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For the Astros’ staff, a simple formula: ‘Get nasty pitches and throw them a lot’

Justin Verlander will start Game 1 for Houston. (Eric Gay/AP Photo)
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HOUSTON — In the months before the 2019 MLB draft, then-Wayne State University right-hander Hunter Brown did what any self-respecting job seeker would do. He exaggerated on his résumé. Prospective draftees fill out questionnaires about themselves to help teams learn more about them.

Brown talked up a new curveball he was workshopping to go with the four-seamer, two-seamer and slider the scouts had already seen. He had, indeed, tried a curveball a few times.

“I hadn’t thrown it at all really,” Brown said. Soon after the Houston Astros drafted him, they asked to see it. He put on a brave face and threw it. The Astros told him it was excellent, exactly the kind of pitch someone with his arm slot should be throwing to complement a slider that moved more laterally. Three years later, he was in the big leagues throwing 31 percent curveballs as a rookie on one of the majors’ deepest and nastiest pitching staffs.

That pitching staff enters the World Series with a 1.88 ERA in Houston’s seven postseason games this year, all of which the Astros have won. Since MLB’s postseason expanded to include the division series in 1995, only six teams have finished the postseason with an ERA below 2.00. Only one of those teams, the 1996 Atlanta Braves, advanced past the first postseason round they played.

The Astros are averaging 11.13 strikeouts per nine innings entering Friday night’s World Series opener. Only one team, the 2013 Detroit Tigers — featuring Houston’s Game 1 starter, Justin Verlander — has played at least seven games in a single postseason and averaged more.

“It’s mostly common sense,” Astros pitching coach Josh Miller said when asked to explain the secret to building and cultivating what has been one of the more dominant pitching staffs in postseason history. “Get nasty pitches and throw them a lot.”

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Miller took over as the pitching coach this season. He joked that he tried to put up guard rails to keep everyone where they were during former pitching coach Brent Strom’s tenure. Miller had been working in the minor league system when Strom rewrote the Astros’ pitching curriculum to emphasize strengths such as that. Strom stepped aside after the World Series last year, and Miller inherited a machine.

“I definitely had that ‘I don’t want to do anything wrong or do anything different that could mess things up,’ ” Miller said. “Fortunately, the guys have carried the torch.”

The evolution of Houston’s pitching depth and the frequency with which it propels the Astros deep into October have made those who found that talent coveted commodities around the game: Oz Ocampo, the Astros executive who found Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier and other Latin American aces, was reportedly hired by the Miami Marlins on Thursday afternoon. The vast tree of former Astros executives around the game is well documented. The talent pipeline has been strong.

So, as Miller would explain it, the Astros have plenty of nasty pitches. Their pitching staff averaged more spin than any team in baseball in 2022. They secured the second-most swinging strikes in the majors. They threw more four-seam fastballs than all but two other teams, a sign of trusting stuff instead of having to maneuver carefully. And they allowed the second-fewest homers.

This postseason, they have been even better. They are pitching to that 1.88 ERA in seven games with nearly twice as many strikeouts as hits allowed. They are holding opponents to a .178 batting average against and averaging 0.93 walks and hits per inning pitched. Houston’s bullpen has allowed three runs in 33 innings, all three of them on solo homers. The Astros have been so good, in fact, that Ryne Stanek — who finished the regular season with a 1.15 ERA, second best among all qualified major league relievers, has pitched only twice in seven games this postseason. And the Astros have had plenty of close games.

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Veteran catcher Martín Maldonado helps, many of those relievers say. He is the one who helps them translate nasty pitches into game planning, who helps navigate between throwing them a lot and throwing them when it is right. Reliever Ryan Pressly said often, on long, late-night flights when the Astros’ charter is dark, he always knows where Maldonado is sitting — the only seat with the glow of a screen visible because Maldonado is checking scouting reports.

“I wish you guys could see the work that he puts in. It’s unbelievable the amount of preparation,” Pressly said. “The way that he goes about his business and how he prepares himself helps us prepare even better. He’s a big reason why we’re here.”

Maldonado, for his part, says catching pitchers in this organization is different from the many others he has played with in an important way.

“They teach them what they’re good at,” Maldonado said. “At such a young age, they know what they’re good at and what they can do.”

Verlander may be having a Cy Young season at 39. Valdez has transformed into one of the best left-handers in the game. Lance McCullers Jr. and that spinny curveball he has trademarked during his Astros tenure are still a staple of this rotation.

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The Astros have so much depth that José Urquidy, who has three World Series wins to his name at 27, has yet to appear in a postseason game. When McCullers cut his elbow in Houston’s division series celebration, the Astros turned to Javier to spot start against the New York Yankees — a team Javier had held hitless through seven innings as part of a combined no-hitter earlier in the season.

“I made a joke the other day that you could almost just close your eyes and point at a pitcher and ask them to do really any job on the roster that us pitchers are responsible for doing,” McCullers said last week. “It’s a blessing to have a pitching staff like we have. It’s just one of those years where things seem like they have timed up and guys are throwing the ball well.”

The Phillies have ridden home runs and sheer momentum through this postseason. They hit the sixth-most homers in baseball during the regular season. They had the eighth-highest on-base-plus-slugging percentage. And their offense has been greater than the sum of those parts this postseason. They were built to bludgeon. The Astros had better offensive numbers in both those categories. But their strength is their pitching. And they pitch to their strengths.

“You’re not going to come out of the bullpen or start and throw your worst pitch most of the time,” Brown said. “You’re going to come in and try to capitalize on what you do best.”