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

Houston's magic number is down to 1

Astros daily report presented by APG&E: 3 hits from the 6-4 win

Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

After the mini-sweep of the Rangers concluding with win number 100 on the season which secured a playoff spot, the Astros turned their sights to clinching the division. With their magic number at 2, they could clinch on Friday with a win in the series opener against Los Angeles and an Oakland loss. Here is a recap of the first game of the weekend against the Angels:

Final Score: Astros 6, Angels 4.

Record: 101-53, first in the AL West.

Winning pitcher: Zack Greinke (17-5, 3.05 ERA).

Losing pitcher: Jaime Barria (4-10, 6.43 ERA).

1) Starting with a bang

With a chance to clinch their division and continue to lead the battle for playoff home-field advantage, Houston came out swinging on Friday night. In the first inning, the Astros blasted three home runs with solo shots from Jose Altuve which led off the inning, and Alex Bregman as he tries to catch the sidelined Mike Trout for a possible MVP award.

Later in the inning, Carlos Correa took advantage of a runner on base with a home run of his own, a two-run bomb to extend the lead before Josh Reddick tacked on one more with an RBI-single to make it 5-0 after one.

2) Greinke struggles in the fourth but finishes five innings

Zack Greinke allowed just two hits through the first three innings: a single and a solo home run which at the time cut the lead to 5-1. Carlos Correa pushed the lead back to five runs with his second home run of the night in the bottom of the third.

Greinke would struggle in the top of the fourth, however, allowing five straight hits which would score three runs to cut Houston's lead to 6-4. He would recover and toss a 1-2-3 fifth, but that would be it for him in a five-inning start, as Houston passed the ball to their bullpen to throw the last four frames. His final line: 5 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 0 BB, 4 K, 1 HR.

3) Houston's bullpen dominant the rest of the way

Josh James was the first reliever out of Houston's bullpen to take over for Greinke in the top of the sixth and erased a two-out walk to complete a scoreless inning. Ryan Pressly, making his first appearance in a month after having surgery on his knee, returned dominantly with a 1-2-3 inning.

Will Harris did the same in the top of the eighth, holding the two-run lead going to the ninth. Roberto Osuna had the chance for another save in the top of the ninth and converted it to finish off the 6-4 win. That reduced the magic number to one, meaning the Astros are now a win or Oakland loss away from clinching the American League West. They are also just two wins away from matching last year's franchise number of 103.

Up Next: Game two of this three-game set with the Angles will be on Saturday at 6:10 PM. Wade Miley (14-5, 3.71 ERA) will get the start for Houston while Patrick Sandoval (0-3, 4.91 ERA) is expected to be on the mound for Los Angeles.

The Astros daily report is presented by APG&E.

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