Revamped 'pen depth on full display in loss

August 7th, 2021

HOUSTON -- The Astros’ bullpen has been transformed from the clear weakest link of a contending club to one of its strengths, which was exactly what general manager James Click had in mind when he swung three deals to acquire four relievers before the Trade Deadline. 

The depth of Houston’s revamped relief corps was on full display in Friday’s 5-4, 11-inning loss to the Twins at Minute Maid Park -- the Astros’ third defeat in a row. Houston is 1-5 since the Trade Deadline, but that’s no fault of the bullpen. 

On Friday, five relievers -- including newcomers Kendall Graveman, Phil Maton and Rafael Montero -- combined to hold the Twins to two hits and no earned runs in five innings. Both runs the Astros relievers allowed came when the inherited runner in extra innings scored, counting as unearned runs. Ryne Stanek and closer Ryan Pressly each threw a scoreless inning, as well. 

“Our bullpen is great,” said Astros starter Zack Greinke, who gave up three runs in six innings. “It’s really deep with a lot of good options. I’m guessing once the playoffs come, the starters will [go] just two times through the order, ideally, and the bullpen can handle the rest. That’s what it looks like to me. The bullpen’s pretty deep and good. I like how that’s set up.”

And for the first time since the trades, Astros manager Dusty Baker offered a glimpse of the order in which he prefers to use his high-leverage relievers with a lead or in a tie game, assuming they’re all available. Stanek, who had been the eighth-inning setup man prior to the trades, worked the seventh. Graveman pitched the eighth, and Pressly continued to dominate in the ninth. 

“You feel more confident going to them early that you may not have to stretch your starting pitcher out to try to get an extra inning out of him,” Baker said. “They’ve done well. I mean, they’ve done very well. We just haven’t won [many] games to show for it, but they’ve done well.”

Since blowing a 7-0 lead and losing to the Mariners on July 26 in Seattle -- a game which only exacerbated Houston’s need for relief help -- Astros relievers have posted a 2.20 ERA with eight earned runs allowed in 32 2/3 innings. The day after losing to the Mariners, the Astros acquired Graveman and Montero from Seattle, and then added Maton from the Indians and Yimi Garcia from the Marlins before the Trade Deadline.

With all four of those relievers on board, the Astros’ bullpen has given up just three earned runs and 17 hits and struck out 27 batters in 22 innings, posting a 1.23 ERA in six games.

After Stanek, Graveman and Pressly pitched scoreless, hitless innings Friday, Maton gave up a leadoff single to right field to Andrelton Simmons in the 10th, which pushed the inherited runner to third (he scored on a sac fly). In the 11th, Montero gave up a leadoff single to right to Josh Donaldson, which scored the automatic runner and wound up being the game-winning hit.

Despite the outcome, the Astros have more weapons and options in the bullpen, which will bolster their chances in October.

“You won’t be able to use them every day, but you can mix and match with those guys, any combination, especially if they’ve gone multiple days,” Baker said. “They all threw well. Maton threw the ball well even though he gave up a run. Montero threw the ball well even though he gave up a run. [The Twins] had some quality hitting over there. Runner on second base twice, and they’re trying to go to right field. Not only did they try to go to right field, they got a hit out of [it], and we didn’t get an out. They executed perfectly tonight.”