Former Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston calls Astros manager Dusty Baker one of his best friends. Besides playing and managing the game of baseball, they both love to fish. Their friendship dates back to 1967, when they were playing with Double-A Austin, then a Braves affiliate.
“We stay in touch. We always talk to each other,” Gaston said via telephone.
Gaston, 77, badly wants Baker to win his first World Series title as a manager. If that happens, Baker will become the third African American manager to win the title. Gaston was the first to win the Fall Classic with Toronto in 1992-93, followed by Dodgers manager Dave Roberts last year.
“That means a lot to me. We owe all of this to Jackie Robinson. That goes without saying,” Gaston said. “To have three of us win this thing would be awesome. I know Dave Roberts is looking for his second in a row. We’ll see what happens there, too. It would be nice to see Dusty [get the trophy]. Maybe Dave can win next year.”
If Baker doesn’t win the World Series this year, Gaston still believes Baker is a Hall of Famer. Gaston points out that Baker has won 1,987 regular-season games, eight division titles and one pennant in 24 seasons as a manager.
“Dusty belongs in the Hall of Fame because of all the games he has won and all the division titles he has won,” Gaston said.
The last time Baker and Gaston spoke was Thursday morning, two days after the Astros advanced to the American League Championship Series. While the conversation was pleasant, Baker informed Gaston that Astros right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. would not pitch in the ALCS because of a right flexor pronator muscle strain. There is a possibility McCullers could be ready for the World Series, if Houston reaches it. The Astros and Red Sox are tied in the ALCS at one game apiece.
“’Oh, my goodness,’” Gaston told Baker after hearing the news about McCullers. “That’s one of his better starters, you know. I hope their pitching can hold up. They have to win another [seven games], really [to go all the way].”
After Baker became the manager of the Astros in 2020, one of the first calls he received came from Gaston, who calmed down Baker after he became a professional ballplayer 54 years ago. Having grown up in California, Baker wasn’t used to hearing racial slurs like the ones he received on his first day of pro ball.
“Cito has kept me going many, many times,” Baker said recently. “… We go way back. Cito took care of me on my first day in pro ball. We were all on the Austin Braves. …
“The first ball that was hit to me [in right field], I dropped it. There were about 40 to 50 people [from a mental health facility who] sat in right field by themselves. When I dropped that ball, they called me all kinds of names that I never heard. All these racial names. I started crying and wanted to [go back to California]. It was the first time I’d ever been to the South, and Cito said, ‘Hang with me and I’ll take care of you.'”
Gaston remembered that incident.
“I think it was new for Dusty when he came to the South,” Gaston said. “I told him to be himself, work hard and be coachable. Listen to coaches on what they have to say.”
Baker was indeed coachable, and he ended up having a productive career as a player and manager. Most of his playing career was spent with the Braves and Dodgers, with whom he was a two-time All-Star. Let’s not forget that he was Manager of the Year three times, too.
“I’m so proud of him. I couldn’t wait to call him after they won [the AL Division Series] in Chicago [on Tuesday],” Gaston said. “I knew he was still on the field [after the game], but I left him a message telling him what a great job he did there and what he has done all year. He did an outstanding job.”
Javier fans career-high 9 in rotation return
The decision to send right-hander Cristian Javier to the alternate training site after just two outings to begin the season caught him a bit by surprise, he admitted. Javier had pitched well in two starts, but the addition of veteran Jake Odorizzi into a temporary four-man rotation made Javier the odd man out.
Javier’s return to the mound for the Astros was impressive Thursday night. He struck out a career-high nine batters in five scoreless innings as the Astros enjoyed their biggest offensive outburst in two weeks and clubbed the Angels, 8-2, in the series opener at Minute Maid Park.
“I went down there to Corpus [Christi] and handled my business,” Javier said. “I worked on my slider a little bit when I was down there and just tried to make the most of my time. I was pretty much staying focused on attacking the zone and that’s all I wanted to think about.”
Javier, who was sent to the alternate training site after his April 8 start to build up his pitch count, struck out eight of the first 10 batters he faced — all swinging. He’s the first Astros pitcher to record his first eight outs by strikeout since Jim Deshaies fanned the first eight Dodgers he faced on Sept. 23, 1986.
“Early in the game, he was extremely sharp,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker, who earned his 1,900th career win. “He had good velocity and a good breaking ball, and when he didn’t have a good breaking ball, [catcher Martín Maldonado] did an outstanding job of blocking balls in the dirt. He gave us what we needed. We were hoping for one more inning, but that long at-bat by [Kurt] Suzuki took an inning away from him. That’s what tired him some.”
Indeed, Suzuki, the Angels’ nine-hole hitter, battled Javier for 12 pitches in the third with a runner on second and no outs. Suzuki fouled off six pitches before Javier struck out him on a slider. The Angels fouled off 23 pitches total, which is partly why Javier needed 98 pitches to finish five innings.
“That was a tough at-bat,” Maldonado said. “Everything he threw, it felt like he was fouling it off. If you take away that, that’s why he didn’t go another inning.”
Javier got 21 swings and misses — 11 on his slider and eight on his four-seam fastball. He said he worked extensively on his slider and his changeup while he was in Corpus Christi and could tell the Angels were taking some bad swings against the slider. Four of his strikeouts came on the slider.
“It felt good and I was also reading the hitters and it looked like they were not comfortable with that pitch, and I tried to stay focused and kept on using it,” he said. “Thankfully, it kept working.”
Maldonado was impressed. The veteran backstop said Javier, who finished third in the 2020 American League Rookie of the Year voting, handled the game plan perfectly, which made for a seamless night for the young starter.
“The team is a good-hitting team and Javier throws really good fastballs, so they had to respect the fastball,” Maldonado said. “When he started throwing the offspeed pitches, that’s when the swings became more with the sliders and changeups.”
The Astros’ bullpen took it from there, with Bryan Abreu, Brooks Raley, Joe Smith and Ryan Pressly holding the Angels to five hits and two runs — on a two-run homer by Albert Pujols off Abreu — in four innings. The Pujols homer appeared to curve in front of the foul pole, but a replay review was inconclusive and the original call of a homer stood.