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Joel Blank: Astros need to address bullpen issues right now

Ken Giles has not been good. Al Bello/Getty Images

Everything is magnified after you win a World Series. Little things seem like big problems, and the fanbase has their finger on the panic button with every pitch, any lost lead, and every blown save. For all that premature pessimism and overreaction, there also comes a time when you need to address an ongoing area of concern before it’s too late. For the Houston Astros, it’s the inconsistent and less than stellar bullpen.

We all know by now that it is totally unfair to compare last years’ team with this season’s squad.  Too many variables change—from the roster to the schedule to the talent level and player additions to the opposing teams. So, as hard as it is to compare teams from year to year, it’s inevitable to compare individual performers and their year-to-year production. When you look at the relief pitchers of the Astros last year,  you know and remember it was a tale of two seasons. The regular season consisted of steady, reliable performances by an above average staff with All-Star worthy stars. The postseason was a different story, with slip ups creating a lack of trust and eventually a completely different approach, as starters became relievers and even closers.

I know there are people out there who love analytics and throw out there how the numbers don’t lie and the pen and closer are statistically one of, if not the best in baseball. That's where the eye test comes in as well as the ulcer test. If you don’t feel confident when that phone call is made to the pen and your gut turns out to be right and leads are blown, then it goes deeper than any statistic. Former All-Stars Chris Devenski and Will Harris have been inconsistent at best and Brad Peacock has fallen off from his stellar campaign of a year ago, recently giving up walk off hits in two straight outings. Newcomers Joe Smith and Hector Rondon haven’t gotten off to expected starts and the closer role remains an open audition after Ken Giles lost the job during last year’s playoffs. He’s inconsistent and flammable this year as his only knockout punch has been his haymaker to his own jaw, not his 100 mph fastball.

His ERA is now at 5.21 and that is not good for an average reliever, let alone a contending teams closer. It's getting more obvious by the game that this group is not getting better and the overall problem is not getting fixed. Houston is fourth in the majors in bullpen ERA at 3.02 and are now 4-11 in one run games and 1-4 in extra inning games. To add to that miserable, sinking feeling, they are also hovering around 19th in win probability added, so times are tough and getting tougher by the game. The time is now for Jeff Luhnow and his staff to go out and make a move, if not two, to bolster his bullpen and spark his ballclub while there is still time.

This team is too good, it's starting pitching too dominant, for there to be a weakness of this magnitude. If this was the 100-loss Astros, we wouldn't be having this conversation, but it's not. This is the World Champion Astros we are talking about, who have a legitimate shot to repeat as the best team in baseball. The fanbase has been patient and so have the players, as everyone hoped that the relievers would work their way into form. Unfortunately, it hasn't happened and the time is now to fix the issues before it’s too late.

Jeff Luhnow has been fantastic as he has pushed all the right buttons and made all the right moves to put this team in a position to not only be successful, but to win and win big. This year should be no different as teams are gunning for the champs and trying to make a statement by taking them down. You don't need a last minute Justin Verlander blockbuster to save the day, but you do need a few quality arms to make sure you give your team the best chance to succeed. Even it means tapping into the farm system and emptying a few of your players of the future, the time is now and you only get so many chances to legitimately compete for a crown. The trade deadline isn't until next month, but the sooner the better, so get to work Jeff, and give H-town the added arms and much needed relief the entire city needs.

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Boston's two grand slams in the first two innings were too much for Houston to overcome in ALCS Game 2. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

After a win in ALCS Game 1 that had the prototypical fingerprints of this Astros team all over it, Houston returned to Minute Maid Park on Saturday, hoping to take a dominant 2-0 series lead if they could grab another victory. The Red Sox dashed those hopes very early, though, scoring eight runs across the first two innings to build the lead they would hold on to even the series.

Final Score: Boston 9, Astros 5

ALCS Series (Best of Seven): tied 1-1

Winning Pitcher: Nathan Eovaldi

Losing Pitcher: Luis Garcia

Houston met with disaster to start Game 2

You couldn't have drawn up a much better start for the Red Sox or a worse one for the Astros in Saturday's ALCS Game 2. Luis Garcia met early disaster in the top of the first inning, allowing a leadoff double, then got two outs while issuing two walks to load the bases. That brought up Boston's designated hitter, J.D. Martinez, to the plate, and he delivered a crushing blow to Houston, launching a grand slam to put the Red Sox up 4-0 before Houston could even get to the plate.

After a scoreless bottom of the inning by his offense, things got worse for Garcia in the top of the second, as after issuing a four-pitch walk to start the frame, he would become the center of a meeting at the mound with trainers, ultimately leaving the game with an injury. Houston opted to bring in Jake Odorizzi for the emergency call to the bullpen, but things did not start well for him either. He would put two of his own batters on base with two singles, then gave up the second grand slam in as many innings, this one to Rafael Devers to double Boston's lead to 8-0, doubling down on Houston's disastrous start to the game.

Odorizzi rebounded with a 1-2-3 third, but with one out in the top of the fourth allowed a solo homer to Kiké Hernández, his third homer of the series so far. He would still get the job done of eating up a few innings, finishing the fourth, and retiring Boston in order in the fifth, giving Houston just four more innings to cover with the rest of their relievers.

Astros get a few runs back

Over that span, Houston did trim the lead by three runs, getting an RBI double by Kyle Tucker and a two-RBI single by Yuli Gurriel in the bottom of the fourth, making it a six-run game at 9-3. Their next reliever was Blake Taylor in the top of the sixth, and he would keep the score where it stood by sitting down the three batters he faced that frame.

The Astros threatened again in the bottom of the sixth, getting two singles to put two aboard, but would come out empty, sending the game on to the seventh, where Taylor would remain on the mound. He faced three more batters, getting two out while allowing a single before Yimi Garcia would come in to get the third out.

Red Sox even the series as it shifts to Boston

Garcia returned in the top of the eighth, getting through that inning despite a walk and hit by pitch, stranding both runners. Boston's bullpen kept Houston from getting any closer in the bottom of the eighth, then Ryne Stanek came in for the Astros in the top of the ninth. Stanek allowed a leadoff double, but with a groundout and double play, held the score at 9-3. Yuli Gurriel and Jason Castro did their part to keep the Astros alive in the bottom of the ninth, each hitting solo homers to make it 9-5, but that's as close as they'd come, dropping Game 2 to tie the series at one game apiece.

Up Next: The ALCS now moves to Boston for the next three games after a day off on Sunday, with Game 3 on Monday at 7:08 PM Central. While the Astros have named Jose Urquidy as their starter, the Red Sox have not yet determined theirs.

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