Astros' rotation a source of strength, optimism
Feldman, Keuchel, Cosart leading staff to strong start, in line with Houston tradition
HOUSTON -- They're not going to be confused with the staff that featured Nolan Ryan, Joe Niekro and J.R. Richard in 1980, or even the 2005 Astros, who ran Roy Oswalt, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte out to the mound as part of their rotation.
The Astros have been built around pitching and defense for decades, and it all begins with a strong starting staff that keeps the club competitive. Despite the lumps Houston has endured this year on offense and in the bullpen, the performance of the club's starting rotation is a reason for optimism.
Astros starters rank eighth in the American League with a 4.17 ERA, including a 3.15 ERA in 10 games since May 5. Houston's starting staff hasn't finished the season with an ERA that low since 2006, when the starters posted a 4.15 the season after the team reached the World Series.
"Our starters have done a tremendous job," Astros manager Bo Porter said. "Just like hitting's contagious, when starting pitchers start to roll over quality starts like these guys are rolling them off, it becomes a competition within in the group. You hear the guys talk about it, that the next man wants to do just as good as the guy who pitched the night before."
The Astros got their best start of the season on Tuesday when lefty Dallas Keuchel shut out the Rangers on seven hits, a performance that was Houston's seventh quality start in a nine-game span. Scott Feldman allowed four runs and 10 hits in five innings Wednesday, but the Astros still rallied to beat the Rangers and win the series.
"Everybody's been throwing great," said Feldman, who signed to a three-year, $30 million deal to lead the young staff. "I think we're working well with the catchers. You can't say enough about our pitching coach [Brent Strom] putting us in good situations. As the season goes on, hopefully we continue to roll like that."
Strom, who works closely with bullpen coach Craig Bjornson, credited the starters' preparation -- a tone which has been set by Feldman -- as well as the work of catchers Jason Castro and Carlos Corporan behind the plate.
"We've had a nice little run here as of late, and it's a credit to the guys in terms of their preparation," Strom said. "I think a great deal of it is the preparation that you see from a guy like Scott Feldman and how the young pitchers start to view how he prepares for games, whether it's video, the scouting reports and his history. Some of this has rubbed off on young players."
Feldman, Keuchel and Jarred Cosart are the only three remaining starters who began the season in the rotation, and each has pitched well. Feldman is 2-1 with a 2.63 ERA in six starts, Keuchel is 4-2 with a 3.06 ERA in eight starts and Cosart is 2-3 with a 4.30 ERA, which is skewed by his April 18 start in Oakland in which he allowed seven earned runs in one-third of an inning.
Lucas Harrell, who lost all three of his starts, was designated for assignment, and Brett Oberholtzer (0-6 in seven starts) also started the year in the rotation before being sent to Triple-A.
Journeyman Collin McHugh replaced Feldman when he went on the disabled list, and he has been terrific. Since getting called up, he's 2-1 with a 2.81 ERA with 27 strikeouts and six walks in four starts (25 2/3 innings). Brad Peacock took Harrell's spot and has posted a 5.02 ERA in five starts, throwing at least six innings in his last three outings.
"We have guys who can pitch here, we have guys who can play here," McHugh said. "We have a better team than our record shows. I know all of us have been saying that, but when we put it together like [Tuesday], and Dallas goes out and throws a great game and our offense swings the sticks really well, we're tough to beat. Hopefully, we can keep that going."
Cosart, who had a 1.95 ERA in 10 starts in his Major League debut last year, sums it up not quite as eloquently, though certainly as confidently:
"Get nasty," he said.
That's become the de facto battle cry of the starters, and it has even been used by Cosart as a Twitter hashtag.
"We talked in the dugout and in the locker room among each other," Cosart said. "Whoever's throwing each game passes it down the line. It's a friendly competition amongst us to go out there and one-up the guy before you. In the end, we're all out there competing, trying to get our team a win."
Strom has preached working at a quicker pace to keep the defense on its toes and cutting down on walks by being aggressive in the strike zone. He's also trying to get the pitchers to use the top of the strike zone more, something that's been especially effective for McHugh.
"Obviously, the pace is very important," Strom said. "We've played pretty well defensively, and that helps when the pitcher gets the ball and moves. This aggressive approach is now starting to find its way to our bullpen also. It's a short sample, but our last few bullpen outings, we've taken a more aggressive approach in how we go after hitters."
Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow says he always believed in his starting staff and its depth, especially in adding arms McHugh and Peacock when the need arose.
"It's a huge boost to our team," Luhnow said. "The offense wants to produce enough runs to give them a chance to win and the bullpen wants to protect those leads, but [it] all starts with the starting pitcher. We have five guys that are all pitching well, and Obie is pitching well in the Minor Leagues.
"It's a nice position to be in, and we need to capitalize on what they're doing and get more W's out of it."