Baker’s aggressive relief strategy pays off in G2 win

HOUSTON — Astros skipper Dusty Baker has continued to run a high-wire act with the deployment of his relievers in the first two games of this World Series, displaying aggression not with how he’s using his unfathomably deep bullpen, but in how much he’s willing to stick with his pitchers in situations otherwise unseen in modern postseason baseball.

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And even with a day off on Sunday to reset his relief corps, Baker leaned hard on both Framber Valdez and reliever Rafael Montero to gut through eight innings in the Astros’ 5-2 victory over the Phillies to even the Series on Saturday night at Minute Maid Park. That reliance on Montero led to one of the more dramatic sequences in the Fall Classic thus far in the eighth inning, highlighted by a pair of near-homers by Kyle Schwarber that came tantalizingly close to pushing the Phillies back into the contest.

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Staunch faith in Justin Verlander played no small part in the Phillies’ dramatic Game 1 comeback victory on Friday. One day later, Baker’s faith in sticking with Montero for a season-high 33 pitches ended up working out. It’s looking like that’s how Baker will continue to play his hand in this World Series — dragging the blood pressures of fans in Philadelphia and Houston along for the ride.

“We’ve got an off-day tomorrow,” catcher Martín Maldonado said. “I think it’s the right time to push. It’s a game that we have to win. As a team, those guys have been the strength for us all year. Why not push them? Those guys, that’s the reason why we’re here.”

Martín Maldonado on Valdez, more
But boy, was it an awfully dangerous situation to push, with Montero already having cooled off in the dugout after securing the final two outs of the seventh, the top of the Phillies’ lineup due up in the eighth and Héctor Neris loose in a full bullpen that would be reset by Sunday’s off-day.

Schwarber nearly made the Astros pay for it — twice.

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Montero had only thrown five pitches in the seventh — but that nearly quadrupled to begin the eighth, when Phillies No. 9 hitter Bryson Stott came all the way back from an 0-2 count in a 12-pitch plate appearance that ended in a leadoff walk, turning the lineup over. And after Schwarber worked a 2-2 count, he unloaded on an up-and-in fastball, launching a blast 403 feet down the right-field line somewhere in the vicinity of the foul pole — but where exactly?

Schwarber barely misses HR twice
The initial ruling was fair, giving Schwarber a two-run homer that cut Houston’s lead to 5-3. But the umpiring crew convened before Schwarber had completed his home run trot and overturned the call to foul, leading to a replay review that affirmed the call. To add to the drama, on the very next pitch, Schwarber launched another deep fly — clearly fair — that settled into Kyle Tucker’s glove at the warning track.

“That was crazy,” Astros center fielder Chas McCormick said. “I’ll tell you what, that was crazy. That guy’s an unbelievable hitter. He scares me every time he steps up to the plate because he can put the ball out of the park. I thought he hit it out, honestly.”

“It was close, but it was foul,” Schwarber acknowledged. “I was like, ‘Oh, did they see something that I didn’t see?’ Foul ball. It sucks. You want to put some runs up there. It stinks. But it felt like we had some really good innings and were one swing away.”

After a one-out strikeout to Rhys Hoskins, Baker stuck with Montero to face Game 1 hero J.T. Realmuto — who added to the mounting tension with an infield single up the middle that compounded when shortstop Jeremy Peña flipped the ball to an unoccupied second base thinking Altuve, who ducked to let him throw to first, would be covering. That allowed Stott to move up to third.

And even after all that, Baker still kept Montero in to push past his season-high in pitches, with those unprecedented pitches set to come against Bryce Harper — the postseason’s best hitter, on the hot streak of all hot streaks. Montero had only completed more than one inning twice since the start of August.

Harper flared Montero’s 33rd pitch of the night into no-man’s land in shallow right, corralled by Peña as he narrowly avoided a collision with Tucker. How’s that for high drama?

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“You think about who [are]the matchups for the guys that are coming up that inning,” Baker said. “We were hoping that [Montero] would get through Harper. He’s always on your radar when he’s going to be up next. … We thought about [a fresh arm], but we just thought about who might be better in that situation than who we had in there already, as long as he wasn’t tired or started throwing balls and stuff.”
Peña makes up for throw with catch
Considering Baker’s usage of both Verlander (five innings) and Bryan Abreu (1 2/3 frames) in Friday’s 10-inning affair, it seems that’s just how it’s going to be — the veteran skipper trusting his arms, sometimes to breaking-point lengths, even when a full stable lies behind them.

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Sometimes, it goes more smoothly. Sometimes, it leads to harrowing drama, like Saturday’s eighth inning. But if the Houston bullpen’s 0.89 ERA through 40 2/3 postseason innings is any indication, they’ve risen to the challenge of that stress test so far.

“It’s the postseason,” closer Ryan Pressly said. “Every out’s a big out. Whether they ask you to get six, seven outs or three outs, you’ve got to go out there, do your job, put up a zero, and keep us in the game. That’s what we’ve been able to do.”