Jose Urquidy, a full-bearded, easy-throwing right-handed pitcher from Mexico, was an afterthought in the World Series before Saturday.
The 24-year-old rookie had seven starts on his major league resume, all in the regular season, and had made just two playoff relief appearances. The Houston Astros chose him to start Game 4 on Saturday night, but it was not the usual nod. They were prepared to pull him at the first sign of trouble and proceed with an endless procession of relievers. Simply getting through the Washington Nationals’ lineup twice was the objective.
“We trust you, but not really” was the gist.
The anticipated reliever rollout never materialized. Urquidy responded by surpassing the Astros’ wildest expectations with five scoreless innings and they blew the game open in the seventh inning on Alex Bregman’s grand slam to seal an 8-1 victory at Nationals Park.
“I never imagined playing in the World Series and winning a game,” Urquidy said. “It’s a big deal for me. I’m proud of myself.”
Two days ago, the Astros, after posting the best regular-season record in the majors, arrived in Washington staggered. They had absorbed two losses at home with their best starting pitchers on the mound. Their margin for error was narrow. The series is tied at two games apiece after they held the Nationals to two runs across 18 innings. Game 5 will be played Sunday with President Trump in attendance. It will be Gerrit Cole against Max Scherzer in a rematch of Game 1.
“It’s win two of three now,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said.
One of the few areas the Nationals were thought to have an advantage in this series was in starting pitching depth. Though both teams have three premier pitchers fronting their starting rotations, the Nationals employ a fourth — Anibal Sanchez — they have entrusted to log a starter’s workload in the postseason. Houston does not.
The Astros haven’t had a clear No. 4 starter after Cole, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke in the playoffs. Those three pitchers started each of their five games in the AL Division Series. In Game 6 of the AL Championship Series, they used Brad Peacock as an opener for 12/3 innings before deploying six relievers against the New York Yankees.
Urquidy was one of the six. It was one of his two outings since last starting a game Sept. 27. The Astros chose him to become the third Mexican-born pitcher to start a World Series contest after using five relievers to record 13 outs in Game 3 in hopes that he could provide some length.
The Nationals, meanwhile, signed Patrick Corbin to a six-year, $140-million contract last offseason for nights like these, but he wasn’t sharp in the first inning.
Four Houston singles produced two runs before Carlos Correa walked on seven pitches to load the bases with one out. Corbin slithered free before another run scored by getting Robinson Chirinos to ground into an inning-ending double play.
Three innings later, Chirinos countered. After Correa drew a leadoff walk, Corbin tried sneaking an 0-1 changeup by Chirinos. The pitch hung and Chirinos blasted it to the seats beyond the left-field wall, giving Houston a 4-0 lead. Chirinos became the first catcher to homer in consecutive World Series games since Ted Simmons in 1982.
Corbin gave up four runs on seven hits in six innings. The outing was far from sterling, but it kept the Nationals in the game. Urquidy, a year removed from topping out at single A, was better.
He held the Nationals to two hits. He walked none and struck out four. He pumped a 96-mph fastball by Juan Soto to strike him out in the fourth inning. He was dealing without any evidence that he was laboring after tossing 67 pitches. But Astros manager A.J. Hinch was unwilling to let him face the Nationals’ lineup a third time and took him out.
“I battled with that decision,” Hinch said. “I didn’t want to get too greedy with him. … I tried to be proactive.”
Josh James was summoned to pitch the sixth inning. Trouble brewed immediately. James walked two of the three batters he faced before he was removed for Will Harris, Houston’s relief ace. Anthony Rendon greeted Harris with a comebacker that bounced away, loading the bases for Juan Soto. Hinch’s decision to pull Urquidy was on the verge of disaster. But Harris got Soto on a ground ball to first base and struck out Howie Kendrick to limit the damage to one run.
The Nationals’ transition to the relief corps started the same way but ended very differently. Like James, Tanner Rainey faced three batters and walked two of them before he was yanked. Nationals manager Dave Martinez inserted Fernando Rodney, a 42-year-old right-hander, for the second consecutive night. Like Harris, he gave up a single to fill the bases.
In Game 3, the Nationals had intentionally walked Michael Brantley to get to the struggling Bregman with the bases loaded. The strategy worked. On Saturday, the MVP candidate golfed a 93-mph fastball down the left-field line for a grand slam. He admired the blast, knowing the Astros were three innings away from overcoming their biggest disadvantage.
“It felt good just to add some insurance,” Bregman said, “because Jose Urquidy did a great job.”