The Definitive Guide to Houston

Astros Bullpen: Revolution Or Confusion?

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Astros skipper AJ Hinch is a lucky man. His club has been the toast of Major League Baseball this year. He draws rave reviews from a dynamic young clubhouse. He also possesses an elite bullpen weapon in the form of fireballing sophomore Chris Devenski. Unfortunately, it’s unclear whether Hinch knows how best to use that weapon.

Consider Sunday night’s rubber game against the Boston Red Sox at Minute Maid Park. The Sox and ‘Stros traded blows in the first inning, each team making loud contact and scoring a run. Houston struck again in the bottom of the fifth on a solo shot by shortstop Carlos Correa.

Starting pitcher Joe Musgrove returned to face the top of the Red Sox lineup in the top of the sixth inning. Mookie Betts drilled a ball to deep left field for a long out, and Dustin Pedroia worked a walk. Then Xander Bogaerts connected for his second home run of the night, sending Boston to a 3-2 lead. Musgrove recovered to fan Mitch Moreland for the second out of the frame, but allowed Hanley Ramirez to reach base on a single. Clearly gassed, Musgrove proceeded to throw four consecutive balls to Andrew Benintendi.

With two on and two out, it was imperative that the Astros shut down any further attempts at a Boston rally. Hinch got on the phone and made the call to the bullpen. As inspirational music pumped over the PA system, in trotted… James Hoyt?

You may remember a thing or two about last year’s World Series – some team from Chicago managed to squeak out a win in one of the most thrilling postseasons ever. But before all of that, another team dominated the narrative. The Cleveland Indians, under veteran manager Terry Francona, were utilizing their bullpen to rare, spectacular effect. Specifically, relief ace Andrew Miller was throwing multiple innings at a time in multiple games in a row, entering the fray as early as the fifth inning. That may sound logical, but it’s a far cry from the traditional sequence of setup-man-to-setup-man-to-closer that most clubs use to lock down a game. At the time, Francona’s usage of Miller prompted much speculation around the sport that we were witnessing the birth of a “bullpen revolution.” (The revolutionary concept here being: Use your best pitchers when you most need outs!)

Early on in 2017, the Astros appeared to be the biggest revolutionaries of all. The aforementioned Chris Devenski made his season debut on April 5, tossing four electric relief innings against the Seattle Mariners. Five of his seven April appearances spanned more than one inning, and he finished the month with a spectacular 2.16 ERA across 16 2/3 innings. Meanwhile, he paired 32 strikeouts with only two walks. Viva la revolución!

But the ‘Stros’ rebellious fervor has fizzled out. Only four of Devenski’s last twelve appearances have spanned more than one inning, and none has lasted longer than two. It’s unclear what, if anything, is driving this change. Devenski is still posting dominant numbers, and the Astros still find themselves in plenty of close games.

Which brings us back to James Hoyt. As Hoyt toed the rubber and peered in for his sign, he was pitching in what was undoubtedly the biggest moment of the game thus far. Jackie Bradley Jr. squared up Hoyt’s third pitch for a double to right field that scored two runs and put Boston ahead 5-2. Hoyt has now allowed at least one earned run in eight of his last nine appearances.

The Red Sox, not to be outdone, followed that up with their own puzzling pitching decision. Although starter David Price had already thrown 104 pitches in five laborious innings, he was back in action for the bottom of the sixth. Jake Marisnick promptly swatted a booming home run off of the Minute Maid train tracks, and Price’s night was over.

But the damage had already been done. Houston rallied for another run in the sixth and added one more in the eighth, but Boston held on for a 6-5 victory. Devenski relieved Hoyt with one out in the seventh, allowing his sole inherited runner to cross the plate. It’s impossible to say whether the game would have turned out differently had “Devo” entered earlier. But it’s also hard not to wonder why he didn’t. Personally, I think he would have whipped ‘em.

Late Nights Ahead
The Astros kick off a West Coast road trip tonight with the first of four games against the last-place Oakland Athletics. Forgive Houstonians if they’re a little groggy in the morning – the action won’t start ’til 9:05 Central. Brad Peacock takes the hill for the ‘Stros in game one.

A Good Son
You can bet that Astros leadoff man George Springer took a moment to think about his dad after he blasted a long home run on Father’s Day game. But he may have felt a little extra pressure to go yard – after all, he connected for a long homer on Mother’s Day earlier this season. Wise of him not to play favorites.

Rookie Mistake
Top prospect Derek Fisher has had an eventful first week in the bigs. The powerful youngster exploded for a rally-starting home run in his major league debut, and has authored a strong .286/.412/.500 slash line through his first four games. He may have been a little too fired up on Sunday night, though. After connecting for a one-out single off elite Boston closer Craig Kimbrel in the bottom of the ninth, Fisher was caught stealing second for the final out of the game. To make matters worse, slugger George Springer was at the plate for the ‘Stros. Chalk it up as a learning experience – it’s unlikely that Fisher ever makes that mistake again.

Noah is a Houston-based writer and photographer. You can find him exploring Houston's restaurant and museum scenes with his wife or catching a game at Minute Maid Park. He and his wife serve local businesses through their digital content company, Two Cats Communications.

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