Taxed 'pen stumbles as Astros fall short

June 29th, 2021

HOUSTON -- Dusty Baker’s bullpen dilemma was magnified Monday when Astros starting pitcher Zack Greinke needed 96 pitches to finish five innings, meaning Baker’s short-staffed bullpen, with seven relievers on the injured list, was going to have to cover the final four innings against the Orioles.

And with Houston’s potent offense failing to get a hit with runners in scoring position through the first eight innings at Minute Maid Park, going 0-for-10, a tight game turned in favor of the Orioles, who scored five runs in the ninth inning off reliever Brandon Bielak to beat the Astros, 9-7, in the series opener.

The Astros are 13-13 this year in games decided by two runs or fewer, which is indicative of the bullpen woes in close games.

“I’m just not doing my job,” said Bielak, who has allowed 10 earned runs in 6 1/3 innings in his last five outings, including two against Baltimore. “That’s what it comes down to.”

Afterwards, Baker said he essentially had four rested relievers available -- Bielak, Ralph Garza Jr., Blake Taylor and Andre Scrubb, who was called up prior to Monday’s game. Closer Ryan Pressly, setup man Ryne Stanek and long reliever Cristian Javier weren't available. And the Astros were saving Brooks Raley -- who threw Sunday -- for a possible save situation.

“We were without the back end of our bullpen, really,” Baker said. “I can’t kill those guys. We’ve got to depend on other guys who are here.”  

That became a moot point after the Orioles tagged Bielak for five runs in the ninth inning, and Houston’s three-run rally in the bottom of the ninth fell short. Michael Brantley popped out to left field to end the game and strand a pair of runners as the Astros went 2-for-13 with runners in scoring position and left 13 on base.

The Astros (48-31) lost consecutive games for the first time in a month and have lost three of four games, including two in a row, since having their 11-game winning streak snapped Saturday in Detroit. 

“The hitters have been carrying us,” Baker said. “Pitchers have been doing their thing during the stretch. It just gets tough when you lose them like that. There’s no real explanation for it. We’ve just got to play better.” 

Greinke allowed three runs and eight hits, including a two-run homer to Ryan Mountcastle in the fifth that put the Orioles ahead, 3-2. Houston sent eight batters to the plate in the seventh to tie the game on the strength of consecutive bases-loaded walks by Kyle Tucker and Myles Straw. The Astros drew 10 walks on the night.

“He had a high pitch count in the third and fourth, and we knew we were shorthanded in the bullpen,” Baker said. “We were hoping to get him through the fifth and into the sixth and mix and match from there. His location was good, and his velocity was good early.” 

With the game tied, Bielak threw a 1-2-3 eighth inning against the bottom-third of Baltimore’s lineup, getting a pair of strikeouts. But it was a different story in the ninth. The Orioles rocked him for five runs and four hits, including a two-run homer by Austin Hays, to put the Astros in a 9-4 hole. Houston is 5-7 when tied after eight innings. 

Correa removed from game in ninth 

Astros star shortstop Carlos Correa was taken out of the game in the ninth inning after he was hit on the inside of his right knee by a pitch thrown by Baltimore reliever Paul Fry. Correa hobbled to first base before walking off the field under his own power.

“He wanted to stay in, but he had to go in and take care of it,” Baker said. “He had to put ice on it. It got him on the right side of the knee. It’s going to be sore tomorrow, but we’ll evaluate him and then he’ll come in early tomorrow and get treatment and hopefully, the soreness will subside overnight. It’s going to be sore.”