BOSTON – It is reasonable to assume that when the Astros dialed their bullpen from the dugout last postseason, at times, part of manager A.J. Hinch hoped no one picked up.
The Astros won their first world championship in franchise history in 2017. Remarkably, they did it despite their relievers.
As Houston began the American League Championship Series against the Red Sox on Saturday night, looking to become the first team to repeat as champion since the 1998-2000 Yankees, Hinch’s confidence level in the group has done a 180.
“It's different for a lot of reasons,” he said after his club swept the Indians in the ALDS. “One, there's such confidence that I have going into a game because of our starting rotation. In an era where it's shifting a little bit in people's belief in starting pitching, I think our guys are showing you can have great belief in great starting pitching.”
But the Astros had pretty good starting pitching last season, too. What they didn’t have, especially as the postseason progressed, was a bullpen that engendered any degree of assurance.
The unit produced a 5.40 ERA during last year’s postseason run. By the end of the seven-game ALCS victory over the Yankees, Hinch had all but abandoned the relievers he’d used much of the season in high-leverage spots.
In the Game 7 clincher against the Yankees, after Charlie Morton threw five shutout innings, Hinch chose starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. to finish the 4-0 victory. McCullers and his curveball shut down the Yankees in the final four innings as Hinch stayed away from the likes of Ken Giles, Chris Devenski and Joe Musgrove, each of whom had been battered at some point in the series by the Yankees.
It was rinse-repeat in the World Series as more implosions plagued Hinch’s relief corps. Game 7 against the Dodgers was similar to Game 7 of the ALCS. McCullers got the start and went 2 1/3 innings. Brad Peacock contributed two innings, Francisco Liriano and Devenski each went one-third of an inning and Morton pitched the final four frames, allowing one run and two hits in the 5-1 victory.
As the ALCS got underway, Hinch’s feelings about his bullpen could not be more different.
He has that ridiculously good starting rotation, led by Game 1 starter Justin Verlander and Game 2 starter Gerrit Cole, but Hinch doesn’t feel as if he’s playing Russian Roulette when the time comes for a reliever.
“The back end of our pen is very stable,” Hinch said. “I think when you look down my card, I'm like, man, I've got something for everybody in different areas of the game. It's comfortable. These games aren't comfortable, but it's a comfortable feeling knowing I've got a couple cards to play when the time matters the most.”
The Astros are going with a 12-man pitching staff, including an eight-man bullpen, adding righties Hector Rondon and Joe Smith, neither of whom was on the ALDS roster. Also in the bullpen are lefthander Tony Sipp and righthanders Roberto Osuna (a controversial trade-deadline acquisition after serving a 75-game suspension while with the Blue Jays for violating MLB’s domestic-violence policy), Ryan Pressly, Josh James, McCullers and Collin McHugh.
The Astros' bullpen finished the season with an AL-best 3.03 ERA compared to 4.27 last season. The biggest subtraction was the temperamental Giles, shipped to Toronto in the Osuna deal. After allowing a go-ahead three-run homer by Gary Sanchez in the ninth inning on May 1 in Houston, the righthander famously punched himself in the face.
“One thing that I appreciate that I probably don't tell them enough is they are selfless, they don't care who gets the 27th out, they don't care who gets the 24th out,” Hinch said. “The starting rotation has a lot of pride in staying in the game. But this bullpen has built a culture down there that is really second to none, where there's not a lot of egos, there's not a lot of tension. There's a ton of support for each other, and that's not easy when they're all fighting for the same inning and the same opportunity.”