HOUSTON -- In the aftermath of an 11-0 loss to the Red Sox on Sunday at Minute Maid Park, Astros manager Bo Porter was left defending his decision to pull right-hander Brad Peacock just one out and five batters into his start and subsequently rely on his bullpen for the final 26 outs.
It proved a fitting conclusion to the unofficial first half for the Astros (40-56), whose preseason goal of avoiding a third consecutive 100-loss season hinges on a frail and underperforming bullpen.
Having spent last offseason fortifying a relief corps that produced historically bad numbers in 2013, the Astros were hamstrung by bullpen injuries, most notably to three of the four right-handers they acquired during the winter: Matt Albers, Anthony Bass and Jesse Crain. Closer Chad Qualls was healthy and available, and he paces the team with 10 saves.
If the Astros are to make a legitimate push toward .500 in the second half, they need Albers and Crain to return from shoulder and biceps injuries, respectively, and to do so quickly (Bass missed 47 games with a right intercostal strain before returning from the disabled list July 1). Albers has been on the 15-day disabled list since April 25; Crain has not pitched this season following offseason surgery.
"Injuries are a part of the game, so it's not something that I look at and try to fanaticize about what-ifs," Porter said. "If you spin your wheels wondering about what if, you don't put your energy where it should be focused at, which is the players that you have available.
"I think we've done the best that we can do with the players that we have available."
The Astros are committed to youth at several positions, promoting their top two position player prospects during the first half with the intention of enduring the ups and downs that accompany such decisions. Outfielder George Springer had his moments -- he leads the club with 19 home runs and 50 RBIs -- but he ranks fourth in the majors with 112 strikeouts despite missing the first two weeks of the season. First baseman Jon Singleton closed the first half batting .184 while striking out a whopping 36.8 percent of his plate appearances.
The Astros offered some surprises, most notably in their starting pitching. If they can find and maintain optimal health within their bullpen, the momentum they built by climbing to within six games of .500 on June 14 certain seems as attainable as 100 losses are avoidable.
"You see kind of where we're at right now compared to where we were last year, I think we've made some pretty good strides all across the board," Astros catcher Jason Castro said. "Guys have really stepped up. Pitching has been great, starting pitching has done a great job carrying us deep into games, and the bullpen has done their share as well.
"A lot of guys are getting their experiences in and some of the guys we called up already -- Springer, Singleton those guys, (super utility man Enrique Hernandez) -- have come in and done a great job. So it's really nice to see. It's definitely positive things ahead for the Astros."