HOUSTON — It was about the fourth inning Wednesday night when home-plate umpire Junior Valentine wanted to make sure his eyes weren’t deceiving him. Valentine bent down and asked Astros catcher Jason Castro how fast pitcher Cristian Javier’s fastball typically registers on the radar gun.
“I was like, ‘He’s like 93, 94,’ and he was like, ‘Really?’” Castro said. “With the amount of pop and the kind of ride that he gets on his fastball, it makes it play harder than it is and you have to really try to get on top of it. The deception is there, and it obviously showed tonight.”
With that in mind, you can only imagine the challenge the Guardians’ hitters faced. Javier threw 5 2/3 scoreless innings, striking out nine batters while allowing three hits and one walk in the Astros’ 2-1 win at Minute Maid Park. His average fastball velocity was 93.6 mph.
Javier (3-2) is the first Astros pitcher to strike out at least nine batters and walk one or fewer in two consecutive starts since Gerrit Cole in September 2019. After giving up seven runs on May 14 in Washington, Javier has allowed one run in 11 2/3 innings with 18 punchouts. He had 11 swings and misses in the first two innings against a Cleveland team that had the lowest whiff rate in the Majors.
“I told myself I need to get ahead of batters and throw the first strike,” said Javier, who threw first-pitch strikes to 12 of the 21 batters he faced.
Javier, using his combination of a sweeping slider and a deceptive fastball, retired 14 of the first 15 batters and didn’t give up a hit until an Ernie Clement single with two outs in the fifth. He threw 63 of 96 pitches for strikes, getting a season-high 20 swings and misses (12 on the fastball and eight on his slider).
“He had a very good slider, good fastball,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “He started the game off crisp and had good location. It just seems like they don’t square up his fastball that often. He’s not throwing 95, 96, but they must not see it real well. He threw the ball great tonight. We took him about as far as he could. He probably had a 100-pitch limit on him and he had . He did his job.”
Castro said he knew Javier was in for a good night because of how well he was throwing in the bullpen before the game. That, of course, doesn’t always translate to the field, but the hop of the fastball was real.
“The game plan was to be aggressive and attack and have that fastball play the way that it did, and it was obviously tough to square up, even if he was being aggressive with it,” Castro said. “And then his slider was incredible. The side-to-side movement that he had on it tonight was really working well.”
Entering Wednesday, hitters were batting .103 on Javier’s slider, which was actually a tad more successful than the .089 opponents hit against it in 2021. Castro said when hitters are struggling to get their bat above his fastball, the wipeout slider makes him nearly unhittable.
“I haven’t looked at the grade charts yet to see the movement, but a lot of the guys were telling me it was sweeping a lot and moving well, so I’m happy with that,” Javier said.
Castro said it’s unusual for a pitcher to continually attack with his fastball and be that effective.
“That shows you that a guy has a really special fastball when you can just throw it over and over and guys have a hard time squaring it up,” he said. “That’s kind of the goal, and that was the plan — if his fastball was there, we were going to do that. That’s part of what makes him so difficult to hit is he has a really special fastball.”
Javier’s outing only continued Houston’s run of terrific pitching. In the last month, a span of 30 games, Astros starters have a 2.23 ERA with 17 quality starts. Houston is 22-8 during that stretch.
“I don’t think we’ve gotten off to the start with the bats as a team as consistently as we’d like, but we’ve really relied on, not just the starting rotation, but the bullpen, too,” Castro said. “I can’t really say enough. They’ve been great for us.”