In his first postseason start since a combined World Series no-hitter last year, Javier limited the Minnesota Twins to one hit over five scoreless innings, and the Astros whacked four home runs in a 9-1 victory at Target Field on Tuesday. Houston grabbed a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five division series and can clinch its seventh consecutive ALCS appearance with a win Wednesday.
Capitalizing on the shadows cast over the field by the 3 p.m. start, Javier leaned heavily on his slider — normally difficult to square, positively dastardly with the elements impairing hitters’ vision — and generated 11 swings and misses with the pitch. After a first-inning double by Max Kepler, the 26-year-old Javier navigated the dangerous Twins lineup without allowing further damage. He walked five and struck out nine as he wriggled out of jams in the first, third and fifth innings, the latter of which he punctuated with back-to-back strikeouts of Kepler and Twins cleanup hitter Royce Lewis.
During the first, Twins fans started counting down the pitch clock in unison, an effort to get into Javier’s head. For a player whose unflappability is as much a defining feature as his invisible fastball and sneaky slider, the results went about as expected.
“I used it in my favor,” Javier said. “At that point, I stopped paying attention to the clock because they were counting and just paid attention to the catcher.”
His catcher, veteran Martin Maldonado, smirked at the idea of Javier being thrown off his game.
“I think the only way you can rattle him is if you punch him,” Maldonado said. “I spent time with him off the field, and that’s him. Same thing you guys see on the mound.”
Everyone saw a reasonable facsimile of what Javier delivered last October. In Game 3 of the ALCS, his first playoff start, he threw 5⅓ shutout innings and allowed just one hit. Eleven days later, in Game 4 of the World Series, he went six hitless innings, combining with three relievers on just the second no-hitter in World Series history.
Over his three postseason starts, Javier has held batters to an .040 batting average (2-for-50). He became the fourth pitcher in history with at least three consecutive scoreless starts of five or more innings, joining Hall of Famers Whitey Ford and Christy Mathewson — who threw complete games in their streaks — along with Kenny Rogers.
Astros manager Dusty Baker contemplated yanking Javier, particularly after he walked the bases loaded in the fifth, but gave him the benefit of the doubt.
“We had to make a decision on whether to leave him in there or go to somebody else. He came through,” Baker said. “He can smell a victory — or he can smell when I’m about to take him out.”
The team’s victory never was in question. First baseman Jose Abreu, in his first season with the Astros, hammered a three-run home run in the first inning off Twins starter Sonny Gray and capped the scoring with a two-run shot in the ninth. In between, the Astros got homers from Alex Bregman and Yordan Alvarez, who now has four in the series.
“It was a difficult day to hit,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “So them jumping out early was very, very important. Whichever team did that was going to definitely be in the driver’s seat because the game times that we have right now and our ballpark make it very difficult to see the ball.”
It’s even tougher with Javier on the mound. While he ran into troubles during his first full season as a starter — his 4.56 ERA this year was more than two runs higher than last year — the October version of Javier is impeccable. Especially when his slider is, as he deemed it, “tremendous. … I thought it was super good. Thankfully I was able to throw it inside the strike zone. My whole plan was to use it and try to attack.”
Minnesota, whose home run-happy offense helped secure an AL Central title, registered a pair of hits off reliever Hunter Brown to score its only run in the sixth. Bryan Abreu, Phil Maton and Rafael Montero held the Twins hitless over the final three innings and combined for five strikeouts.