HomeTeamsAstrosHow Bullpens Define Games In Wins And Losses

How Bullpens Define Games In Wins And Losses

When I watched a baseball game this past Monday at Citi Field between the Phillies and the Mets, my friend saw the first pitcher come out of the bullpen, and stated, “Relievers have the hardest job in baseball.” He’s right. Catcher is the most physically taxing position. Pinch hitters have the toughest individual assignment late in games when they face 100 mph relievers. However, in a game defined by its failures, relievers can never have a bad day at the office. Relievers are either tasked to protect a lead or keep the offense within striking distance to give their team a chance to win. For a reliever, letting up a base hit is bad; allowing a walk or a hit batter is pure agony. And for a reliever to come into the game with runners on base? At that point, the game demands perfection. The game always demands perfection from relievers.

From this past week, two examples immediately come to mind regarding the importance of bullpen arms in the course of the game: last Saturday’s game against the Detroit Tigers, and Tuesday’s game against the Oakland Athletics. On Saturday, May 11th, the Astros played the Tigers at Comerica Park in the Motor City. Cristian Javier made his first start since coming off the IL with neck discomfort. Javier walked on a tightrope in the first inning, walking the right fielder Mark Canha and the center fielder Wenceel Pérez in consecutive plate appearances with one out. Thankfully, two lineouts quickly followed, and Javier escaped the inning without allowing any runs. However, in the second inning, Javier wouldn’t be quite as lucky.

In the bottom of the second, Javier immediately let up a single to Tigers’ second baseman Colt Keith. Keith then stole second base during Spencer Torkelson’s at-bat. Torkelson grounded out to third baseman Alex Bregman for the first out. The shortstop Zach McKinstry walked on five pitches, leaving runners on first and second with one out once again. On a 2-o count to catcher Jake Rogers (one of the prospects sent over in the trade that netted the Astros Justin Verlander in 2017), Javier threw a meatball in the heart of the plate and Rogers singled to left. This loaded the bases for Detroit with one out.

Then, disaster struck. Javier lost his command, walking left fielder Riley Greene on four straight pitches to score the Tigers’ first run. On a 1-1 pitch to the next hitter, Mark Canha, Javier threw a changeup right down the middle and Canha launched the pitch over the left-center field wall for a grand slam, exiting his bat at 102.9 mph, and giving the Tigers a 5-0 lead. Javier tried to beat Wenceel Pérez inside with a fastball, but it caught too much of the plate and Pérez smacked a 102.3 mph double to right field. After getting down in the count 3-1 to Kerry Carpenter, Javier threw a pretty good pitch on the upper-inside corner. However, Carpenter turned on the pitch and whacked a 106.5 mph liner that just sneaked over the right field fence for a two-run homer. The score was now 7-0 Detroit. And just like that, Javier’s first start off the IL was over, having allowed seven runs on five hits and four walks, and only recording four outs in the game.

At that moment, Astros’ manager Joe Espada was faced with a daunting question: how can he deploy the bullpen to finish the game? The Astros had just started a span of playing 29 games in 30 days; Saturday’s game was the fifth game of this stretch. Obviously, the Astros’ three main high-leverage relievers—Bryan Abreu, Ryan Pressly, and Josh Hader—weren’t going to pitch. The Astros had floated the idea of implementing a six-man starting rotation to keep their pitchers’ arms fresh but hadn’t officially announced that yet. The usual long-reliever Brandon Bielak had just been designated for assignment to make room for Javier’s spot back on the team. As The Athletic Astros’ beat writer, Chandler Rome, wrote on the social media platform X,Bielak famously “threw 146 pitches in a seven-day span” this April. Shawn Dubin is the other Astros’ long-reliever, but his longest outing of the season was only 2.1 innings in a 6-2 loss to Atlanta in April.

With Bielak off the team, and Dubin’s highest pitch count of the season only 41 pitches, who would the Astros rely on to pitch four to five innings of this baseball game? Enter Hunter Brown. Brown has mostly been a starting pitcher for the Astros these past two years. With injuries to starting pitchers Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers, Jr. last season, Brown earned a spot in the rotation. He started 29 games in 2023, going 11-13 with a 5.09 ERA in 155.2 innings, recording 178 strikeouts with 55 walks. On Saturday, after middle reliever Taylor Scott got two consecutive Tigers out on a strike out and a fly out to mercifully end the second inning, Hunter Brown got the ball to start the bottom of the third.

