After much anticipation, Yordan Álvarez made his first rehab appearance since his right oblique strain, while José Urquidy took the mound for the second time since his early season shoulder inflammation setback. How did they fare?
On a sun-drenched Wednesday morning, underneath pleasant blue skies offset by occasional patches of cheerful, bright white clouds, the Sugar Land Space Cowboys took on the Albuquerque Isotopes, the Rockies’ Triple-A affiliate, at Constellation Field—a beautiful day for baseball.
The Houston Astros desire to be the first back-to-back World Series Champions in over 20 years. And to get there, they need Yordan Álvarez. Oh, and José Urquidy's 1.24 WHIP through 36 innings of postseason pitching and 1.23 ERA in five games of World Series action probably can't hurt either.
Just how potent of an offensive threat has Álvarez been for the Astros this season?
Álvarez has been so prolific at blasting balls out of the park, nearly a month and a half removed from the season due to his injury, he still ranks 10th in the American League in home run production.
Though the 26-year-old earned an All-Star selection for the Midsummer Classic that just wrapped up in Seattle, he did not play due to injury. And finally—after nearly 45 days—Álvarez returned to live-game action.
Álvarez had not taken the field since the second week of June, when the Blue Jays hosted the Astros. For over five weeks, the left-handed slugger has been champing at the bit to heal from his oblique injury and return to doing what he does best—pounding balls into the stratosphere.
In Sugar Land, Álvarez was greeted with rousing applause by the Astros’ faithful in attendance when he was announced as the second batter in the starting lineup. Ever the statesman and ambassador of the game, the 6-5 slugger towered over the railing near the right-field foul line, gladly signing autographs for children up until the start of the national anthem.
Playing it safe, the Astros organization kept their best hitter from the extra toll of fielding a defensive position in his first professional game back. And as a designated hitter, Álvarez delivered. On the day, he went one-for-three with a walk, good for a .333 batting average and a .500 on-base percentage.
In his initial at-bat, Álvarez singled on a 92-mph first-pitch fastball from left-handed starter, Ben Braymer. The ball jumped through the infield like a lightning strike as it shot past second base, reaching shallow center field before either middle infielder could react. The exit velocity was apparent, as was Álvarez’s coordination on squaring up the baseball.
Braymer is no slouch, and has pitched in the majors for the Washington Nationals as recently as 2020. Since his cup of coffee in the big leagues, the lefty has bounced around the upper minor leagues, determined to receive another chance to pitch in the majors.
Immediately following the single in his first trip to the plate, Álvarez comfortably transitioned to a base runner, appearing loose and agile, showing no apparent discomfort with his lead-off shuffle step movements between the bases.
In Álvarez’s second plate appearance, the 2019 AL Rookie of the Year worked a three-ball, no-strike count against Braymer. Getting the green light on the fourth pitch of the at-bat, the left-handed slugger pounded a 92-mph fastball into the ground near second base resulting in a double play turned by Albuquerque’s middle infielders. Encouraging, though, Álvarez hustled down the line not showing any visible discomfort on his sprint through the bag, ultimately being thrown out at first base by only several feet.
In his third at-bat, Álvarez took a slider off the plate that just barely missed the outside corner, showing exceptional plate discipline. Like his previous time up, he worked Braymer to a three-ball, no-strike count, before fouling back the lefty’s fastball. With three balls and one strike, like a shark circling its prey, Álvarez tempted Braymer to come into the strike zone, but ultimately Álvarez took ball four and jogged to first base.
At the bag, Álvarez chatted it up with Isotopes’ first baseman, Elehuris Montero, both players smiling, perhaps with Álvarez recognizing that it is only a matter of time before Montero will be a major-league mainstay. Montero has already debuted with the Rockies, and has played in nearly 90 games with subpar offensive results; but the 24-year-old seems to be making necessary adjustments as he continues to dominate the Pacific Coast League with a .381 average featuring 15 long balls and 47 RBIs.
For Álvarez’s fourth and final plate appearance, he received a new test—right-handed reliever, Riley Pint. The Rockies’ former first-round pick went fourth overall in the 2016 MLB Draft, and after a seven-year journey through the minors, finally debuted earlier this season as a major leaguer. However, in Pint’s sole appearance for the Rockies, he only faced five batters before being sent back to Triple-A.
Facing Pint, Álvarez appeared confidently aggressive and swung through an 89-mph slider to go down, 0-1. The very next pitch was located masterfully by Pint near the same spot, but Álvarez made a major league adjustment and took it for a ball.
Throughout the nine-pitch battle, Álvarez had to prepare for Pint’s 96-mph fastball, while being ready to react to the 6-5 right-hander's upper-80s slider. Pint fed Álvarez a steady diet of sliders, with few pitches actually entering the zone.
However, this strategy almost cost the Isotopes big. On a 2-2 count, Álvarez clobbered an 86-mph slider to deep right field that ultimately landed foul. While this struck ball with potential home run distance did not translate into an on-field result, it provided continued visible evidence of Álvarez’s exceptional exit velocity and ability to turn on and pull pitches with authority.
This at-bat ultimately ended with Álvarez striking out swinging, but the two-time All-Star proved himself a tough out in his first game back after over 40 days of inaction. Nevertheless, regardless of the result, this at-bat also proved productive in that it allowed Álvarez his first opportunity during this rehab assignment to face a right-hander with a mid-90s fastball.
Urquidy’s solid outing
In his second rehab appearance for Sugar Land, José Urquidy’s fastball touched 93, and his slider had sensational movement tailing away from right-handed hitters. However, the Rockies Triple-A affiliate is loaded with three or four burgeoning sluggers waiting in the wings and ready to hold down major league positions. Perhaps none more prominent than the first baseman Álvarez spoke with on the basepaths during the game, Elehuris Montero, a 6-3 right-handed slugger who possesses an elite Triple-A slash line of .381/.434/.761. If Montero’s name doesn’t ring a bell, know that the coveted prospect was part of a king’s ransom of talented players the St. Louis Cardinals parted ways with to acquire the services of eight-time All-Star, Nolan Arenado, from the Rockies.
Urquidy faced adversity early against some of these more talented batters, giving up two runs and four hits through his first two innings of work. Seasoned and poised, the right-handed starter settled in, faced 14 batters through three innings, struck out two, and positioned Sugar Land toward its eventual 6-2 victory at his exit.
Also a positive, Urquidy continues to stretch out the length of his outings, going three innings for Sugar Land to build upon his two-inning appearance last Friday night. Urquidy appeared to have a pitch limit in place, throwing 45 in the contest today, and from all signs, left the game without any visibly noticeable discomfort. All good signs for his recuperation from right shoulder inflammation diagnosed earlier this season in late April. And—all in all—a good day for Astros’ fans longing for Álvarez and Urquidy to return to the big league roster.