How Jose Urquidy's brilliance, Astros' breakout bats tied up this series

WASHINGTON -- On Aug. 7, while pitching for Triple-A Round Rock, Jose Urquidy allowed 14 hits, 11 runs and three home runs in 4⅔ innings in a game at El Paso, Texas. So it makes perfect sense that the rookie right-hander saved the Houston Astros from the brink of elimination in Game 4 of the World Series, tossing five scoreless innings in an 8-1 victory Saturday night over the Washington Nationals that evened up the Fall Classic and set the stage for a colossal Game 5 rematch between Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer.

It makes perfect sense because this is baseball. This is unpredictable October baseball. This is October baseball at its surprising best.

Urquidy allowed only two hits and no walks in his five innings and became just the fourth rookie in the past 30 years to throw a scoreless start in the World Series. He joined Fernando Valenzuela as the only pitchers from Mexico to start and win a World Series game. He became just the second pitcher since 1969 to have his first postseason start be a scoreless outing in the World Series, matching Jon Lester of the Red Sox in 2007. Not bad for a guy who had just 41 career innings in the regular season -- the third fewest for a World Series starter (behind Steven Matz of the 2015 Mets and Marty Bystrom of the 1980 Phillies).

And no doubt it was the best World Series outing ever for a guy who gave up 11 runs at El Paso a couple of months earlier.

After his win, Urquidy said he never let the moment get to him -- although he was clearly aware of the magnitude of the game. "Yes, a couple moments, a couple moments I was thinking, 'Oh, my God, I'm in the World Series pitching.' It was awesome," he said.

Urquidy, 24, had made his major league debut in July at Coors Field. Four starts later, he was sent back down to Triple-A.

"When we sent him back down, it was really just sort of a gap in time where we needed to work on a few things," Astros manager AJ Hinch said before the game. "The strike-throwing, we needed him to continue to evolve with that. He got beat up a little bit, and had one blowup game in Triple-A that was unlike him. He had a lot of homers and a lot of hits, and maybe took our advice to be in the strike zone a little bit too much."

When Urquidy came back in September, he allowed three runs in 18 innings. He pitched well in two relief outings in the earlier postseason series, including in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series against the Yankees.

"I think he's learned a lot being around our pitching staff, our pitching program," Hinch said. "It's like one of those things, he pitches up to the level when he comes to the big leagues and he can be creative and he can throw different pitches."

He certainly pitched at his highest level in this game. Urquidy attacks hitters with a mid-90s fastball up in the zone. On 3-2 counts, he blew a 96 mph fastball past Juan Soto in the fourth inning and a 95 mph heater past Ryan Zimmerman in the fifth. He throws a slider. Urquidy's changeup is a thing of beauty -- a pitch that allowed him to post a big reverse platoon split in the regular season, holding left-handed batters to a meager .179/.210/.321 batting line. He threw 10 changeups to the Nationals, and they went 0-for-4 against it.

The interesting thing is that Adam Eaton said Urquidy flipped the script with his pitch percentages -- and didn't throw his changeup as often as the Nats expected.

"When you go in with a game plan of kind of working off his scouting report and he goes the complete opposite with it, by the time you kind of make the adjustment, it's too late," Eaton said. He explained how he had watched video of Brett Gardner -- a similar hitter to himself -- from the ALCS and how Urquidy had thrown him five straight changeups. "He threw me three sliders my first at-bat, and he throws it 10% of the time, so I went back scratching my head. He didn't throw me any changeups and he's supposed to throw me 40% changeup. Then I go up my next at-bat and saw a curveball, which he throws 3% of the time, then a fastball and finally threw me a changeup to get me out. When you have guys you haven't seen before, you have to go off the knowledge you have."

Nationals shortstop Trea Turner added, "Maybe he doesn't have the Max Scherzer-Gerrit Cole name, but he's got good stuff. He's throwing 95, with three pitches in any count. He pitched great."

Urquidy hadn't pitched above Class A before the start of the season. He was not one of Houston's top 30 prospects entering the season. Back in spring training, the idea that he'd be here, starting and winning Game 4 of the World Series, would have been absolutely absurd.

"My dream was to be in the big leagues," he said of his goals back in March. "That was my first dream. I never imagined I would be in the World Series and win the fourth game, the second game for us. Means something very big for me, big year for me. I think I'm proud of myself."

"That front-to-back game that you can play with the changeup is really critical," Hinch said. "He's got a good arm. His velocity has been on the higher side while he's been with us recently. And that ability to slow the game down with an off-speed pitch, we see it effective across the board in the playoffs. ... He can control it for a strike, he can get some chases out of it. Guys don't generally center it up."

The Nationals certainly didn't do it on Saturday night.

• The most obvious second-guessed move of this World Series -- even more than the decision to let Anibal Sanchez hit in Game 3 while down 2-1 -- was Nationals manager Dave Martinez bringing in Fernando Rodney with two runners on and one out in the seventh to face Michael Brantley and Alex Bregman. The score was still just 4-1 (and the Astros had already used and pinch hit for Will Harris, their best reliever this postseason), so why not use Sean Doolittle there to try to escape the jam? Doolittle and Daniel Hudson hadn't pitched in Game 3, so they were well rested.

At that moment, you have keep the game close rather than worry about who is going to pitch the ninth inning. Brantley singled and Bregman unloaded with a grand slam. Game over. The Nats basically have six good pitchers. Martinez needs to maximize them in key situations. But hey, at least Doolittle and Hudson will be on plenty of rest for Game 5.

• Bregman milked his Game 4 home run even more than his Game 2 home run. It took him 9.43 seconds to get to first base and 28.71 seconds to round the bases -- topping his 28.47-second trot from Game 2, which had been the longest of the postseason. It was the 20th grand slam in World Series history. Of course you want to see the first 19:

• The Astros hit Nats starter Patrick Corbin hard all game, with all seven of their hits through four innings registering above 90 mph in exit velocity and three above 100, including Robinson Chirinos' 104 mph, two-run home run in the fourth off a changeup left over the middle of the plate. They also had two hard-hit outs, with Anthony Rendon turning a double play on Chirinos to help Corbin escape a bases-loaded jam in the first and later making an outstanding play to rob Jose Altuve of a double in the third. Victor Robles also robbed Brantley of a hit with a diving catch off a 103 mph screamer in the fifth.

It could have been even worse for Corbin. In all, he allowed 13 balls in play of 90-plus mph, his third-highest total of the season (he had two games with 14). This is the offense that under one metric -- weighted runs created plus -- was the second best of all time, behind only the 1927 Yankees.

• After Hinch had the quick hook with Urquidy after 67 pitches, in the sixth he turned to Josh James, who is often hit-or-miss. It was an interesting hook and certainly understandable from an analytical view. The top of the order was coming up for the third time. Urquidy hadn't thrown that many pitches since Sept. 27. James walked two batters around a strikeout, but with the score still 4-0, that meant Hinch had to bring in Harris.

Upon coming in, Harris gave up an infield hit to Rendon that loaded the bases, but then got the two biggest outs of the game up to that point: Soto swung at a big, looping, first-pitch curveball and grounded out weakly to first base, and then Harris struck out Howie Kendrick on five consecutive cutters. Harris has been a lockdown reliever all postseason. He threw seven pitches after throwing 25 in Game 3, so he should be fine for an inning or so in Game 5 as needed.

• Cole versus Scherzer. World Series tied up. Yes, that will work just fine.