Houston Astros: Ghosts of 2015 come a haunting

Bullpen-lets-Houston-Astros-down

The 2015 turnaround season for the Astros started with a bang, and went out with a fizzle. Or a bang. That depends on how you look at it. A surprising post-season that nobody could have predicted, save one snarky Astros social media manager who discussed bumping Taylor Swift’s October concert at Minute Maid Park, breathed life back into baseball fans in Houston. Also a disappointing end, when the Astros were 2 innings away from defeating the KC Royals and advancing to the AL Championship, and the bullpen fell apart and lost the game. KC went on to win game 5, and advance – to the World Series and win the championship.

So, fizzle or bang – your choice.

In the offseason, the Astros sought to bolster the bullpen, bringing in Ken Giles from Philly to compete with Luke Gregerson for closer, as well as adding former Nationals pitcher Doug Fister to the starting rotation. Fister presumably fills in a spot left behind for the disastrous Scott Kazmir brought in at the mid-season deadline (along with Mike Fiers), while Giles sets to add some depth into the bullpen after the departure of Qualls and Velasquez. The farming system’s top pitching prospects show some great promise in strengthening the bullpen as well. Overall, the Astros made some offseason moves to plug in a few areas of needed improvement.

Three games into the 2016, it seems like the story is anything but that. After Keuchel’s magical power of practically shutting down the Yankees AB, in a season opener win, the Astros failed to capitalize on their rather prolific ABs in the next two games with somewhat of a pitching disaster. Granted – it was cold – and cold weather does have a rather adverse affect on pitching. Even Keuchel, who has become the Yankees collective worse nightmare over the span of a single season, didn’t play his best game in the opener. However, the total performance of Astros pitching gives uncomfortable flashbacks to the final months of 2015, and should serve as a cautionary tale moving forward into the season.

Wednesday’s game, with McHugh on the mound, opened up in the bottom of the 1st with a relatively rare catcher obstruction call, which landed Yankee’s first AB, Jacoby Ellsbury, on 1st. A rare call, unless you’re Ellsbury, who has reached 1st base 15 times in his career on this call – likely a record in the MLB. That was payback, let’s face it. The Yankees were pretty enraged at the non-call for obstruction on Correa, when their pitcher errored instead of throwing Correa out by contact. I am proud of Astros fans and coaching, however, for not putting on a dramatic show and crying about it for an entire day, as was done in the previous game’s Correa / non-obstruction incident that ended with the game being played in protest. Really now, Yankees. Grow a little class.

That unfortunate start was followed by 2 walks, and then a hit fest where McHugh pitched to 7 batters and only garnered 1 out on a groundout by Beltran. McHugh threw 43 pitches, 25 being in the strike zone, but couldn’t shake off the hits by Yankees ABs, eventually being retired through 1/3 of an inning. A very uncharacteristic meltdown for McHugh, who gave a solid season as starting pitcher in 2015, with an ERA of 3.89, and an average of just under 3 runs per game, 6.5 hits per game, and less than 1 homerun in each of his 32 appearances. This game saw an ERA of 135, with 6 runs. The only areas of improvement over his overall 2015 stats were only 3 hits (but really, in 1/3 of an inning – that’s not an improvement) and 0 HRs. Not good.

Long reliever Michael Feliz was then thrown to the wolves  called to the mound, and did a rather equal amount of damage to the scoreboard in 4.1 innings, allowing 7 hits, 6 runs, throwing 107 pitches and finishing with a career high 12.46 ERA. The damage didn’t end there. Usually cool and confident Tony Sipp came up next, allowing 3 hits and 1 run/HR in 30 pitches, finishing with an ERA of 9.00, his highest since April 3, 2013. Josh Fields was the next victim, allowing 4 hits, 3 runs, with 43 pitches and an ERA of 20.25. That stretched the Astros through 8 innings, and left the 9th to Pat Neshek, who mercifully put the team out of its misery with a 1-2-3 punch to end the game. Final: 16-6.

The next game started out a little more promising, with Fiers making it through a pretty typical 5 innings, but not before erasing the Astros early lead. Fiers allowed 5 runs off of 9 hits/2 HRs, with an ERA of 9.00. The bullpen was called in the 6th, which wouldn’t have been significant if they weren’t called for 8 2/3 innings the day prior. Will Harris made it through 1 1/3 innings, giving up another run, and then Ken Giles, the newest recruit, was brought in to salvage the game and give the Astros an opportunity to take the game. Except that’s not what happened. Giles came in to finish up the 7th, and that he did, but not before allowing a 2 run HR to seal the deal for the Astros. Thus far, that’s 3 runs off of 2 hits/HRs in 2 games for Giles, giving him a 16.20 ERA for the season so far. Ugly.

We’re only through our first series in the 2016 season, though, so it’s not yet time to panic. And some (dis)credit can be given to the awful, unseasonably cold weather at Yankees stadium, which certainly adversely affected the Yankees pitching as well. This shaky start for the Astros may just be a fluke, but it does give the front office something to be ready for, meaning utilizing the farming system at the right times, as well as what to look for at the mid-season trades. Last year, bullpen was ignored, and the team suffered. This year, relief pitching needs to factor into the equation, instead of concentrating on hits or misses in the starting rotation.

So, don’t jump off a bridge just yet, Astros fans. Let’s see how the month shapes up.

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