October.
“All of these kids have been absolutely super. They’re wonderful young men,” says Strom. “They are the future of this organization. Regardless of what happens now, this can only benefit them.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Astros pin ALCS hopes on oft-overlooked trio: 'Guys that are hungry'