PHILADELPHIA – At times this postseason, the combination of the Philadelphia Phillies’ slugging offense and an exuberant Citizens Bank Park crowd so loud that Delaware Valley seismologists take notice has seemed unstoppable.
The Phillies bludgeon opponents here, seven runs and thousands of decibels per game. All they needed were two more games like that and … well, destiny fares best when left to plan these things itself.
But when the Phillies barreled into Game 4 on Wednesday night with a series lead and that distinct home-field advantage, they ran into a 25-year-old right-hander with a 93 mph fastball, an unlikely gladiator in the middle of the unfriendliest of coliseums – and, as it turned out, the only thing that could stop them.
That was because Cristian Javier and his riding fastball blew away the Phillies, stunning a crowd that hadn’t seen its team lose here this postseason with six no-hit innings that lifted his Astros to a 5-0 win that tied the World Series at two. Astros relievers followed him with three no-hit innings , meaning Houston combined to throw the second no-hitter in World Series history – and the first since Don Larsen threw his legendary perfect game in 1956.
And as a deceptively quick 93-mph fastball unraveled the most prolific postseason offense in recent memory, a near 100-mile per hour sinker on which the Phillies bullpen relied all month – the one thrown by reliever Jose Alvarado – let them down for the first time. One of those sinkers hit Yordan Alvarez in the back with the bases loaded to give the Astros their first run in their previous 16 World Series innings. Another, which Alvarado threw to Alex Bregman on a 0-2 count with the bases loaded, ended up in the right-field corner as part of a five-run inning that gave Houston all the runs it needed.
Javier is not, on paper, the Astros’ ace. He is not their No. 2 starter. And as evidenced by their plan for this World Series, he is not their No. 3 starter either. But Javier is the man who no-hit the New York Yankees through seven innings during the peak of their offense crush this summer. He is the one who entered Wednesday’s game allowing opponents a .095 batting average in two postseason outings. And he is the one who left it with a postseason ERA of 0.71 in four starts.
Though he qualifies as unheralded, Javier is not new to dominance. He relies on a riding fastball that helped him strike out more batters per nine innings than all but eight other starters who threw at least 50 innings this season. He relies on that riding fastball, one opponents say feels faster than the 94 or 95 mph the radar gun usually suggests.
The Phillies entered Wednesday averaging seven runs and nearly three homers per postseason home game, a sample that is no longer so small as to ignore it completely. But early Wednesday, they looked lost against that fastball.
They didn’t manage a base runner until Javier walked Brandon Marsh in the third. Marsh stole second base to give them their first runner in scoring position of the evening with two outs.
The Phillies scored 21 two-out runs in games they won this postseason. They scored just one in games they lost. So when Rhys Hoskins arrived at home plate with two outs and on second, the moment seemed like one capable of making a mark on the evening. Hoskins got himself in a 2-0 count. Javier threw him a fastball, up and in.
Hoskins couldn’t get the barrel to it quick enough and hit a harmless blooper to first to end the inning. Javier faced the heart of the Phillies order in the fourth. He blew a fastball by J.T. Realmuto for strike three. He blew a fastball up by Bryce Harper for strike three. He blew another by Nick Castellanos, also strike three. Four innings in, the Phillies not only didn’t have seven runs or three homers. They did not have a hit. They did not get one in the fifth, either. They did not get one in the sixth.
Javier left after the sixth. The pattern held.
Aaron Nola is not normally outclassed by opposing starters. Since he debuted in 2015, only six pitchers have thrown more innings than Nola. Only four pitchers, Max Scherzer, Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, and Robbie Ray, have struck out more batters. He has long been one of the best starters in a division loaded with them. He did not get the chance to show it the postseason until this year.
His first two postseason starts were outstanding. Six-plus innings. Plenty of strikeouts. Not a single earned run. But his last two, including his Game 1 outing against the Astros, were less successful. He didn’t get through five innings in either one of them. He didn’t allow fewer than five runs in either.
The righty’s first trip through the Astros order Wednesday wasn’t exactly easy. He surrendered a first-inning hit to struggling Alvarez and a leadoff double to Kyle Tucker in the second. He did not allow either man to score, though he did work around base runners in each of the next two innings, too. By the top of the fifth, the Astros had gone 16 consecutive innings without a run.
Then, in the fifth, Chas McCormick, José Altuve, and Jeremy Peña all singled to load the bases with no one out for Alvarez. Alvarez was one of the most prolific offensive producers during the regular season. He delivered multiple body blows to the Seattle Mariners in the Astros’ division series sweep. But he entered Wednesday 4 for 32 since Game 2 of that series.
His manager, Dusty Baker, speculated that Alvarez would signal his return to form when he started hitting the ball the opposite way, which made his first-inning single to left seem like a promising sign. The game, and perhaps the series, seemed to have funneled to that moment. Would Alvarez be ready for it?
He did not have to be. Alvarado threw his first pitch nearly 100 mph straight into Alvarez’s lower back and the Astros had their first run in days. Alvarado, whose sinker made him one of Rob Thomson’s most trusted relievers this year, then got ahead of Bregman 0-2 and threw him a sinker at 101 miles per hour. Bregman hit it into the right field corner in what would probably qualify as a textbook approach to a sinking fastball away if any textbook had the audacity to suggest such a thing were possible.
Kyle Tucker hit a sac fly to score another run. Gurriel singled home another. By the time the inning was over, the Astros had scored five runs against one of the most trusted arms in a Phillies bullpen that had held them scoreless through the first three games (12 1/3 innings) of this series.
Those five runs were plenty. Because even though Baker pulled Javier after six innings and 97 pitches, the Astros bullpen did not succumb to the Philadelphia elements, either. Bryan Abreu made Realmuto, Harper, and Castellanos all look silly with strikeouts in the seventh. Rafael Montero worked quietly through the eighth. Ryne Pressly pitched the ninth. And just like that, the spell was broken, the Phillies quieted – no hit, no less. The Phillies cannot end the series at home now, no matter what happens Thursday. Thanks to a young right-hander and his jumping fastball, the Phillies no longer seem invincible here anyway.
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