HOUSTON Statistical manipulation is a fun, albeit intellectually dishonest, exercise, especially when number fudging enhances a point.
With their 5-1 victory over the Cubs on Wednesday night at Minute Maid Park, the Astros completed a 6-2 home stand that ended with their allowing 24 runs. That sum is impressive standing alone, but eliminate the Cubs' irrelevant four-run ninth inning on Monday and the Rangers' five-run first against rhythmically disoriented Jordan Lyles on Sunday and that total is shaved to 15 runs over 70 innings. Astros ERA: 1.93.
Consider the significance of that stat when measured against a rotation featuring J.A. Happ, a veteran left-hander demoted to Triple-A Oklahoma City in 2011, and Lucas Harrell, a waiver-wire pickup last July 8.
There is Bud Norris, who entered this season with a career record three games under .500, and Wandy Rodriguez, whose ascent to staff ace at 33 years of age was by default. By definition that is a motley crew, not quite as unrenowned as the bullpen, yet unheralded nonetheless. That this hodgepodge pitching staff has discovered effectiveness is noteworthy.
"There's been some changes," Astros manager Brad Mills said. "These guys have done a good job of making some adjustments to see what works, what doesn't work, and adjustments from start to start. They have confidence that they don't have to be perfect, that they can still make some pitches. That's huge to be able to do that.
"It's the guys coming in behind them doing so well (that's the key)."
The Astros (21-23) have been apt to credit their bullpen for their surprisingly spirited start, and rightfully so. Brandon Lyon and Brett Myers combined to work two scoreless innings in relief of Rodriguez on Wednesday, tossing another strong outing on the heap with the others.
Because the Astros tacked on three insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth, Myers did not face a save opportunity when he entered in the ninth. He still proved efficient, lowering his ERA to 1.69 in his 17th appearance. Lyon has allowed one earned run over his last 14 innings.
The bullpen managed just fine without Wilton Lopez (3-0, 1.75 ERA), who is tied for second in the National League in relief wins, and Wesley Wright, who has limited left-handed batters to an .071 average. Last season the bullpen finished last in the NL in ERA (4.51). They entered the series finale with the Cubs (15-29) ranked third in the NL at 2.93.
"If the starters give us a good six innings I think we can cover the next three innings. I don't think that's going to be a problem for us" Myers said. "When we're in close situations in games I don't have a problem with any of those guys coming in. They've been lights out this year."
But the Astros have posted a major-league-leading 2.67 ERA in May on the strength of their emergent rotation. Norris (4-0, 0.35 ERA this month) is in line for Pitcher of the Month consideration with another exceptional appearance in Los Angeles Saturday night. With seven innings of elusive pitching, Rodriguez (4-4) lowered his ERA to 2.14, which is tied for fifth in the NL.
Happ allowed one run on 12 hits and three walks with 10 strikeouts over 12 innings against the Brewers and Cubs this home stand. Harrell has surrendered three or fewer earned runs in each of his four starts this month. Astros starters have logged at least five innings in 37 consecutive games, which is tied for the longest such streak in baseball.
"I think they found their groove and I think that they're out there pitching against each other basically," Myers said. "It's competition.
"They see how well Wandy is throwing the ball and everybody wants to repeat what Wandy is doing. It's like follow the leader out there. It's contagious, just like hitting."
Myers offers the experience of a starter and reliever, thus he is suited to speak on the dynamic that exists between the two factions within the staff. After starting 249 games with the Phillies and Astros, Myers is working as a closer for the second time. He finished 5-7 with 21 saves for Philadelphia in 2007, the season preceding its World Series title.
In 2008, the Phillies were armed with a sensational bullpen bolstered by former Astros closer Brad Lidge, J.C. Romero, Ryan Madson and Chad Durbin. The goal of every starter is to dominate and pitch deep into games, but the knowledge that able relievers are there when needed eases the mental burden on starters. That process appears to be unfolding with the Astros, as superior relief has yielded quality starts.
"They know if they go six quality innings and not pitch to win but pitch to dominate, that's a big thing," Myers said. "That's kind of what I tell the bullpen guys: they're not pitching to win, they're pitching to dominate."
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