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Astros find relief in A.J. Hinch’s handling of bullpen chores

Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch talks to the

Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch talks to the media during a World Series baseball news conference on Oct. 26, 2017. Credit: AP / Eric Gay

HOUSTON — Terry Francona all but tore up “the book” on the use of late-inning relievers during last year’s postseason.

During Cleveland’s run to the seventh game of the World Series, the Indians manager often went to his best reliever, Andrew Miller, at critical points in games in the middle innings rather than deploying him at more conventional junctures in the eighth or ninth.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch has bucked convention at times this postseason, for much different reasons. The primary one: Hinch doesn’t have anyone of Miller’s caliber in his bullpen, though he, naturally, wouldn’t put it that way.

Still, two recent examples stand out: In Game 7 of the American League Championship Series against the Yankees, Hinch called on ALCS Game 4 starter Lance McCullers Jr. to pitch the final four innings of a 4-0 victory. McCullers allowed one hit and struck out six in four innings.

In Friday night’s 5-3 victory in Game 3 of the World Series, which gave the Astros a two-games-to-one lead entering Saturday night’s Game 4, Hinch brought on Brad Peacock with one out in the sixth to replace McCullers. There was no “formula” for Hinch to get to his up-and-down closer, Ken Giles. Instead, Hinch played it as old-school as it gets.

Peacock came in hot — the first batter he faced was the always dangerous Yasiel Puig, who grounded out — and stayed hot. The righthander finished the game, throwing 3 2⁄3 hitless and scoreless innings to earn the save.

“He was the right guy at the right spot against that part of the order,” Hinch said. “We felt like his strengths matched up against some places we want to exploit in the strike zone.”

The manager essentially said sticking with Peacock, who went 13-2 with a 3.00 ERA in 34 games (21 starts) this season, was common sense.

“And why keep him in is if we all watched the game, it was pretty obvious. He was cruising,” Hinch said. “Their swings weren’t good. His fastball was playing, his slider was playing. This postseason I’ve really enjoyed bringing back the three-inning save; that’s cool.”

Hinch smiled when he said the previous sentence, then turned serious again.

“There’s no reason to take him out,” he added. “He was in complete control of every at-bat. So why not leave him in?”

Hinch did not agree with the premise of a question regarding his faith, or lack of faith, in his more traditional relievers.

“It’s about getting 27 outs,” Hinch said. “At this point, if they didn’t see Peacock pitching well, then they should watch the game, too. I love our bullpen, and our bullpen is going to get outs, but this is a race to 27 outs with a lead. When a guy is doing his job, there’s only so much explanation I need to give.”

The move with Peacock, or with McCullers in ALCS Game 7, for that matter, wasn’t without risk, Hinch said.

Although Peacock had some relief work this season, he was primarily a starter. Though all five of his postseason appearances have been out of the bullpen, including Friday night, his last 10 appearances of the season were starts, outings in which he went 4-1 with a 3.51 ERA. Peacock allowed runs in each of his first three bullpen outings this postseason before throwing a scoreless one-third of an inning in Game 1 of this series and then Friday’s 3 2⁄3-inning masterpiece.

“Maybe it’s not the perfect ideal, because we’re not used to it, and we haven’t seen it a lot, and you don’t know how they’re going to respond out of the pen,” Hinch said. “It wasn’t mapped out this way. Just when you map out a game plan, it could have gone completely different. There were points during the game I thought McCullers was going to cruise deep into the game, and I also had a reliever up in the third inning when he couldn’t throw a strike. You have to react to the game, use the players the best way to get to 27 outs. These are unique ways to win the game. I’m not sure you can do it all the time, but you can do it sometimes.”

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