If he ever felt any apprehension joining the Houston Astros in the middle of a postseason run as he did this summer, former Angels catcher Martin Maldonado long ago dispelled it.
He said on Friday evening at Fenway Park, where the Astros and Boston Red Sox worked out and took batting practice ahead of Saturday’s American League Championship Series opener, that the toughest thing about being traded from the Angels to the Astros was earning the trust of the new pitchers he was paired with.
When Maldonado was jettisoned from Anaheim in late July, Houston’s pitching staff was already one of the most successful in baseball. Starters Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole had anchored the Astros’ stellar rotation and earned trips to the All-Star game. Reliever Collin McHugh had a 0.96 ERA in 32 outings during the first half. Verlander and McHugh, and several others, had helped lead the Astros to the franchise’s first World Series title last year.
The task was daunting.
“My job was to prove to them that I was not here to change anything but to help them and try to be on the same page as them,” Maldonado said in Spanish.
It seems Maldonado has had no trouble inspiring the Astros’ pitching staff to embrace him and trust him with their livelihoods. He was commended by Verlander, who will start Game 1 of the ALCS for the Astros on Saturday, for his ability to fit in.
“He was, like, ‘[Offense is] not why I was brought here,’ ” Verlander said to gathered reporters. “ ‘I was brought here to make you guys better as a starting pitching staff… to stop the running game, to do the little things as a catcher.’ And he understood that and he took a lot of pride in that, and I think that’s what made the transition seamless.”
Starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel, too, marveled at Maldonado’s aptitude.
“He wanted to learn and I think the willingness to do that extends beyond just the standard getting to know everybody over time,” Keuchel said. “He was on a team that was hungry to win again and he knew that, so he just fit right in, just like it was nothing. Like he was already here for a couple years.”
Even Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who was the Astros’ bench coach last year, took notice. He lavished Maldonado with praise during his news conference Friday, saying he was the biggest difference for the Astros defensively.
“I didn’t see that coming, knowing that Brian [McCann] was going to be healthy and [Max] Stassi was playing great,” he said. “But that’s what the Astros do. They think ahead … So they decided to go to one of the best defensive catchers in the league. He’s been outstanding.”
Maldonado, 32, spent five seasons with Milwaukee as a backup before the Angels acquired him in a trade in December 2016.
He emerged last season as an everyday catcher and won a Gold Glove while hitting 14 home runs in 138 games.
He was on track to push for another defensive award with the Angels this season as he shepherded rookie two-way player Shohei Ohtani through his first pro season in the United States. Ohtani had a 3.12 ERA in the eight games that Maldonado caught for him.
But as the Angels’ rotation was ruined by injuries, the team’s chances for a serious postseason run cratered. General manager Billy Eppler chose to get something in return for Maldonado, who will become a free agent this winter.
The trade caught Maldonado off guard. But in the two and a half months that have passed since the move was made, he has relished the opportunity to join a team that was seeking to return to the playoffs and win a second consecutive World Series championship.
“You always yearn for a World Series, to play in October, which I’m finally doing,” Maldonado said. “That’s why you play the game.”