WHAT APPEARED TO BE A STRONG SUIT FOR HOUSTON IS NOW LOOKING LIKE A GLARING WEAKNESS HEADING DOWN THE STRETCH

Astros: How much do you trust the bullpen?

Composite photo by Jack Brame

The Astros bullpen started the year as one of the better relief units in the big leagues and after a few trades at the deadline, it was set up to be even better come playoff time. Now, due to a combination of injuries and multiple failed appearances, blown saves and relinquished leads, the pen may be the danger zone for AJ Hinch as they head towards the finish line for the regular season and prepare for a deep playoff run. Will Harris seems to be the only guy that can be trusted to protect a lead or keep the team in a tight game, while the rest of the group struggles to get its swagger back and re-build confidence. For all of Houston, the hope is that they can get it figured out and back on track before it's too late and it costs the team a chance at their second title in three years.

Injuries are a big reason why the once-reliable relief unit has struggled mightily late in the season. Former starters turned long relievers Brad Peacock and Collin McHugh are fighting arm and shoulder issues that have nagged them throughout this season and currently have them on the IL. Mchugh is dealing with lingering elbow issues, while Peacock may be in jeopardy of seeing his season come to an end as his shoulder problem has gotten worse instead of better and may require more drastic measures in terms of treatment. Josh James also has had to fight through a tired arm, loss of velocity and concern with his pitching shoulder, but currently he is back on the active roster and got the save in Milwaukee yesterday after getting out of some self-inflicted trouble thanks to his 100 mph fastball. All of those ailments have been a nuisance for Hinch and pitching coach Brent Strom, but none of those setbacks can come close to the knee issues that have put Ryan Pressly out of commission. Pressly went from a short stint on the IL to allow his arm and knee to rest and recuperate, to undergoing surgery to repair the knee and put the rest of his regular season and possibly the early stages of the postseason in limbo depending on rehab and recovery time. The all-star setup man is not only a luxury for Hinch as his best high leverage situation guy, but he may also be the difference between a return trip to the World Series and an early exit from the playoffs.

A.J. Hinch and Roberto Osuna Bob Levey/Getty Images

The biggest surprise in the bullpen this season has been the decline and shortcomings of all the arms that have been reliable and dependable over the last few seasons. Chris Devinsky has gone from All-Star to uncertainty when his name is called on to put out a fire, shut down a rally or hold a lead. His lethal C.O.D. or circle of death changeup is now more like a "chance of disaster." Devo had an ERA of 9.00 for his first 11 appearances in August and gave up at least one run in 7 of those opportunities. Hector Rondon has seen his fastball in the high 90's turn into the starting exit velocity for balls hit by opposing hitters with those numbers increasing with each passing inning. Joe Smith and Joe Biagini have suffered through similar fate as their one time highly affective stuff has been reduced to a roller coaster ride of highs and lows with every passing appearance. Even closer Roberto Osuna has lost his swagger and his lights out results since the all-star break and even before he received the honor of representing Houston on the AL squad. His ERA since the All-star break is over 5.00 and a deeper dive into the stats show even more reason for concern. Since late May he has 6 blown saves, a 4.86 ERA and has given up 8 home runs. He has two wins in his last two appearances, but only because he couldn't shut the door and close the two contests with saves. His ERA is 13.50 in those 2 victories and that should tell you all you need to know. How can you trust a closer that can't seem to put out a fire, let alone smoldering ash over the last 3 months? A closer on a championship-caliber team should not have an ERA over 3 for the year. If he can't get it together and figure out how to get back to his winning ways soon, Houston may need to start auditioning other candidates for the most important role in the pen.

Astros World Series photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The bottom line is this Astros team is extremely talented and has as good a shot at winning the World Series this season as any team in baseball. The roster is loaded and that includes the pitching staff. The starters are fantastic and the addition of Zach Grienke has made them the premiere rotation in the game. The bullpen has great numbers on the season, despite the injuries and this bump in the road. If they can get healthy, avoid any season-ending injuries and get back on track, they can be the key to bringing another title to H-town. If the pen continues to struggle and remains inconsistent, it could be a disappointing ending to an otherwise fantastic campaign. Let's hope Brent Strom and company can work their magic and the guys can rediscover their winning ways and once again be trusted and counted on to shut the door and seal the deal when called on.astros

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Yordan Alvarez provided the offense to back up more stellar pitching by the Astros as they took ALCS game 6 to advance to the 2021 World Series. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

After splitting the first two games of this series in Houston then falling behind in the series 2-1 by dropping the first of three games in Boston, the Astros took over the ALCS in Games 4 and 5, sending them back to their home crowd with a chance to finish things off in Game 6 at Minute Maid Park. After another stellar performance by their pitching staff and more timely hitting, they would accomplish that mission, winning the series and moving on to the 2021 World Series.

Final Score: Astros 5, Red Sox 0

ALCS Series (Best of Seven): Houston wins 4-2

Winning Pitcher: Luis Garcia

Losing Pitcher: Nathan Eovaldi

Houston strikes first to start tightly-contested Game 6

After a scoreless top of the first inning by Boston's offense, the Astros capitalized on a chance to be first to score in the bottom of the frame. Alex Bregman started the two-out rally, reaching base on a single against Nathan Eovaldi for the first hit of the night. Yordan Alvarez followed, delivering his sixth RBI of the series with a double to put Houston on top 1-0.

That did not spark further immediate scoring, as the one-run score held while both starting pitchers provided solid outings for their team. For Eovaldi, he was able to limit Houston to just that single run through four frames. He returned in the bottom of the fifth, facing two batters, allowing a single, and getting a strikeout to end his night.

Garcia impresses in big start

For the home team, they were recipients of another expectation-exceeding performance from one of their young arms. Only anticipated to go a handful of innings, Luis Garcia worked efficiently and effectively against Boston, keeping them scoreless and hitless through five innings. He continued in the sixth, getting two more outs before allowing a two-out triple, ending his night as Phil Maton would enter to strand the tying run. Garcia's final line: 5.2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 7 K, 76 P.

With both teams dipping into their bullpens, the Astros took advantage of Boston's as Yordan Alvarez's dominance went on display once again. He led the inning off with a triple, then scored on a double-play ball to extend Houston's lead to 2-0. Kendall Graveman took over on the mound in the top of the seventh and worked himself into a big moment. He gave up a one-out walk, followed by a single, which put runners on the corners for Boston. He continued to struggle with the zone, falling behind the next batter 3-1, but was able to battle back to get the strikeout paired with a terrific throw by Martin Maldonado to cut down the runner from first trying to steal second, ending the inning and maintaining the two-run advantage.

Astros headed to the World Series

Ryne Stake was Houston's next reliever, and he put Houston three outs away by getting a 1-2-3 eighth. With Ryan Pressly warming, he watched and hoped that his offense could give him some more insurance to work with when he went to the mound in the top of the ninth. His wish would be granted, as after getting two on base, Kyle Tucker would put a major exclamation point on the night's offense, hitting a three-run opposite-field homer to the Crawford Boxes to push the lead to 5-0.

Pressly, now with the five-run lead, came on to try and start the celebration by getting the final three outs. Against the tougher part of Boston's order, he would get a 1-2-3 inning, giving the Astros the American League pennant, which along with those won in 2017 and 2019, puts them back in the World Series for the third time in five years.

Up Next: The Astros will have three days off before The Fall Classic kicks off. While Game 1 will be on Tuesday, October 26th, nothing else has yet been determined as Houston awaits to see which of the Dodgers and Braves will advance out of the NL, which will also dictate if the Astros will host or travel to World Series Game 1.

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