John McClain: Is this Astros pitching staff the best in  team history? It certainly has answered the call to arms

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Eric Gay/AP/Shutterstock (13479570bx) Houston Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander (35) celebrates the third out during the sixth inning in Game 1 of baseball’s American League Championship Series between the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees, in Houston ALCS Yankees Astros Baseball, Houston, United States – 19 Oct 2022

John McClain: Is this Astros pitching staff the best in team history? It certainly has answered the call to arms

Over the last 25 years, the Astros have featured some terrific pitching staffs, but they’ve never had the talent and depth they take into the World Series against the Phillies.

The Astros have had outstanding starting pitching and exceptional bullpens, but playoff teams of the past can’t match this year’s staff, which has seven starters and five relievers who have dazzled through a 106-56 regular season and a 7-0 postseason.

Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, Lance McCullers Jr., and Christian Javier have started playoff games against the Mariners and Yankees. They have a combined record of 3-0.

Starters coming out of the bullpen have been Luis Garcia and Hunter Brown.

The Astros’ have so much depth in their rotation that Jose Urquidy, who was 13-8 with a 3.94 record during the season, hasn’t made an appearance in the postseason, despite pitching in 11 playoff games, including six starts, over the last three years.

During sweeps of the Mariners (ALDS) and Yankees (ALCS), the starters have been splendid, and the bullpen has been extraordinary.

Manager Dusty Baker and pitching coaches Josh Miller and Bill Murphy have done a tremendous job of utilizing the staff through the ups and downs of the season, especially in the playoffs.

Going into the World Series, the Astros have a 1.88 ERA over 72 innings.

When a starter is replaced, they’ve gone with Hector Neris, Bryan Abreu, Rafael Montero, and closer Ryan Pressly. That foursome has been so effective that Ryne Stanek, who compiled a 1.15 ERA during the season, has been able to pitch only two innings in seven playoff games. Including Garcia and Brown in that group of relievers, the bullpen has worked 33 innings in the playoffs, allowing three runs with an 0.82 ERA.

If Baker is going to win his first World Series, good pitching will have to beat the good hitting the Phillies have demonstrated.

Baker was asked after the four-game sweep of the Yankees if he believes this year’s team is better equipped to win a title than his 2021 team that lost the World Series to the Braves in six games.

“Well, No. 1, we’ve got Lance McCullers that we didn’t have going into the (2021) World Series, and we have Justin Verlander going into the World Series that we didn’t have,” Baker said about two pitchers who were injured. “We have some young guys that have been there before.”

Baker was talking about Valdez, Garcia, and Javier, who combined for a 43-23 record during the season and have been lights out in the playoffs. With Verlander, who starts Game 1 against the Phillies, and McCullers healthy and pitching well, Baker has an embarrassment of riches.

From a historical perspective, let’s compare this year’s Astros with their five-best playoff staffs.

In 1980, when they lost the NLCS 4-3 to the Phillies, they had a regular-season rotation of Nolan Ryan, J.R. Richard, Joe Niekro, Ken Forsch, and Vern Rhule. That team won the NL West after beating the Dodgers in a one-game playoff and finished 93-70.

The 1980 team lost Richard to a season-ending stroke in late July. At the time, he was 10-4 with a 1.90 ERA.

That five-man staff closed the season with a combined 64-42 record, including Ryan at 10-9 with a 3.35 ERA.

The 1998 Astros finished 102-60. In August, they acquired Randy Johnson from Seattle, and he was brilliant, going 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA, including four shutouts. Shane Reynolds (19-8, 3.51), Jose Lima (16-8, 3,70), Mike Hampton (11-7, 3.36), and Sean Bergman (12-9, 3.72) completed the rotation.

That 1998 team may have been the most disappointing in Astros’ playoff history. They didn’t even survive the first round, losing 3-1 to the Padres in the NLDS. Johnson was 0-2 with a 1.93 ERA. He was outpitched by Kevin Brown, who made two starts and was 1-0 with an 0.61 ERA.

Fast forward to the 2005 team that defeated the Braves in the NLDS, the Cardinals in the NLCS, and lost 0-4 to the White Sox in the World Series. That team had five starters with double-digit victories – Roy Oswalt (20-12, 2.94), Andy Pettitte (17-9, 2.39), Roger Clemens (13-8, 1.87), Brandon Backe (10-8, .476), and Wandy Rodriguez (10-10, 5.53). Brad Lidge, who saved 42 games with a 2.29 ERA, was a one-man show out of the bullpen.

During the current era of four World Series appearances in six years, the Astros have had marvelous pitching.

In 2017, when they beat the Dodgers in their World Series conquest tainted by the cheating scandal, the Astros didn’t have a pitcher who won at least 15 games. Dallas Keuchel (14-5) and Charlie Morton (14-7) won the most games. That staff included Brad Peacock (13-2), McCullers (7-4), and Joe Musgrove (7-8).

At the trade deadline, general manager Jeff Luhnow – at owner Jim Crane’s urging – acquired Verlander from the Tigers. He went 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA and was extraordinary in the playoffs with a 4-1 record, helping the Astros defeat the Dodgers.

In 2019, when the Astros lost the World Series to the Nationals in seven games, they had Verlander and Gerrit Cole at the top of their rotation. They were the best one-two starting punch in team history.

Verlander, 21-6 with a 2.58 ERA, struck out 300 and won the Cy Young Award. Cole, 20-5 with a 2.50 ERA and 326 strikeouts, was so deserving they could have shared the award.

Wade Miley (14-6, 3.98) was the only other member of that staff who won at least 10 games.

Once again, Luhnow pulled off a trade for a veteran pitcher to bolster the staff, acquiring Zack Greinke, who was 8-1 with a 3.02 ERA with the Astros.

In three playoff series, Verlander was 1-4, Cole 4-1, and Greinke 0-2.

The Astros may never have another top-of-the-rotation threesome like they had in the playoffs with Verlander, Cole, and Greinke, all of whom could be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

The Astros’ staff that goes against the Phillies has an opportunity to be the best in their playoff history. They proved in the ALDS and ALCS that they have the talent and depth to chill Philadelphia’s red-hot bats.

But the Astros have been favored before in the playoffs, and they’ve lost to underdogs, including the Nationals and Braves, who, like the Phillies, reside in the NL East.

When the Astros won their only World Series in 2017, their reputations were tarnished. Beginning Friday night at Minute Maid Park – if their good pitching can beat the Phillies’ good hitting – they’ll finally win an unvarnished World Series.

(John McClain writes four columns a week for He can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on Sports Radio 610 and Monday and Thursday on Texans Radio. He does three weekly Houtopia podcasts for 610. He also can be read three times a week on

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