Trade gave Mal­don­ado shot at a ring

Catcher had to earn the trust of Astros pitch­ers af­ter move from the An­gels.

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Maria Tor­res maria.tor­res@la­times.com Twit­ter: @mari­a_­tor­res3

BOS­TON — If he ever felt any ap­pre­hen­sion join­ing the Hous­ton Astros in the mid­dle of a post­sea­son run as he did this sum­mer, for­mer An­gels catcher Martin Mal­don­ado long ago dis­pelled it.

He said on Fri­day even­ing at Fen­way Park, where the Astros and Bos­ton Red Sox worked out and took bat­ting prac­tice ahead of Satur­day’s Amer­i­can League Cham­pi­onship Series opener, that the tough­est thing about be­ing traded from the An­gels to the Astros was earn­ing the trust of the new pitch­ers he was paired with.

When Mal­don­ado was jet­ti­soned from Ana­heim in late July, Hous­ton’s pitch­ing staff was al­ready one of the most suc­cess­ful in base­ball. Starters Justin Ver­lan­der and Ger­rit Cole had an­chored the Astros’ stel­lar ro­ta­tion and earned trips to the All-Star game. Re­liever Collin McHugh had a 0.96 ERA in 32 out­ings dur­ing the first half. Ver­lan­der and McHugh, and sev­eral oth­ers, had helped lead the Astros to the fran­chise’s first World Series ti­tle last year. The task was daunt­ing. “My job was to prove to them that I was not here to change any­thing but to help them and try to be on the same page as them,” Mal­don­ado said in Span­ish.

It seems Mal­don­ado has had no trou­ble in­spir­ing the Astros’ pitch­ing staff to embrace him and trust him with their liveli­hoods. He was com­mended by Ver­lan­der, who will start Game 1 of the ALCS for the Astros on Satur­day, for his abil­ity to fit in. “He was, like, ‘[Of­fense is] not why I was brought here,’ ” Ver­lan­der said to gath­ered re­porters. “‘I was brought here to make you guys bet­ter as a start­ing pitch­ing staff ... to stop the run­ning game, to do the lit­tle things as a catcher.’ And he un­der­stood that and he took a lot of pride in that, and I think that’s what made the tran­si­tion seam­less.”

Start­ing pitcher Dal­las Keuchel, too, mar­veled at Mal­don­ado’s ap­ti­tude.

“He wanted to learn and I think the will­ing­ness to do that ex­tends beyond just the stan­dard get­ting to know ev­ery­body over time,” Keuchel said. “He was on a team that was hun­gry to win again and he knew that, so he just fit right in, just like it was noth­ing. Like he was al­ready here for a cou­ple years.”

Even Red Sox man­ager Alex Cora, who was the Astros’ bench coach last year, took no­tice. He lav­ished Mal­don­ado with praise dur­ing his news con­fer­ence Fri­day, say­ing he was the big­gest dif­fer­ence for the Astros de­fen­sively.

“I didn’t see that com­ing, know­ing that Brian [McCann] was go­ing to be healthy and [Max] Stassi was play­ing great,” he said. “But that’s what the Astros do. They think ahead. … So they de­cided to go to one of the best de­fen­sive catch­ers in the league. He’s been out­stand­ing.”

Mal­don­ado, 32, spent five sea­sons with Mil­wau­kee as a backup be­fore the An­gels ac­quired him in a trade in De­cem­ber 2016.

He emerged last sea­son as an every­day catcher and won a Gold Glove while hit­ting 14 home runs in 138 games.

He was on track to push for an­other de­fen­sive award with the An­gels this sea­son as he shep­herded rookie two-way player Sho­hei Oh­tani through his first pro sea­son in the United States. Oh­tani had a 3.12 ERA in the eight games that Mal­don­ado caught for him.

But as the An­gels’ ro­ta­tion was ru­ined by in­juries, the team’s chances for a se­ri­ous post­sea­son run cratered. Gen­eral man­ager Billy Ep­pler chose to get some­thing in re­turn for Mal­don­ado, who will be­come a free agent this win­ter.

The trade caught Mal­don­ado off guard.

But in the two and a half months that have passed since the move was made, he has rel­ished the op­por­tu­nity to join a team that was seek­ing to re­turn to the play­offs and win a sec­ond con­sec­u­tive World Series Cham­pi­onship.

“You al­ways yearn for a World Series, to play in Oc­to­ber, which I’m fi­nally do­ing,” Mal­don­ado said. “That’s why you play the game.”

David J. Phillip As­so­ci­ated Press

HOUS­TON’S Martin Mal­don­ado, right, cel­e­brates his solo home run against Cleve­land with team­mate Ge­orge Springer.

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