Astros Split Opening Homestand
Pitching In Shambles After Injury Bug

Javier: Bright spot
(c) Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle
Are the Astros as good as they looked against Seattle while winning three of four or as feeble as they sometimes looked while being swept by the Dodgers? My answer is "neither". Those two teams represent the worst and the best teams we are apt to see during the regular season and the Astros played accordingly.

The bats came to play against the M's while winning Opening Night, 7-2, and the next day, 8-2. They were a Chris Devenski meltdown from winning the third game and won the Monday finale, 8-5. Practically every big bat in the lineup produced a home run other than Carlos Correa who got his against the Dodgers.

Oh, yes, those blue-clad cads with the chips on their shoulders. The Houston bats went to sleep during losses of 5-2 and 4-2 while the top three in the lineup looked totally inept.

Joe Kelly, who pitched for the cheating Red Sox of 2018, sent the message so many in the media had desperately craved, sending high heat over the head of Alex Bregman then a pitch behind Carlos Correa then ran his mouth on his way back to the Dodger dugout. His punishment? An eight-game suspension which he'll probably appeal and have it reduced to four games the next time he's in New York.

I'm not of the mind to make too much of the incident until we see what unfolds in future weeks. Dare I say the punishment (over 1/8th of the abbreviated season) was more severe than the crime and was meant to send a message to the rest of the majors. We'll see how well others get the memo.

Houston got their first taste of the dumb rule putting a runner on second for every half-inning of extras on Wednesday. If today's hitters knew anything about moving runners over, this would be like a gift run. But in today's dumbed-down whack-a-mole game, everyone just stands around and waits for someone to hit a home run - which Los Angeles did to win it in 13 innings.

The Astros' pitching staff is in tatters after six games. Justin Verlander made the biggest headlines when he was shelved with a strained right forearm. Is he lost for the season as the breathless early reports claimed or does he just need a few weeks of rest and rehab before we see him again in September? Time will tell.

However, the Astros have so many hurting arms that they can't be socially distanced down in the bullpen. Besides Verlander, Brad Peacock, Austin Pruitt, Rogelio Armenteros, Jose Urquidy and Joe Biagini who are on the 10-day IL, Devenski and Ryan Pressly also have soreness.

To take up the slack is a seemingly open audition of young arms. Nine rookies currently adorn the expanded 16-man (you read that right) pitching staff, some of them experiencing their big league debuts in the past week. The brightest light may be Cristian Javier, who started in Verlander's spot Wednesday and fanned eight Dodgers while allowing just one run.

Brandon Bielak also pitched well and received his first big league win against Seattle. Blake Taylor, Enoli Paredes, Nivaldo Rodriguez and Andre Scrubb also made debuts with various levels of success. For five years, there's been little upward mobility for Houston pitching prospects. This is their time to get their foot in the door and be a solid factor for the coming decade.

While the Astros can moan their misfortunes, they aren't alone. Numerous teams were shorthanded due to COVID or injuries. It seems obvious the three-week ramp-up to the short season wasn't enough to get a lot of pitchers ready. Had the owners and the union put pitchers into camp in early June, as was first rumored, the training might have been a different story. 2020 will be a war of attrition, a war the firing of Jeff Luhnow made worse because of the time lost rebuilding the pitching staff.

Lance McCullers (1-0) will try to follow up his opening win when Houston visits the Angels at 8:10 pm CDT Friday to begin a nine-day road trip. Zack Greinke (0-0), who disappointed in his first start, will pitch the Saturday contest while Josh James (0-0) tries to improve in the series finale. After a day off, the Astros will visit the Diamondbacks and Athletics before returning home.

All the injuries will make for a challenging season for Dusty Baker, who saw his 2021 option picked up earlier in the week. The 71-year-old skipper can't really be adequately judged on this season's results so that seems the only fair thing to do.

Rookie GM James Click made his first trade, acquiring righthanded pitcher Hector Velasquez from Baltimore for a player-to-be-named. It will take time to get Velasquez in shape but Click was already desperate enough to kick the tires on 43-year-old Fernando Rodney before the trade was announced.

On most nights, the Astros will need to score five or more runs if they are to win. That will be easier than you think against all the watered-down staffs around the majors but the season will become a lot drearier if the high-paid hitters atop the Houston lineup don't light a spark soon.

- Bob Hulsey