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Don't sell Astros' bullpen short; it's been effective

Houston Astros relief pitcher Joe Smith throws against

Houston Astros relief pitcher Joe Smith throws against the Washington Nationals during the eighth inning of Game 3 of the baseball World Series Friday, Oct. 25, 2019, in Washington. Credit: AP/Patrick Semansky

WASHINGTON — What figured to be an unquestioned strength for the Astros going into the postseason – a strong, balanced offense – for the most part has struggled.

A supposed weakness, a leaky bullpen, has been anything but that.

One must look beyond the numbers, which on the surface are not terribly impressive. Entering Game 4 of the World Series against the Nationals on Saturday night, the Astros’ bullpen had a 4.23 ERA this postseason. But when manager AJ Hinch absolutely has needed production from the group, it’s come through.

The most recent example came in Game 3, all but a must-win game for the Astros, who lost the first two games at home but came away with a 4-1 victory Friday night. 

Hinch’s Game 3 starter, Zack Greinke, limited the damage in his outing, allowing only one run and escaping numerous jams, but lasted only 4 2/3 innings.

Five relievers picked up the slack, pitching a combined 4 1/3 scoreless innings. Righty Will Harris, who had a 1.50 ERA during the regular season, struck out two in 1 2/3 perfect innings. Side-armer Joe Smith struck out two in a scoreless inning – dropping his postseason ERA to 1.23 in eight games — and Roberto Osuna allowed a hit but struck out one in a scoreless ninth for the save. Osuna has a 3.12 ERA with two saves in eight games in the postseason.

“Our bullpen,” Jose Altuve said, “is great, man.”

Harris, an All-Star in 2016, has been particularly good this postseason. Entering Game 4, he had been unscored on in nine outings, allowing four hits and one walk with 10 strikeouts in 8 1/3 innings.

“You need everybody to be good at what they do best,” said Hinch, who started rookie Jose Urquidy in Game 4 but was very much prepared to treat the night as a bullpen game. “Will Harris, specifically, has been sort of my security blanket the entire season counting five years back. This is a guy who hasn't been underappreciated but probably has not gotten the recognition, except the one year he got to be an All-Star.”

The same to some degree could be said of the unit overall.
In ALCS Game 6, a 6-4 Houston victory that ended the Yankees' season, Hinch succeeded in a bullpen game, the same strategy the Yankees employed that night.

The narrative going into that series, and certainly into Game 6, was that the Yankees had an overwhelming advantage  in that kind of game. Though Osuna  allowed a tying two-run homer by DJ LeMahieu in the top of the ninth, he escaped further damage, setting the stage for Altuve's series-ending two-run homer against Aroldis Chapman in the bottom of the inning.

“I do think our pen took it personal that they were kind of disregarded as an impactful part of this series,” Hinch said minutes after the ALCS ended. “That it was going to be about the Yankee bullpen and their power, and the Yankee lineup and their power. Our pen stood up for themselves and delivered at the biggest moment on the biggest stage.”

Harris and Hinch both mentioned the variety of looks that come in from the Astros' bullpen as perhaps the biggest part of its effectiveness.

“I think that's kind of been a mark of us since I've been here,” said Harris, 35, an Astro since 2015. “We've always carried a lot of guys that do a lot of different things and give a lot of different looks. And this year is no different. We've got guys that can throw 98. We have guys that throw 88. We have guys that cut it, sink it, we've got guys with big curveballs, we've got [Brad] Peacock throwing a slider. I think it allows AJ to kind of mix and match how he sees fit, and knows that we're not just carbon copies of one another that are kind of rolling out there. I think that helps.”

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