HOUSTON -- For however long the Astros' postseason lasts, and as long as their bullpen continues to show leaks here and there, manager AJ Hinch is going to continue to get questions about the relief corps responsible for high-leverage innings.
Hinch, thoughtful and accommodating even in the most stressful of times, gave another detailed answer when asked about it once the team returned to Houston on Wednesday, following the Game 4 loss to the Rays that forced a winner-take-all Game 5 in the American League Division Series on Thursday at Minute Maid Park.
Hinch lauded his relievers, listing each by name and offering specific reasons why he has faith in them. But he concluded his train of thought with one standout comment that surely will be felt by everyone in the Astros' dugout when Game 5 begins.
“The tone will be set by [starter] Gerrit Cole," Hinch said. "And that's a good feeling."
Before the series began, the general consensus among baseball observers was that the Astros had the most complete team in the postseason field of 10: an air-tight 1-2-3 rotation punch of Justin Verlander, Cole and Zack Greinke; one of the most feared lineups in all of baseball, and a bullpen that ... well, seemed to be good enough to get the job done.
Four games into the postseason, there are now questions as to whether the bullpen is going to end up costing the Astros a championship title. The performances have been good at times, spotty in others. And even with far fewer innings to account for, they've paled in comparison to Tampa Bay's relievers, who have absorbed the most innings and done significant damage in this best-of-five ALDS, threatening to tilt in the Rays' favor.
It's probably unrealistic to hope for nine innings out of Cole, but if Hinch had a guarantee he'd have to assign only one or two innings at the end of the game to someone other than his co-ace, he'd probably take that deal.
In the interim, he’s is comfortable with endorsing his full gaggle of relievers.
"Oftentimes these relievers are only talked about when they struggle or when they give up a big hit," Hinch said. "It's a thankless job. If they don't do their job, they blew the game. Nobody has really blown games in this series. Both teams have won the games that they kind of are ahead in and how they're supposed to win, and how we match up in the end. We'll see [Thursday] night if that can continue. And I like the chances with the depth we have."
That starts with Will Harris, the Astros' most reliable reliever not only in the postseason, but throughout the year. The veteran right-hander has pitched in three ALDS games and he has not allowed a run, yielding two hits while striking out three. He also got Roberto Osuna out of a huge jam in Game 2, after the closer, attempting to nail down a four-out save, walked two, allowed two hits and nearly blew Cole's 15-strikeout masterpiece. Had Harris not delivered in that one, the Rays would have clinched the ALDS in Game 4.
The other pitcher in question is Ryan Pressly, who until his knee started giving him problems earlier in the season was the Astros' lock-down setup man, with the ability to close games, too.
But Pressly missed a month late in the regular season after undergoing surgery, and though he made it back in time to appear in four games as the regular season was winding down, how effective he can be as the postseason progresses, if the Astros advance, remains a question. He has appeared twice in the ALDS. He allowed two runs in the first outing and recorded one out in the second without any damage.
Two years ago, the Astros had a bullpen peppered with effective starting pitchers who were pushed out because there simply wasn't room for them in a stacked rotation. But Houston doesn't have Lance McCullers Jr. to throw two-dozen curveballs in a row to nail down the AL pennant, nor do they have the steady hand of Collin McHugh to step in with multiple innings after the starter exits. Starter/reliever extraordinaire Brad Peacock, who missed a lot of time this season with a sore shoulder, should be a go for the next round, but he wasn't ready in time for the ALDS.
So, this year's relief corps is more traditional, in that it's comprised of relievers who have always been, well, relievers. And that will have to do, for now.
"If there is a perceived notion that we are a little weak there, I don't think that's the case," Harris said. "I think we have a lot of talented guys that bring a lot of different things that we can match up pretty well with most teams.
“Our blueprint for winning -- I don't think that has changed. You win 107 games, the way we did, the bullpen was a big part of that. What matters is continuing to make good pitches, control what you can control and understand we're facing really good teams from here on out. You don't always get away with mistakes. We’re just trying to be as fine as we can be.”