Brown responded by pitching one of his best games of the year, throwing five innings of five-hit, one-run ball, recording seven strikeouts and zero walks. He lowered his season ERA over a full run from 8.89 to 7.79. After letting two men on in the first due to a single and an error, Brown proceeded to strike out the next three Tigers in a row, fanning the last two on three consecutive pitches. Brown’s only blemish came in the fourth inning, in which he allowed Kerry Carpenter’s second home run of the game on a four-seam fastball right down the heart of the plate.

Shawn Dubin finished the game for the Astros in the bottom of the 8th, but Hunter Brown’s 85-pitch performance saved the Astros’ bullpen for the next stretch of games. Coming into a game when your team is trailing by seven runs can be a thankless task, but the rest of the bullpen definitely appreciated Brown’s efforts on Saturday evening. Little did the Astros know that their bullpen depth would be tested again just a couple of games later.

A different kind of disaster struck the Astros during Tuesday night’s game at home against the Oakland Athletics. The Astros’ best starting pitcher, Ronel Blanco, was on the hill. Blanco got into a bases-loaded, two-out jam in the first inning after surrendering two singles and a walk. Blanco calmly went to work against A’s second baseman Zack Gelof, getting him to strike out on a called third strike, a change-up at the top of the zone. The second inning went a little more smoothly for Blanco, as he only allowed a two-out single, getting A’s third baseman Abraham Toro to line out to right field to end the inning.

After Alex Bregman homered in the bottom of the second to give the Astros a 1-0 lead, Blanco again allowed a two-out base runner, this time giving up a double to catcher Shea Langeliers. Blanco recovered and got first baseman Tyler Soderstrom to fly out to center to end the inning. The Astros went quietly in the bottom of the third, going down in order. Then, the fourth inning rolled around, and that was when tragedy struck for the Astros.

In the top of the fourth, Ronel Blanco was ejected from the game for using an illegal substance. As they do before each inning, the umpires checked Blanco’s glove and found a sticky substance on it. The umpire who inspected Blanco’s glove, first-base umpire Erich Bacchus, told reporters after the game that “it was the stickiest stuff I’ve felt on a glove since we’ve been doing this for a few years now.” According to Houston Chronicle writer Matt Kawahara’s article after the game, Blanco was quoted as saying that he put rosin on his left arm and that “maybe because of the sweat, it [the rosin] got into the glove, and that’s maybe what they [the umpires] found.” The next day, Blanco was handed a ten-game suspension. After earlier reports from The Athletic Astros’ beat writerChandler Rome that Blanco would appeal a suspension, Blanco didn’t appeal, and began serving the suspension Wednesday night. The earliest he can rejoin the team is Sunday, May 26th. Ironically, the Astros will be playing the A’s in Oakland that day.

But, back to the game. The same question faced Astros’ manager Joe Espada: how could the Astros patch together six innings with their bullpen? Most importantly, if the Astros held the lead, how could they bridge the gap between the fourth and sixth innings, ensuring that Abreu, Pressly, and Hader would pitch the end of the game? To get the Astros through the sixth,Espada relied on two bullpen arms: Tayler Scott and Rafael Montero. The two relievers combined to pitch three innings of scoreless baseball, allowing zero baserunners and striking out three batters apiece. Abreu came on to pitch in the seventh and allowed a hit in a scoreless inning; Abreu’s season ERA is now a stellar 3.43. Then, Pressly let up the lone blemish—a Brent Rooker single in the top of the eighth allowed Abraham Toro to score from third; Toro had reached on a double earlier in the inning.

Near the end of the contest, it was a game of dueling closers: the A’s righty Mason Miller and the Astros’ lefty Josh Hader. Miller’s stuff was electric; he repeatedly hit 102 and 103 mph on the radar gun, striking out five hitters in two innings. Hader was just as dominant, striking out three in two innings, while only allowing one baserunner via a walk. The game went into extra innings with the score still tied 1-1. Getting Mason Miller out of the game won the contest for the Astros, as Michael Kelly replaced him to pitch the bottom of the tenth. After Jake Meyers flew out to center field for the first out, pinch hitter Victor Caratini hit a ground ball that sneaked its way up the middle of the diamond, knocking in Trey Cabbage for the winning run.

In both these games, the Astros’ bullpen needed certain players to step up in glamorous and unglamorous roles. Hunter Brown’s 85-pitch outing last Saturday saved the rest of the bullpen from throwing in an uncompetitive game. Tayler Scott and Rafael Montero’s three innings of scoreless baseball on Tuesday night allowed the Astros to deploy their leverage relievers for the remainder of that game. And Josh Hader’s willingness to throw more than one inning helped the Astros secure the win in ten frames. Over the course of the season, the Astros will need more performances like this from their bullpen arms. We’ll have to watch to see whether they achieve perfection.


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