Astros on the brink

A win at Bos­ton to­day would wrap up ALDS

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Jake Ka­plan jake.ka­plan@chron.com twit­ter.com/jakemka­plan

BOS­TON — From nearly cast off to the starter of a po­ten­tial play­off series clincher, Brad Pea­cock has had a break­out sea­son even more im­pos­si­ble to fore­cast than that of su­per util­ity man Mar­win Gon­za­lez.

When the Astros re­ported to spring train­ing in Fe­bru­ary full of World Series as­pi­ra­tions, Pea­cock was a 40-man ros­ter af­ter­thought. The 29-year-old righthander had his chances, and in those chances he hadn’t per­formed.

So how did Pea­cock trans­form him­self from a medi­ocre Class AAA starter last year to the pitcher Astros man­ager A.J. Hinch tabbed for Sun­day’s Game 3 of the ALDS against Bos­ton? For starters, he was fi­nally healthy af­ter years of back is­sues. The roots of his suc­cess go deeper, though.

In July 2016, around the time of the Class AAA All-Star break, Pea­cock found him­self at a ca­reer cross­roads. Pa­cific Coast League hit­ters were hav­ing their way with him, so much so that his ERA neared 5.00. If he didn’t make changes, he fig­ured, he would be look­ing for work else­where.

So Pea­cock dropped his arm slot from a high three-quar­ters to a low three-quar­ters and, with help from fel­low Class AAA pitcher Jor­dan Jankowski, started throw­ing his slider with less ve­loc­ity and more sweep­ing move­ment. The re­sult is the im­proved com­mand he’s har­nessed this sea­son and the nasty break­ing ball against which the op­po­si­tion bat­ted a woe­ful .188 in the reg­u­lar sea­son.

“He never stops amaz­ing me ev­ery sin­gle start,” Astros short­stop Car­los Cor­rea said. “I know that me and (sec­ond base­man Jose) Al­tuve look at each other af­ter some of the slid­ers he throws, and we’re like, ‘Wow.’ Like, I don’t want to face that. The pitch looks like a fast­ball all the way un­til you’re go­ing to swing at it, and it just takes off.” 11 strike­outs per nine in­nings

Be­hind a 3.00 ERA in 132 in­nings, 1112⁄3 of which came in a start­ing role, Pea­cock was un­ques­tion­ably one of the three most valu­able pitch­ers on the Astros’ staff in the reg­u­lar sea­son.

Ac­cord­ing to FanGraphs, his 3.4 Wins Above Re­place­ment ranked first among Astros pitch­ers. By Base­ball Ref­er­ence’s ver­sion of the met­ric, only All-Star Dallas Keuchel (3.9) was more valu­able to the Astros among their pitch­ers than Pea­cock (3.0).

Pea­cock struck out 11 bat­ters per nine in­nings. Among AL pitch­ers with at least 130 in­nings, only Bos­ton’s Chris Sale (12.9), Cleve­land’s Corey Klu­ber (11.7) and Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer (11.1) had a bet­ter strike­out rate.

Pea­cock’s seem­ingly out-of-nowhere emer­gence co­in­cided with phys­i­cally his health­i­est sea­son since 2011, the same year he de­buted as a Septem­ber call-up for the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als. For years, he woke up the morn­ing of a start not know­ing whether his back would hurt that day.

“This guy had been bat­tling his back for a long, long time. I don’t think many peo­ple re­al­ize. It was pretty bad,” said pitch­ing coach Brent Strom, who since his first spring with the Astros in 2014 has been a big ad­vo­cate of Pea­cock.

“I’ve al­ways liked his young man, his stuff, his fast­ball, the way it plays. This is a guy who used to throw 95, 96 (mph) when he first came up with the Na­tion­als. His back be­ing bad just cur­tailed his de­vel­op­ment.”

In Oc­to­ber 2014, Pea­cock un­der­went arthro­scopic surgery on his hip in an at­tempt to al­le­vi­ate the back pain. It didn’t work.

He made one ma­jor league start that sea­son, in April, be­fore he was shut down. When the Astros made the post­sea­son that Oc­to­ber, he watched his team­mates play on TV from a sports bar in his home­town of West Palm Beach, Fla.

