As their early-season struggles drift further back in the rearview mirror, the Houston Astros appear to be settling more comfortably into the identity that shaped their 2022 World Series title.
One aspect of their recent success -- the Astros won their sixth consecutive game on Saturday by way ofa 3-2 victory over the Oakland Athletics -- is the performance of their bullpen, which has found a groove over the past few weeks. Saturday it was Ryne Stanek, Hector Neris and Ryan Pressly combining for three scoreless innings, but with Bryan Abreu and Phil Maton pitching exceptionally this season and Rafael Montero rounding back into form, options abound.
"When you've got four guys that have closed in the bullpen that means you can spread the work around a little bit," Astros manager Dusty Baker said.
"Now these guys are getting in shape. The arms are getting accustomed to the workload. But the key is the starting pitching because that limits the workload on your already outstanding bullpen."
Left-hander Framber Valdez (3-4, 2.84 ERA) has the starting assignment on Sunday as Houston pursues a 6-0 homestand.
Valdez worked a season-low four innings while surrendering four runs on seven hits against the Chicago Cubs Monday but did not factor into the decision of a 6-4 win. He had his streak of seven consecutive quality starts snapped.
Valdez is 2-3 with a 3.14 ERA over nine career appearances (seven starts) against the Athletics. He has fared better on the road against the Athletics than at home, posting a 1.47 ERA in four outings in Oakland as opposed to a 5.57 ERA in five appearances at Minute Maid Park.
Right-hander James Kaprielian (0-3, 10.17) will start the series finale for the Athletics. He was recalled from Triple-A Las Vegas on Saturday for what will be his third stint with Oakland this season.
Kaprielian went 0-2 with a 12.15 ERA over three starts before moving to the bullpen and subsequently posted a 16.88 ERA in three relief appearances. In his last appearance with the Athletics, he allowed three runs on six hits and one walk with seven strikeouts over seven innings in a 5-0 home loss to the Texas Rangers on May 13.
Kaprielian has a 2.89 ERA without a decision in two career appearances (one start) against the Astros. In his most recent outing against Houston, he allowed two runs on five hits and four walks with four strikeouts over six innings in a 5-2 road loss on Sept. 15, 2022.
A strong starting effort from left-hander JP Sears enabled the Athletics to preserve their bullpen for the series finale. Sears labored through a 35-pitch first inning, surrendering a pair of runs before loading the bases with two outs. He was likely one hit away from being pulled prematurely but rallied to strike out Corey Julks and followed with five scoreless frames.
"These young starters are showing signs continuously of making progress and improving, and really that's the goal," Athletics manager Mark Kotsay said. "From the start of the year, if you look at where we're at now, I think you can see the growth. They're throwing more strikes, they're getting deeper into games and they're starting to understand how to pitch at this level.
"We needed that start. It was a good one. You hate to lose a game like that but it was a well-played game all around."
--Field Level Media