PREVIEW: Bullpen clicking as Astros oppose struggling Cubs

Photo Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

PREVIEW: Bullpen clicking as Astros oppose struggling Cubs

Following what was an aberrant performance from ace left-hander Framber Valdez, the Houston Astros still managed to record a whopping 16 strikeouts against the Chicago Cubs on Monday.

Exactly half the credit goes to the five-man bullpen of right-handers Phil Maton, Seth Martinez, Rafael Montero, Ryne Stanek, and Hector Neris, who combined for eight strikeouts over five shutout innings in the Astros’ 6-4 victory in the opener of a three-game interleague series.

The teams will contest the middle game on Tuesday in Houston.

Valdez recorded eight strikeouts but allowed a season-high four earned runs while working a season-low four innings. The bullpen picked him up, with Stanek striking out the side in the eighth between a bounce-back performance from the scuffling Montero and a clean ninth inning from Neris, who notched his second save.

“We needed it,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said of the strong relief work. “Stanek, it’s just a matter of if he can get ahead of (hitters) because his fastball was excellent and his breaking ball was good. Maldy (catcher Martín Maldonado) kept him in the zone, so that was a big plus.”

That the Astros were able to stifle the Cubs late without using their top two relievers, Bryan Abreu and closer Ryan Pressly, was an added benefit at the start of a six-game homestand.

“It was good that we could give those other guys a break,” Baker said.

Right-hander Cristian Javier (3-1, 3.47 ERA) has the starting assignment for the Astros on Tuesday. In his previous outing, he fanned a season-high 11 batters while allowing two runs on three hits and issuing just one walk in a 5-4 victory over the Los Angeles Angels on Wednesday. It was his fifth appearance this season in which he walked one or none.

It marked his second double-digit strikeout performance this season and the fifth of his career, with three of those coming against the Angels.

Javier will make his first career appearance against the Cubs. He is 1-2 with a 4.26 ERA in 16 career interleague appearances (nine starts).

Left-hander Justin Steele (6-0, 1.82 ERA) is the scheduled starter on Tuesday for Chicago, which has lost three games in a row and six of the past eight.

He had his streak of 14 consecutive appearances allowing two runs or fewer snapped in his previous start on Wednesday against the St. Louis Cardinals. Steele surrendered three runs on seven hits and three walks with three strikeouts over six innings in a 10-4 victory.

Steele, who has registered seven quality starts in eight outings this season, will be making his first career appearance against Houston.

Among the five roster moves made by Chicago on Monday, one likely signaled the pending return of veteran right-hander Kyle Hendricks.

The Cubs optioned rookie starter Hayden Wesneski to Triple-A Iowa, opening the door for Hendricks to rejoin the rotation in the near future. Hendricks has missed the entire season while recovering from shoulder woes but is on the mend following four recent rehab starts.

With off days bracketing their upcoming three-game weekend series against the Philadelphia Phillies, the Cubs wouldn’t need Hendricks to make a start until sometime late next week.

“There’s no decisions past (Monday),” Cubs manager David Ross said. “We have some off days coming up. He’ll come in and probably throw a (bullpen session) with us before his next start.”

–Field Level Media

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