Ear­lier that sum­mer, though, Pea­cock had found relief in the form of a di­ag­no­sis from a spe­cial­ist in Cal­i­for­nia who dis­cov­ered bone spurs pinch­ing a nerve near his spine. A doc­tor in Chicago per­formed surgery on his up­per back in Au­gust 2015, which af­forded Pea­cock enough re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion time to come into 2016 spring train­ing ready to pitch.

Last off­sea­son was a much-wel­comed win­ter free of re­hab.

“I’ve been through a lot in the last cou­ple years, but it’s brought me here,” the quiet, unas­sum­ing Pea­cock said Satur­day from a dais at his­toric Fen­way Park. “I’m just ex­cited to be able to pitch in the post­sea­son, and it’s go­ing to be pretty cool.” Unique path to ma­jors

Pea­cock took the road less trav­eled well be­fore the Astros ac­quired him from the Oak­land Ath­let­ics in a trade con­sum­mated be­fore spring train­ing in 2013. He pitched only eight in­nings at Palm Beach Cen­tral High, where he spent most of his time on the field as a light-hit­ting third base­man.

For­tu­nately for him, then-Na­tion­als area scout Tony Arango watched one of those eight in­nings dur­ing Pea­cock’s se­nior sea­son in 2006. Arango liked the pitcher’s ath­leti­cism, com­po­sure and abil­ity to re­peat his de­liv­ery with clean arm ac­tion. He rec­om­mended the Na­tion­als draft him, which they did but not un­til the 41st round.

Pea­cock’s draft class was the last of the draft-and-fol­low rule, which al­lowed teams to main­tain ex­clu­sive sign­ing rights of a player it se­lected un­til a week be­fore the fol­low­ing year’s draft. Pea­cock spent the in­ter­me­di­ate sea­son at Palm Beach Com­mu­nity Col­lege. Be­fore the 2007 draft, the Na­tion­als signed him for $110,000, which was top 10-round money.

The Na­tion­als were high enough on Pea­cock by 2010 to send him with phe­nom Bryce Harper to the prospect-laden Ari­zona Fall League. By mid­sea­son 2011, Base­ball Amer­ica re­garded Pea­cock as the 42nd-best prospect in the sport. Wash­ing­ton pro­moted him to the ma­jors for a cup of cof­fee at the end of that sea­son.

The fol­low­ing win­ter, Pea­cock was in­cluded in the prospect pack­age the Nats sent the A’s for start­ing pitcher Gio Gon­za­lez. Two years later, the Astros be­came Pea­cock’s third or­ga­ni­za­tion. He had ma­jor league stints with them ev­ery sea­son from 2013 to 2016, ex­haust­ing his mi­nor league op­tions by the time he re­ported to spring train­ing in Fe­bru­ary.

With a 4.76 ERA in the ma­jors over the four pre­vi­ous sea­sons, his fu­ture was very much up in the air.

But Pea­cock pitched well in spring train­ing. Start­ing pitcher Collin McHugh be­gin­ning the sea­son on the dis­abled list paved the way for Pea­cock as the long re­liever on the Astros’ open­ing day ros­ter, though Hinch said Satur­day he thinks Pea­cock would’ve made the team even had McHugh been ready to start the sea­son.

“His pitch ef­fec­tive­ness has al­ways been re­ally good, and I think that’s been the ap­peal of Brad Pea­cock,” Hinch said. “We’re lucky we hung on to him be­cause had he not been in our ro­ta­tion, no doubt he would have been on some­one’s pitch­ing staff throw­ing im­por­tant in­nings.”

But Game 3 of a post­sea­son series? Even Pea­cock ad­mit­ted if some­one had pre­dicted that in Fe­bru­ary, he “would have told them they were crazy.”

“Just be­ing here is spe­cial for me,” he said. “I’ve been hum­bled along the way. I’ve been in­jured along the way, and it just makes it that much more spe­cial for me. It’s the big­gest start of my ca­reer and hope­fully I can keep say­ing that as it goes on.”

Hous­ton Chron­i­cle il­lus­tra­tion

Karen War­ren / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Once a player fight­ing for a ros­ter spot, righthander Brad Pea­cock will start Game 3 of the ALDS against Bos­ton to­day with a chance to pitch the Astros into the AL Cham­pi­onship Series.

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