Culture / Sporting Life

Dedicated Dad Lance McCullers Jr. Shouldn’t be the Automatic Game 3 Playoff Starter Over Cristian Javier — The Ever Underrated Javier Deserves More Respect

Going With the Much Less Experienced Javier's Dominant Stuff Would Bring Bold Playoff Pitching Decision Making Back to Houston

BY // 10.04.22

Lance McCullers Jr. enters the Houston Astros interview room offering an apology for the reporters who expected to talk to him in the clubhouse like usual. “Sorry guys, it’s past my daughter’s bedtime,” McCullers notes with a pure dad grin.

There may be no better excuse for a venue switch than getting little 2-year-old Ava Rae to sleep. It’s a new time in the newly turned 29-year-old McCullers’ life. But McCullers looks like he’ll be sliding back into a familiar playoff role for the Houston Astros, hunting more October magic.

His last audition for one of the Astros’ coveted spots in the starting playoff rotation is a six inning, one run, five strikeout effort against the playoff-clinching Philadelphia Phillies on Monday night. That lowers McCullers’ ERA to 2.24 in eight starts since he began the Major League pitching part of his comeback from the flexor tendon injury that robbed him of a full 2021 postseason. And maybe robbed the Astros of a real chance at beating the Atlanta Braves in the World Series.

“I’m confident in myself and feel like as long as I came out of my rehab healthy, I knew I was going to throw the ball well,” McCullers says. “It seems like a lot of other people are surprised. But I’m glad with the season up to this point. . .

“I feel like I’ve thrown the ball well against quality opponents. (The Phillies are) playing for a lot over there. That was a good pre-postseason game.”

It’s an even better game for the Phillies who become the second team in four days to turn the visitors clubhouse at Minute Maid Park into a champagne river with a playoff clinch. Minute Maid Park, where other teams party? OK, that definitely won’t be Houston’s October slogan.

And in truth these 104 win Astros have earned the right to use these last few regular season games as glorified exhibitions. The 3-0 loss to the Phillies Monday is more a testament to Aaron Nola turning into an A1 ace, taking a perfect game into the seventh inning, and Kyle Schwarber’s crazy power than anything the Astros didn’t do.

McCullers looking like the best of himself is the only thing that really matters from this game for the Astros. Of course, one of the only pitchers in baseball McCullers isn’t throwing better than at the moment is his own teammate and Game 3 playoff start competitor Cristian Javier.

The Astros have the best of problems — too many pitchers worthy of starting in the postseason. It’s a good problem, but there still can be bad solutions. One of the solutions cannot be keeping Cristian Javier out of the rotation and trying to stuff him back into a bullpen role.

The stats and the stuff scream that Cristian Javier should be the Astros’ No. 3 playoff starter behind only Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez.

Cristian Javier continues to make an indisputable case for being an Astros postseason starter. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Cristian Javier continues to make an indisputable case for being an Astros postseason starter. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Javier’s stuff is beyond elite. It’s no hit worthy stuff on his better days and this unassuming 25-year-old future ace from the Dominican Republic gives the Astros something that no one else in their rotation does. Javier turns hitters into the worst game show guessers ever.

Maybe it’s the fact he’s not that imposing a physical figure. Or the fact he’s devoutly low key and humble in interviews. But Cristian Javier still often seems to be discounted or dismissed as something a little less than elite.

Only, there are few pitchers as dominant as him.

Javier leads the Major Leagues in opposing batting average allowed (.169). He’s given up just 89 hits and struck out 194 in 148 and 2/3 innings. Pedro Martinez himself would appreciate those kinds of ratios.

The stats and the stuff scream that Cristian Javier should be the Astros’ No. 3 playoff starter behind only Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez. Lance McCullers Jr.‘s playoff experience and success put him firmly in the conversation, but that’s not where the discussion should automatically end.

This needs to be a real debate — and it should be treated that way.

“I feel very confident with Lance. He’s been a big-game pitcher for the organization for a number of years.” — Astros manager Dusty Baker

The Lance McCullers and Cristian Javier Debate

Yes, McCullers has authored some beyond huge postseason moments for Houston. He’s one of the most beloved athletes in recent H-Town times for good reason. McCullers has started nine playoff games for the Astros and put up a 2.83 ERA with 62 strikeouts in 57 and 1/3 postseason innings overall.

He’s October tested while Javier is still waiting to make his ever playoff start. That’s an important factor, but history shouldn’t be the only factor. Javier’s today dominance should mean plenty too.

Throw in how much better McCullers is at Minute Maid Park and the idea that he automatically should be the Game 3 starter on the road in next week’s ALDS (likely in Toronto or Seattle) becomes a little questionable.

McCullers himself isn’t jumping into the debate. He’s focusing on the joy of being back, knowing that he’s going to pitch important playoff innings and start a vital playoff game early in the run. (Are we 100 percent certain the Astros are going to bring back ace Justin Verlander for Game 4 of the ALDS, even with the extra off day? Especially if they happen to be up 2-1 in the series.)

“I’m just happy that I was able to make it back,” McCullers says. “I think for a long time, I didn’t know what this year was going to have to offer for me. I came out the other side of the rehab and feel like I’ve been pretty sharp.

“I feel like my stuff has been really good.”

On this October night, it’s good enough to keep a playoff reaching team sweating. The Phillies cannot grab any real breathing room in a game they need so much more than the Astros until after McCullers, his changeup, deceptive cutter and a fastball that consistently reaches 94 MPH leave.

It’s another start in which McCullers seems to get stronger as the game goes on, a testament to just how healthy he seems to be.

“I feel very confident with Lance,” Astros manager Dusty Baker says. “He’s been a big-game pitcher for the organization for a number of years. He’s sharp with all his stuff.”

The old school Baker is always going to lean towards the experienced option. But that shouldn’t make McCullers the automatic choice. Javier arguably authored the most dominant start of the Astros entire season, that 13 strikeout masterpiece in Yankees Stadium that shifted the entire tone of the fight for the No. 1 seed in the American League the Astros way. And Javier’s been almost as dominant as that all September.

The easy decision is to go with Lance McCullers. It’s almost a guarantee against any second guessing. That’s what groupthink would say to do.

But when did these Golden Era Astros ever rely on groupthink? Certainly not during that 2017 world championship run when bold, unexpected pitching decisions turned several series. Lance McCullers or Cristian Javier?

It shouldn’t be as automatic a decision as everyone seems to think. The Astros’ braintrust can’t go wrong on this one. But they can be more right.

Part of the Special Series:

PaperCity - Astros Playoffs