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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Urquidy should get the nod over McCullers. Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

After being basically overmatched in their season opening loss at Kansas City, the Texans try it this week against the other team vastly superior to them in the AFC last season with the Baltimore Ravens at fan-less NRG Stadium Sunday. They met last year with the Ravens humiliating the Texans 41-7 in Baltimore.

The Chiefs are a tough measuring stick, but the Texans didn't measure up in any area. Meanwhile, in their opener last Sunday the Ravens bashed the Browns 38-6 with reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson completing 20 of 25 passes with three touchdown passes and no interceptions. Jackson ran only seven times, last time he had fewer carries was the season opener last season. On paper there is little reason to think the Texans win. They have no position unit advantage with the possible exception of wide receiver, but given the puny outputs of Brandin Cooks, Randall Cobb, and Kenny Stills in Kansas City let's see them have a good game before giving them any checkmarks over opponents. The Ravens are seven point favorites.

The playoffs are in sight for the Astros

The Astros continue to slog (slog, not slug) their way to the postseason. Entering the weekend with just 10 games left in this truncated regular season they sit as a paragon of mediocrity: 25 wins and 25 losses. That has about clinched a playoff spot though since in the gimmicky short season postseason format the Astros are a virtual lock to qualify by finishing second in the American League West. They are three games ahead of Seattle. If somehow they wind up tied there is no one game playoff, and the Astros have already clinched the tiebreaker over the Mariners. The Astros play only lousy teams to close. Three this weekend vs. the Diamondbacks, then three to try to polish off the Mariners in Seattle, then four in Arlington at the Rangers.

The Astros' bullpen will be stronger in the playoffs

The Astros' lousy bullpen has been a big weakness in the 60 game schedule and would have been a bigger problem over a 162 game schedule. In the playoffs, that weakness could be greatly diminished. In the opening round best of three Zack Greinke is sure to start one of the first two games. If Justin Verlander makes it back to start the other, that leaves just one starting spot left for Dusty Baker to decide likely between Jose Urquidy and Lance McCullers. That would add Framber Valdez and Christian Javier to the Astros' pen.

Since the Astros will have no playoff games at Minute Maid Park, Urquidy (with two more decent starts) should get the nod over McCullers. It is bizarre that McCullers has been so regularly outstanding at MMP while so often inept elsewhere. In five home starts this season McCullers has a 1.42 earned run average. In four road starts his ERA is 13.50. It's not just a short season small sample size thing. For his career McCullers has 44 home starts, ERA 2.51. 45 road starts (plus three relief appearances), ERA 5.22. It's not as if MMP is a great pitchers' park.

Timing is running out for the Rockets

The Rockets turned out to be irrelevant as real NBA championship contenders go. The Lakers are excellent so there is no shame in losing to them, but the Rockets getting destroyed in the fourth quarter of two games and then not even being competitive in the closeout game made a complete mockery of General Manager Daryl Morey's "we should win this thing" claim. With one of the oldest starting lineups in the NBA the Rockets' future is perilous. Head Coach Mike D'Antoni opting to not be part of it in telling the organization goodbye without even waiting on a new contract offer. If for the third consecutive offseason the Rockets make personnel moves on the cheap, they are not to be taken seriously as a title threat in 2020-21.

The Denver Nuggets should give the Lakers a better series than did the Rockets. That in and of itself isn't saying much, but the Nuggets are younger, deeper, and more versatile than the Rockets.

Last season Kyle Lowry played stellar point guard in helping the Toronto Raptors win the NBA championship. This season Goran Dragic is playing stellar point guard in helping the Miami Heat to within two wins of playing for the NBA championship. Once upon a time the Rockets had Lowry and Dragic on their roster at the same time. The Rockets are at 25 seasons and counting since last playing in the NBA Finals.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. Maybe a postseason revival is to come, but Jose Altuve has never so regularly looked so messed up at the plate. His batting average down to .216, Altuve has been by far the worst Astro regular in 2020.

2. Other than at the Masters it looks like it will be a major surprise (and event) if Tiger Woods seriously contends to win another major.

3. Best doodles: Bronze-Yankee Silver-Snicker Gold-Golden

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