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 blazing fastball, an unlikely gladiator in the middle of the unfriendliest of coliseums — and, as it turned out, the only thing that could stop them.
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 Houston Astros to a 5-0 win that tied the World Series at two wins apiece. Three relievers followed him with a no-hit inning apiece, meaning Houston combined to throw the second no-hitter in World Series history — and the first since the New York Yankees’ Don Larsen threw his legendary perfect game in 1956.
“When we get old,” Christian Vázquez, the second man in history to catch a no-hitter in the World Series and the Astros’ backup at that position said. “We’re going to remember this.”
As a deceptively quick fastball unraveled the most prolific postseason offense in recent years, a near 100-mph sinker the Phillies’ bullpen has relied on all postseason — the one thrown by reliever José Alvarado — let them down for the first time. One of those sinkers hit Yordan Alvarez in the back with the bases loaded in the fifth to give the Astros their first run since the fifth inning of Game 2, a span of 16 innings. Another, which Alvarado threw to Alex Bregman on an 0-2 count with the bases loaded, ended up in the right field corner for a two-run double as part of a five-run inning that gave Houston all the runs it would need.
Javier is not, on paper, the Astros’ ace. He was never their top prospect, signed out of the Dominican Republic as an outfielder at 16. 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 Yankees for seven innings during the peak of their offensive crush this summer. He is the one who entered Wednesday 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 and place in baseball lore not far from the entry reading “Larsen, Don,” if not exactly on the same page. And he is the one who did it with his father in the stands for the first time in his career.
“It was the best gift that I could have ever given them,” Javier said through an interpreter, adding that his parents suggested he would throw a no-hitter Wednesday night. “I know that they’re really proud of me for what I was able to accomplish today.”
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, a fastball that hitters say feels like it’s rising, one Vazquez calls a “turbo fastball” and “the best fastball in baseball.” The average fastball velocity in this postseason is higher than ever, just more than 95 mph. Javier’s fastball hovers around 93. The Phillies had the fourth-best OPS in baseball against four-seam fastballs this year. They couldn’t muster a single hit against it Wednesday.
“It just has really good ride to it. It’s almost a pitch you have to cheat to a little bit to be able to square it up,” Phillies outfielder Nick Castellanos said. “By cheating to the fastball … you’re opened up to all his off-speed stuff.”
The Phillies entered Wednesday averaging seven runs and nearly three homers per postseason home game, a sample that is no longer so small that it demands you ignore it. But early Wednesday, they looked lost against that fastball. They didn’t manage a base runner until Javier walked Brandon Marsh in the third. He stole second base to give them their first runner in scoring position.
The Phillies have scored 21 two-out runs in games they won this postseason. They have scored just one in games they lost. So when Rhys Hoskins arrived at home plate with two outs and Marsh on second, the moment seemed like one capable of making a mark. Hoskins got the count to 2-0. Javier threw him a fastball, up and in. Hoskins couldn’t get the barrel of the bat to it quick enough and hit a harmless blooper into foul territory to end the inning.
“We read all the swings during the game,” Vázquez, who has caught Javier regularly since being dealt to Houston from the Boston Red Sox at the trade deadline but hasn’t appeared much this postseason, said. “And when they don’t show you a good swing with the fastball, we continue to throw it.”
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 Castellanos, also for 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.
“I thought my fastball today was really good, and definitely I was able to get a lot of swings and misses,” said Javier, who struck out nine.
Philadelphia’s Aaron Nola is not normally outclassed by opposing starters, but anyone would have been outclassed by Javier on this night. Since he debuted in 2015, only six pitchers have thrown more innings. Only four — Max Scherzer, Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom and Robbie Ray — have struck out more batters. He is the kind of brand-name starter one might expect to be on the other side of a night like this. And through the first four innings, he worked in and out of trouble, held the Astros down.
But in the fifth, Chas McCormick, Jose Altuve and Jeremy Peña singled to load the bases with no one out for Alvarez. He was one of the most prolific offensive producers during the regular season. He delivered multiple body blows to the Seattle Mariners in a 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. So the game — and perhaps the series — seemed to have funneled to that moment. Alvarado funneled his fastball at 100 mph, right into Alvarez’s back. The Astros had finally pushed a run across the plate.
Seconds later, Alvarado found himself ahead of Bregman 0-2 and threw him another one of those powerful sinkers, this one at 101. Bregman hit it into the right field corner in what probably would qualify as a textbook approach to a sinking fastball away if any textbook had the audacity to suggest such a thing were possible. By the time the inning was over, the Astros had scored five runs, doing most of the damage against a Phillies bullpen that held them scoreless in the first three games (over 12⅓ innings) of this series.
“I was just trying to put a good swing on a pitch and put the ball in play,” said Bregman, who had far more luck with that plan against 101 mph on the corner than the Phillies had with 93 mph up and over the plate all evening.
As such, those five runs were plenty. Even though Baker pulled Javier after six innings and 97 pitches, the bullpen did not succumb to the Philadelphia elements, either. Bryan Abreu made Realmuto, Harper and Castellanos look silly with strikeouts in the seventh. Rafael Montero worked quietly through the eighth. Ryan Pressly handled the ninth, surrendering only a walk. Houston relievers had the lowest combined ERA in the majors during the regular season — including a few innings in relief from Javier who, it cannot be emphasized enough, did not always even find room in their starting rotation.
“This is a world stage here. People from all over the world are watching this,” Baker said. “And he certainly put himself on the map.”
The Astros, too, are back on the World Series map, tied and guaranteed a trip back to Houston no matter what happens Thursday. The Phillies cannot end the series at home now, no matter what happens in Game 5. Just like that, the Citizens Bank Park spell was broken. Thanks to a young right-hander and his jumping fastball, the Phillies are invincible here no more.