WASHINGTON -- When this World Series began, the Nationals seemed to carry the bigger bullpen question marks of the two league champions. Now as it heads to Washington, the Nationals are owners of a commanding 2-0 Series lead, and suddenly it's the Astros relief corps causing some uncertainty.
This after the unit was at the center of the 10-run late-inning meltdown that sent the Astros spinning to their 12-3 defeat in Game 2. For a 'pen that was one of baseball's most dependable during the regular season, it is a lesson in how the narrative can change quickly come October.
“This is not a time to hang your head,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “This is not a time to abandon your players or have fear or concern.”
Who will Hinch turn to should high-leverage situations present themselves in Game 3? More than likely it’ll be a member of the shrinking group of relievers he seems to feel he can trust, and that probably means Will Harris and Joe Smith before closer Roberto Osuna, who own a combined 1.77 ERA this postseason. The rest of Houston’s relievers have allowed 17 earned runs over 19 1/3 innings (7.91 ERA).
The wild card is Ryan Pressly, who had a 1.85 regular-season ERA dating back to July 2018 but has been charged with eight runs (seven earned) in just 3 1/3 innings this October. The Astros opted to keep Pressly on the World Series roster despite the right-hander tweaking his surgically repaired right knee in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series. Though most of the damage came via three softly hit singles, four of the Nationals’ six seventh-inning runs in Game 2 came off Pressly.
Asked about Pressly on Thursday evening, Hinch initially threw his complete support behind the All-Star reliever.
“You know what? [There is] no concern, because I trust him and I believe in him,” Hinch said. “Execution's always key. I actually thought he made better pitches the other night than he did even prior to that in the postseason.”
Hinch went on to describe the three hits Pressly allowed in Game 2 as “pretty low contact, low velocity,” adding “I don't think -- he wasn't beat around the ballpark. They found some holes. They put up good at-bats. They made contact. And they put up a couple of runs.”
To Hinch’s point, Pressly’s three hits allowed Wednesday were: an 83.5-mph ground ball from Howie Kendrick, a 75.7-mph single by Asdrúbal Cabrera, and Ryan Zimmerman’s 62.7-mph RBI infield single. None had hit probabilities higher than 48%, per Statcast.
Pressly did issue a key walk to his first hitter, before intentionally walking Juan Soto to precede the damage. He’s struck out three of his 25 batters (12%) in the playoffs, after whiffing 34.1% in the regular season.
“I'm going to try to put him in a better position to be successful,” Hinch said. “But we're going to need him to pitch well for us to win four games.”
Reading between the lines there, Hinch seemed to suggest Pressly’s next call might come in a lower-leverage spot. Perhaps that means a larger role forthcoming for Josh James, whom Hinch has already called on seven times this postseason. Héctor Rondón, Jose Urquidy, Brad Peacock and Chris Devenski offer alternatives for a unit that, despite its 3.75 regular-season ERA, qualifies as the Astros’ weakness almost by default.
That’s what happens when you have baseball’s best regular-season offense, defense and starting rotation, which Houston did. But it is also a function of how the group’s production tapered off down the stretch, and the struggles it’s had doing things this October that it was great at doing over the six months prior. Houston ranked top five in MLB in strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk rate in 2019. But these playoffs, the walk rate has jumped from 8.5% to 10.4%, and strikeout rate dropped from 26.3% to 22.2% in the World Series.
“I don't feel that guys have to alleviate any [pressure],” Hinch said. “I think we have to win Game 3.”