Astros' Hurlers Must Carry The Load

added 8/23/2015 by Bob Hulsey

The Astros have just completed a magical sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers over the weekend. First, Mike Fiers no-hit the Angelenos on Friday night. Saturday, Houston toppled Zack Greinke on just three hits then, on Sunday, they came back on the Dodger bullpen to grab a walk-off thriller in 10 innings after Clayton Kershaw handled them for the first eight.

They accomplished this on nine runs and 20 hits for the entire weekend. Which is the big issue the Astros must overcome the rest of the way. Their offense isn't scoring much but tremendous pitching has been carrying this team.

From August 4th through August 23rd, here's how many runs the Astros have scored: 3,3,5,1,1,4,1,2,5,2,6,2,3,3,0,3,3,3. That's 50 runs in 18 games over three weeks for an anemic 2.78 runs/game average. It's miraculous they have gone 9-9 over that span.

A check of Baseball-Reference.com shows the Astros are dead last in the American League this season in hits yet first in the majors in home runs. Like the scientist who tells you that someone with one hand in a freezer and the other hand in a furnace should be perfectly comfortable, the Houston attack has been, at once, awful and amazing.

When you factor together the lack of hits but the abundance of homers, the Astros rank 7th in the AL in runs scored as well as OPS. An unhealthy percentage of their run production is via the long ball yet the Astros have nine players with double-digits in home runs, including George Springer (13) who is rehabbing a broken wrist and Preston Tucker (12) who was just sent down to the minors. Surprisingly, Luis Valbuena leads the team with 22 homers and has been relegated to part-time duty because of his .209 batting average.

Obviously, pitching is what is keeping the Astros in this race. They own the best ERA in the league at 3.36, entering Sunday. They have also allowed the least home runs in the AL. In the last two weeks, their team ERA has been a sparkling 1.80 with an opponents' batting average of .217. As Loel Passe used to say, that's some kind of chuckin'.

In spite of that, starting pitchers are only 6-8 during August (the bullpen is 5-2). The pen's ERA is 2.38 this month compared to 2.80 for the men in the rotation.

I would have expected to see Fiers put in long relief during the stretch drive with the rotation consisting of Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Scott Kazmir, Scott Feldman and Lance McCullers Jr., who returned from the minors on Sunday with a seven-inning performance of two runs on eight hits with no walks and eight strikeouts.

But that might not be possible now. How can you send a guy to the bullpen after a gem like that? Perhaps A.J. Hinch will just have to use a six-man rotation the rest of the way unless someone eliminates themselves through injury or ineffectiveness. That prospect might not be so bad as it allows Hinch to set his post-season rotation up to favor certain matchups.

Either way, the pitchers will have their work cut out for them unless the bats suddenly explode. Asking a team that is last in batting average to do that is like wishing Santa would leave a pony under your tree this Christmas.