'Pen putting signature on Astros' campaign
Chemistry of unit a factor, but talent and depth going a long way for Houston
HOUSTON -- Despite having the best record in the American League, the Astros aren't a team without flaws. They strike out too often, they probably rely on home runs too much and their starting rotation isn't as deep as you'd like for a contender.
All those issues might lead to sleepless nights for manager A.J. Hinch, but he can rest his head comfortably each night when he thinks about his bullpen. Houston's relief corps, the source of so much angst the past few years, has lived up to preseason expectations and has emerged as one of the best in the game.
The Astros' bullpen has a 2.13 ERA through 48 games, which is second in the AL behind the Royals.
"I'm not surprised at all the way this team is pitching," said closer Luke Gregerson. "A lot of us have played together in the past and everybody's career is going to show what we're all capable of. I think there's a couple of guys that are pitching better than they thought they might have, but I think the talent level is there and it's just a matter of getting that confidence and consistency to really stretch it out for a long period of time."
The signings of Gregerson, Pat Neshek and Joe Thatcher and the acquisition of Will Harris to join to Chad Qualls, Josh Fields and Tony Sipp has given Hinch a wealth of experienced options. Gregerson is the closer, but Qualls, Fields and even the lefty Sipp could fill that role. Harris has been nearly untouchable and has found himself pitching in bigger situations as the season has progressed.
Fields has allowed two hits in his past 10 appearances, Gregerson has converted 13 of 14 save chances, Neshek hasn't been scored upon in 13 consecutive appearances and Harris hasn't allowed a run in 16 of his 17 appearances. Sipp had a 14-game scoreless streak snapped when he gave up a walk-off homer in Detroit a week ago.
"I like the depth of it and the ability and openness to use them in almost any order," Hinch said. "There's a general plan I go with, but I can use them in any order and feel comfortable about it. That speaks volumes in keeping guys fresh."
Houston tried to fix its bullpen prior to the 2014 season and took a chance on relievers Jesse Crain and Matt Albers, both of whom were injured, though Qualls proved to be a good signing. The Astros acquired Harris off waivers from the D-backs in the fall, and owner Jim Crane opened up his wallet to sign Gregerson and Neshek at the Winter Meetings.
Rarely do such overhauls go so perfectly.
"It's pretty cool every night there could be a new guy pitching the seventh, giving one of us a night off or giving someone else a night off the next night," Neshek said. "We're relying on each other, and it's a great sign."
Like any effective bullpen, there has to be camaraderie. It helped that Qualls, Neshek, Gregerson, Thatcher and long reliever Samuel Deduno had all been teammates before. They go to dinner on the road in groups, hang out in the clubhouse and on the team's charter.
"I've had this conversation with numerous people where I really felt if you don't have a group of guys that get along -- in the bullpen, in the clubhouse, outside the field -- it's hard to play with guys you don't trust because you don't hang out with them, don't know them very well," Gregerson said. "Everyone's got each other's backs."