'Pen has transformed into strength for Astros
Relief corps boasts third-best NL ERA after shaky 2011 effort
HOUSTON -- Astros reliever Wesley Wright jogged out of the bullpen Tuesday night with the mellow beat from Warren G's 1994 hip-hop classic "Regulate" playing over the Minute Maid Park speakers.
Most stadium songs don't have much meaning, but this one signals the entrance of the Astros' bullpen, whose relievers call themselves "The Regulators."
Wright didn't give up a hit in 1 1/3 innings, striking out three Cubs in the process. Setup man Wilton Lopez and closer Brett Myers struck out four and shut the door on a 2-1 Astros victory.
"We're here every game. We're ready to go any time," Myers said.
That kind of performance is becoming routine for the bullpen, a unit that boasts a 2.88 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP this season after finishing 2011 with a 4.51 ERA and a 1.48 WHIP, both worst in the National League. Entering Thursday's games, the Astros relievers had the third-best ERA and second-best WHIP in the NL.
Their drastic turnaround has been a big reason why the rebuilding Astros sit two games under .500 and third in the NL Central.
"Those guys have done an absolutely outstanding job, and I know that's probably an understatement," Astros manager Brad Mills said.
Some of the bullpen's improvement stems from the addition of the 31-year-old Myers from the starting rotation and the return of 32-year-old Brandon Lyon, who missed most of last season with a detached right biceps tendon and a labrum tear.
Myers, who pitched 439 2/3 innings as a starter in his first two years in Houston, has a 1.69 ERA and has converted 11 of 12 save opportunities. In Myers' nine appearances at Minute Maid Park, nobody has scored.
"Getting [Myers] the ball in the ninth, the game's over if we have the lead," Lyon said. "He's done a great job of that. That's how a bullpen usually works. It starts with the back end."
Lyon started last year as the Astros' closer, but he blew four saves in the first 30 games. He ended up having surgery in late June to reattach his right biceps tendon. He has a 1.65 ERA so far in 2012, with the highest strikeout and lowest walk rates of his career. He said he thinks he's all the way recovered from the injury.
Hitters who have faced Myers and Lyon this season know their abilities, but Wright said that the pitchers also help the bullpen simply with their attitudes.
"More than anything, they have a calming influence on everybody, because they're the guys who have the most time and experience in the bullpen," Wright said. "To look at those guys and see how calm they are, it automatically reflects on you."
"Those guys are going to help anybody down there," Mills said.
The younger pitchers have held their own on the mound this season, another reason for the stark turnaround from 2011.
Left-handed hitters are 2-for-27 (.071) against the 27-year-old Wright. Fernando Abad, 26, couldn't stick with the Astros in 2011, but has given up two runs in 10 May appearances. The homer has hurt fly-ball pitcher Fernando Rodriguez early in the season, but Mills said the 28-year-old Rodriguez is throwing the ball extremely well right now.
Lopez has pitched 25 2/3 innings, the most in the Majors from a reliever heading into Thursday's games. He didn't walk any of the first 78 hitters he faced this season, the longest stretch to open a season since John Smoltz faced 92 before walking his first batter in 2004.
Lyon said he attributes a lot of this year's early success to stability.
"I think just having Brett and myself down there give comfort for those guys to ask questions or whatever they need help with, or anything they can learn from in any situation," Lyon said.
Starting pitcher J.A. Happ, part of a rotation that has gone at least five innings in the last 37 games, said he knows that the bullpen is ready to come in and close the door at all times.
"They proved that they have a little attitude out there, which is nice too," Happ said. "I feel good about giving them the ball at the end of the game."
According to Wright, that confident attitude usually doesn't manifest until the later innings, when the pitchers know that they need to be ready to work. They often spend the first few innings settling in to the flow of the game, pulling practical jokes on one another or giving each other a hard time.
When the starter begins to wear down and eventually exits, though, most of the relievers get ready to hear their name called. Wright said they don't have defined roles, but each guy who pitches on a regular basis has his niche.
When the Warren G. beat comes on, just about anybody could come jogging out of the bullpen. That's the way Wright likes it.
"We keep it simple. The role is to get the guy out," Wright said.
Nobody in the bullpen takes "The Regulators" name too seriously, although there have been rumblings in the clubhouse about making T-shirts.
"We enjoy what we do. We enjoy the role we play on the team," Wright said. "It's a big role and a lot of the times, the games are in our hands. I think we all live for that moment. We decided to embrace it and make the most of it."
Clark Goble is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.