Astros' hit-or-miss offense squanders Bielak's solid start
MILWAUKEE -- The hit-or-miss nature of the Astros’ offense was on full display this week at American Family Field, where they blasted the Brewers for 12 runs -- including five home runs -- in the series opener before getting blanked in the final two games of the three-game series.
What made the Astros’ first consecutive shutout losses since Sept. 22-23, 2022, all the more frustrating was how well unproven starters J.P. France and Brandon Bielak -- both of whom were thrust into the rotation in the wake of significant injuries to José Urquidy and Luis Garcia earlier this month -- pitched in those games.
Bielak delivered a career-high 6 2/3 innings in Wednesday afternoon’s 4-0 loss to the Brewers, giving up three homers that accounted for all four runs. France, in his fourth career start, held Milwaukee to one earned run and five hits in 5 2/3 innings in a 6-0 loss on Tuesday night.
“Those guys stepped up big time,” Astros catcher Martín Maldonado said. “Bielak gave up four runs today on three swings. You know, overall I think they gave us a chance to score runs, and we haven’t been able to do that the last couple of games. … You couldn't ask for any better than that for those two guys, or for any starter overall. Especially those two games. They just came up and replaced the injured guys and have done amazing for us.”
Bielak had never pitched into the seventh inning prior to Wednesday. It didn’t seem likely he’d get very deep after he was trailing, 2-0, just two batters in thanks to a two-run homer by Willy Adames in the first inning. Bielak retired 17 of the next 19 batters before Owen Miller led off the seventh with a homer and Brian Anderson hit another two outs later.
“I came in the dugout after that [first] inning, and [pitching coach Josh] Miller said, ‘Keep it there,’” Bielak said. “Obviously, in the seventh inning there, two pitches got away from me, and they made good swings on them. Tip the cap.”
Bielak said locating his sinker well consistently and some quality changeups allowed him to keep runners off base while throwing a career-high 90 pitches.
“It makes pitching a lot easier, just being able to go out there and attack the zone,” Bielak said. “Definitely allowed you to be more comfortable out there.”
The Astros remain an elite pitching team, entering Wednesday leading the Major Leagues with a 3.21 ERA. That’s incredible when you consider they’re down three starters: Lance McCullers Jr. (right forearm) was injured in Spring Training, Urquidy (right shoulder) is out until the All-Star break and Garcia had Tommy John surgery last week.
It’s Houston’s offense that remains an enigma. The Astros have been without All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve for all but four games this year because of an injury (he didn’t play Wednesday because of an illness), and veteran first baseman José Abreu remains in a career-long home run drought. Too often, their offense has been carried by sluggers Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez, who blasted two homers Monday.
Alvarez and Tucker came up in a big spot in the sixth inning Wednesday. Unlike Monday, when the Brewers summoned a lefty to face Alvarez with the bases loaded in the sixth and watched him hit a grand slam, right-hander Joel Payamps struck out Alvarez and got Tucker to fly out and strand runners at second and third base.
“We had a couple of opportunities, but Yordan can’t come through all the time,” manager Dusty Baker said. “We’ve been leaning on him so heavily. We just didn’t muster much offense.”
Brewers starter Adrian Houser, who was a second-round pick of the Astros in 2011 before being dealt to Milwaukee in '15, threw 5 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing two hits. Houston hasn't scored in 19 consecutive innings and has nine hits in its past two games, including two extra-base hits (0-for-9 with runners in scoring position).
“Their guy threw pretty good again,” Baker said. “It’s similar to how we shut out Tampa Bay for those back-to-back games [April 25-26]. When a pitching staff is dealing like that, they’re hitting low on the outside, and they didn’t walk many people. That was their success. They were getting ahead of us, and boy, we were in the fifth inning before we knew it.”