HOUSTON -- About two hours prior to first pitch Sunday afternoon, Astros manager Dusty Baker sat on the back of a bench in the dugout and stressed how badly his team needed rookie starter J.P. France to work deep into the finale of the series against the Red Sox.
The Astros’ bullpen was already “upside down,” as Baker likes to say, meaning the relievers have carried so much of the weight recently that there were more relief pitchers unavailable than there were available. Houston summoned starter Brandon Bielak from Triple-A Sugar Land prior to Thursday’s game with hopes it wouldn’t have to use him in relief.
Bielak wound up pitching more innings (5 1/3) in Thursday’s 17-1 loss to Boston than France, who was rocked for 10 runs and 11 hits in the shortest start of his young career -- 2 1/3 innings. The Red Sox escaped Minute Maid Park with a split after losing the first two games of the series, dropping the Astros 1 1/2 games behind the first-place Rangers.
“There’s not much to say,” France said. “It’s just a bad game. It seemed like everything I threw they were hitting, whether it was cutters away, heaters in, heaters away. Just one of those days.”
The Red Sox put seven balls in play off France that were hit harder than 100 mph, all of which went for base hits. That included a second-inning single from Rafael Devers that was 111.3 mph off the bat, and home runs by Alex Verdugo (107.2 mph to start the game) and Wilyer Abreu (108.7 mph in the second). Boston went 11-for-19 against France with an average exit velocity of 94.8 mph.
"In film, it seemed like his stuff was better early on,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said of France. “Today was probably an off-day for him. But he's one of the best. That changeup is a good one. That cutter is a good one. He'll bounce back. I think, probably, he'll pitch against us next week. So he'll make adjustments. We’ve just got to make sure we're ahead of that.”
France has been one of the Astros’ biggest surprise stories this year and was among rookie leaders in innings, ERA, wins and quality starts.
“We knew they could hit and when the hits started coming, it’s hard to stop,” Baker said. “It appears that him and [catcher] Yainer [Diaz] weren’t on the same page for a while. You could sort of tell they were out of sync. That’s the hardest he’s been hit this year.”
Bielak came in with the bases loaded in the third inning and allowed all three runners to score, but he threw a career-high 112 pitches and enabled Baker to stay away from all his key relievers. He’s the second pitcher in Astros history to throw as many as 112 pitches in relief, joining Bob Forsch (114) on Aug. 3, 1989, at Cincinnati.
“I came in with the bases loaded and I just didn’t do the job there,” Bielak said. “The game got away right there in that moment. We didn’t really have any guys available in the bullpen and I knew it was my game from then out, and I had to dig deep and give everything I had to the team.”
Rafael Montero got the final out of the eighth, and catcher Martín Maldonado pitched the ninth. He threw 30 pitches (14 strikes) and averaged 49.1 mph. Maldonado's max was a fastball at 86.3 mph. His lone previous relief appearance was April 30, 2014, for Milwaukee at St. Louis.
Astros relievers (32 1/3 innings) have now thrown more innings than Astros starters (31 2/3 innings) in the past seven games. Houston’s starters have an 8.81 ERA in that span, including six scoreless innings from Justin Verlander on Tuesday.
Baker will give the ball to ace left-hander Framber Valdez for Friday’s series opener against the Tigers in Detroit with hopes a deep outing can get his bullpen back to where it needs to be.
“We need a good start out of Framber and then hopefully we’ll get back in sync these next six days,” Baker said. “We have six days before an off-day. We have some pretty good horses going in Detroit. We have Framber, we have [Hunter] Brown [on Saturday], we have Verlander [on Sunday]. Hopefully everything will get back in order.”