POINT BLANK

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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Houston dropped two of three

Astros drop series finale to Oakland, A's win series

Jose Urquidy couldn't hold Oakland back on Saturday. Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

With Oakland finally ending their drought against the Astros on Friday night to split the first two games of the series, and with the Angels staying in step with them as both teams started the day 6-2, the Astros needed a win to keep momentum in their favor on Saturday.

Instead, Oakland would outslug Houston once again to take the series finale and take the series win. The loss moves Houston to 6-3 and down to second place, at least for now, until the 6-2 Angels complete their game on Saturday evening.

Final Score: A's 7, Astros 3

Astros' Record: 6-3, second in AL West

Winning Pitcher: Frankie Montas (1-1)

Losing Pitcher: Jose Urquidy (0-1)

Urquidy gives up four over six

Much like the night before, Oakland was able to bring in runs against Houston's starter, this time Jose Urquidy, Saturday afternoon in their second time through the order. Their first time through, Urquidy was cruising, allowing just one baserunner in the first three innings on a single in the top of the third.

Things shifted in the top of the fourth, with the A's getting back-to-back singles to set the stage for a two-run frame with dual RBI-singles to take a 2-0 lead. Oakland doubled that in the fifth, getting a two-out single to set up a two-run homer by Ramon Laureano to make it 4-0. Urquidy would go on to finish six innings, but with no run support to that point, would leave in line for the loss. His final line: 6.0 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 0 BB, 7 K, 93 P.

A's pad their lead before Houston gets on the board

Meanwhile, although getting five hits, the Astros could not get anything on the board against Frankie Montas through six innings. Brandon Bielak took over out of the bullpen for Urquidy in the top of the seventh, but after loading the bases, he would allow a dagger two-RBI single to make it a 6-0 deficit for Houston.

With Montas starting the seventh looking to face a batter or two before Oakland moved to their bullpen, Kyle Tucker would finally get Houston on the board with a leadoff solo home run, cutting the lead to 6-1 and ending Montas' day. Houston would get a two-out rally going, with an RBI-double by Jose Altuve followed by an RBI-triple by Michael Brantley to make it a three-run game at 6-3.

Oakland takes the series win

Ryne Stanek tried to keep it a three-run game and give the Astros a chance to stay in it in the top of the eighth but instead would give up a two-out solo home run to push Oakland's lead back to four. That 7-3 score would go final as Houston would go scoreless in the eighth and ninth.

Up Next: Houston will have a day off on Sunday before continuing this homestand Monday night by welcoming in Detroit and former manager A.J. Hinch for three games. In the series opener, the Tigers will send young star Casey Mize (0-0, 2.25 ERA) to the mound, while the Astros will get another start by Zack Greinke (1-0, 1.38 ERA).

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