Bullpen can't back up Blanco's solid outing

After right-hander's fourth straight quality start, relievers falter in extra-inning loss

April 21st, 2024

WASHINGTON -- Justin Verlander said he felt “great” Friday night after he won his season debut. Framber Valdez threw a bullpen session Saturday morning that went well. A comeback win appeared all but secured Saturday afternoon when the Astros took a late lead at Nationals Park.

But their progress was undone by another rickety bullpen performance. Ryan Pressly allowed two runs in the bottom of the ninth and Seth Martinez gave up the losing run in the bottom of the 10th inning. Those performances led to a deflating 5-4 loss to the Nationals, the Astros’ fourth defeat in five games and their 15th loss of the season.

“You find yourself with an opportunity to win the game, and you have the guys that you want in the game, and the fact that you can't close this game, it's hard to swallow,” Astros manager Joe Espada said.

The Astros entered the weekend series having converted just one of six save opportunities. Closer Josh Hader was unavailable Saturday after surviving a bumpy, 30-pitch ninth inning on Friday night for his second save of the season.

Catcher’s interference on Yainer Diaz started Washington’s rally against Pressly in the ninth on Saturday. Jesse Winker’s single scored two to tie the game. A fly ball into the gap by Joey Meneses on Martinez’s first pitch of the 10th sent the Astros trudging off the field.

Pressly’s ERA is 8.31. Bryan Abreu’s ERA is 4.91. Hader’s is 8.38. The trio has a legacy of reliability. Their start to 2024 has been anything but.

“I think the game plan is pretty good. We either fall behind or are not just putting hitters away,” Espada said. “Those guys have been really good for us for many years, been reliable, and we're going to continue giving them an opportunity, because we need those guys to win.”

Kyle Tucker’s two RBI singles put Houston in a position to win back-to-back games for just the third time this season. Tucker knocked in runs in the seventh and eighth to expand Houston’s lead to 4-2. Yordan Alvarez had three hits. was solid, if not quite as spectacular as during his scintillating start to the season.

Blanco allowed only two runs combined in his first three starts this season. Washington shortstop CJ Abrams added a third when he hit Blanco’s first pitch of the game into the right-field stands. Blanco found more trouble in the fourth when another run scored after José Abreu failed to catch a foul ball and was charged with an error. Blanco closed out the inning and settled in again.

Joey Gallo was the only hitter to reach against Blanco in the next two innings. The right-hander’s pitch count rose to 98 by the end of the sixth, prompting Rafael Montero to get loose in the bullpen. Having made four starts, Blanco is more than halfway to his total from last season (7) just four weeks into the season. He’s absorbed 27 innings already for a ravaged rotation. His sheer availability has been almost as important as his performance thus far. Blanco allowed five hits, two runs, walked three and struck out six in his six innings Saturday.

However, his continuing emergence was a sidenote after the game.

Before the game began, Espada addressed what is now a daily question: How are the Astros, an organization coming off seven consecutive American League Championship Series appearances, managing this labored start of the season?

“Having that experience … creates that no-panic zone for our club,” Espada said pregame in the dugout. “We’ve been in this position before, with our backs against the corner before, and we know how to fight back. I expect the guys to continue to fight back.”

The fight just got a little harder.