Got relief? Astros banking they have enough

October 16th, 2021

HOUSTON -- Dusty Baker quickly found himself working backwards with his pitching staff Friday, and much earlier than the Astros' manager would’ve liked.

Framber Valdez struggled to find the strike zone early in counts, hanging his best pitch to Kiké Hernández, who crushed it 448 feet, before Houston’s oft-reliable lefty surrendered a run-scoring double to Hunter Renfroe -- and all of a sudden, a Boston snowball was brewing in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.

So with two outs in the third inning, Baker turned to his bullpen for the beginning of what would be a seven-arm relief effort that Houston would need to reach the finish line in its eventual 5-4 victory at Minute Maid Park.

The tactic was one that Red Sox manager Alex Cora said from the outset of the best-of-seven series he would use early and often. Yet it was Baker who deployed his bullpen first. It worked, but it was also a stark reminder of how questionable the Astros’ rotation -- and really, its entire pitching staff -- sits without its best arm, Lance McCullers Jr.

A Johnny Wholestaff effort isn’t sustainable in a best-of-seven series, and even Baker is cognizant of that. But with everyone on two days’ rest, with one more game in Houston before an off-day Sunday ahead of the series shifting to Fenway Park, he was more comfortable emptying the tank.

“I think it's very important that during these playoffs that you pitch and use your pitchers accordingly to the ensuing and upcoming off-days,” Baker said. “So they space those off-days perfectly so you can recharge and get your guys some rest before they got to come back in.”

Everything worked out Friday, thanks to huge homers from Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa and a combined 6 1/3 innings from Yimi García, Cristian Javier, Phil Maton, Brooks Raley, Ryne Stanek, Kendall Graveman and Ryan Pressly, the lone blemish being a solo homer from the red-hot Hernández off Pressly in the ninth.

That final long ball represented one of just four hits against Houston relievers, who racked up eight strikeouts and allowed just two baserunners to reach scoring position.

Javier was the true catalyst, striking out four of the seven batters he faced, further carving out a role that could be critical in the rest of the ALCS.

“He was the pitcher of the game, in my opinion,” Correa said. “He is the one that gave us a chance to stay in the game and be able to finally come back and win it. Truly, truly remarkable performance by him.”

Yet Javier’s availability could hinge on a game-by-game basis, especially given that he’s a converted starter. In 36 regular-season outings this year, he only once pitched on fewer than two days’ rest. This is the postseason, so availability is correlated with urgency, but there’s no question that the Astros need more length from their starters than what Valdez gave them Friday.

Luis Garcia takes the hill in Game 2 and will likely be on a limit in the neighborhood of 80 pitches or two times through the order in a best-case scenario, given that the rookie is already well past his career-high threshold in innings pitched.

After Saturday, the Astros will sort it out from there.

“I love our bullpen. I have a lot of confidence,” Correa said. “It's all about mixing and matching and having the right pockets for the guys. We got a lot of guys that can get the job done, and I truly believe that our bullpen was outstanding today, as you saw.”

But the absence of McCullers, who wouldn’t have started Game 1 anyway, is already beginning to be felt -- especially with his would-be rotation spot in Game 3 looming. The rest of Houston’s starters these playoffs have a 10.24 ERA in a combined three outings, including Friday.

“It became a battle of the bullpens because their bullpen performed well; also, ours did a great job,” Baker said. “I think we almost went through everybody on both sides in Game 1, and we got some big outs. Framber, he wasn't sharp, but he got some big double plays.”

Everything played to the Astros’ favor in the first bout, yet the battle of the bullpens will rage on -- and who can best manage the delicate tightrope of innings allocation could be the difference in this ALCS.