7/7/2013 8:19 P.M. ET
Porter sees improvement in bullpen
By Dave Sessions / Special to MLB.com
ARLINGTON -- This season, a call to the bullpen has often been a sign that bad things are about to happen to the Astros, who have the highest relievers' ERA in the Major Leagues at 4.99. The relief problems have been even more pronounced recently, as Houston has a 7.89 bullpen ERA during the past two weeks.
"We ran into a couple bumps in the road," manager Bo Porter acknowledged.
All those issues made Saturday night's victory over the Rangers more satisfying because five relievers combined to help hold the Texas offense at bay.
Paul Clemens, Wesley Wright, Josh Fields, Travis Blackley and Jose Veras combined to throw four innings, allowing four hits and three earned runs while walking two.
As an eight-year veteran surrounded by young pitchers, closer Veras has been the most reliable Astros reliever. He carried a streak of 7 1/3 scoreless innings into Sunday and hasn't blown a save in his past 18 appearances dating to May 24.
Unfortunately for Houston, consistency has not been a hallmark of the bullpen. Sixteen relievers have pitched for the Astros this year.
"There were a lot of moving parts, but I like the guys that we have down there and we're going to continue to give them opportunities," Porter said.
Struggling Harrell sent to bullpen
ARLINGTON -- No one in the Majors Leagues has made more starts than Lucas Harrell this year, but that's about to change. As he continues to pitch inconsistently, coming off a poor start against the Rangers Friday night, Harrell found out Sunday from manager Bo Porter that he is headed to the bullpen.
Harrell is 5-9 with a 5.04 ERA in 19 outings this season, and walks are a real problem: He has issued 53 free passes, the most in the American League.
And yet, when Harrell has been good this year, he has been very good. He was surprised when he heard he was being demoted.
"I was really shocked," Harrell said. "I didn't realize this until someone told me today, but I'm tied with Felix Hernandez for first place with 10 starts with one [earned] run or less in all of baseball. I think that's kind of tough to move a guy like that down to the bullpen, but they make the decisions, so it's their call.
"I feel like I've been pretty durable and I've given a lot, and that's why I was completely shocked and caught off guard by it."
Though Harrell's statistician was a little off, as the Mets' Matt Harvey has 11 such starts and the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg, the Pirates' Jeff Locke and the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw each have 10 as well, the fact that Harrell is in such company speaks to how erratic his season has been. Despite matching the number of gems with some of the game's best, Harrell's ERA stands between 2.40 and 3.11 runs higher than all them, at 5.04.
Porter suggested Harrell's dropoff from his breakout season in 2012 was part of the club's motivation for the move.
Last year, Harrell compiled a 3.76 ERA and walked only 78 batters in 32 starts. He allowed two fewer home runs (13) in all of 2012 than he has halfway through 2013.
"This guy was one of our better pitchers last year," Porter said. "For whatever reason, there's been a lot of inconsistency and the hope is to be able to have more outings as far as not just pitching once every five days, but get more outings in a five-day period and hopefully we can get him straightened out much faster."
Even before finding out about the bullpen move, Harrell looked and sounded dejected Friday night after he walked six Rangers and allowed seven earned runs. Asked about his up-and-down season so far, he called it "a pretty bad year."
"I want to see him take it in the right manner and really get back to him being the type of pitcher he was last year," Porter said. "I said to him, 'Look, for whatever reason you're not pitching to your potential, so from an organizational standpoint, this is a decision that was made to try to get you back to back to being able to pitch to your potential.'"
To Porter, the difference between 2012 and '13 for Harrell is relatively simple: fastball command.
"He has an unbelievable sinker that a lot of times, I think he gets too fine with it," Porter said. "When he has the action that he has, he can allow the catcher to set more middle and allow the ball to the action he has. Whether it's the slider, whether it's the sinker, he has tremendous movement on the ball."
For now, Harrell can be a long man when the need arises, though Porter said he would feel comfortable using him in short situations.
The Astros have not decided on Harrell's replacement, who would pitch Friday at Tampa Bay. Harrell said Porter did not give him any indication as to what needs to happen for him to work his way back into the rotation, but Harrell said he'd work to make the best of his situation.
"You've got a new regime in here. ... It's beginning to be closer to September, so they're going to try their guys and see what happens," said Harrell, who last pitched out of the bullpen in 2011. "It's been a while, but the situation is what it is."
Young Astros rack up milestones
ARLINGTON -- Saturday's win was a big deal to the Astros, not only because they beat Yu Darvish and the Rangers, but it included career efforts by three young hitters.
Jake Elmore, Marc Krauss and Brett Wallace combined to go 6-for-10 with four runs scored and four RBIs. Elmore hit his first career home run, Krauss had career highs with three hits and two RBIs and Wallace reached base five times, also a career high.
"We are a pretty young team, we're going to take our lumps here and there, but nights like [Saturday], it's a lot of fun, especially with the young guys contributing," Krauss said.
Wallace has contributed considerably since being recalled from Triple-A Oklahoma City on June 25. He is hitting .303 (10-for-33) with a .378 on-base percentage during that stretch. In those 10 games, Wallace has scored eight runs while amassing three doubles, a triple, three homers and nine RBIs.
Conversely, Elmore and Krauss had both been slumping. Elmore hit .136 since June 26 and Krauss was hitless in his previous eight at-bats, over six games, prior to Saturday, but he added his first career home run in the second inning on Sunday.
• Almost two weeks after suffering a concussion, outfielder Justin Maxwell was set to return to Houston Sunday to be re-evaluated by doctors. He could begin a rehab assignment as early as Monday if he is cleared to return to play. Maxwell has been on the seven-day disabled list since June 29.
• Astros prospect Preston Tucker leads all of Minor League Baseball with 79 RBIs this season after hitting his 16th homer of 2013 last night for Double-A Corpus Christi. It was his first at that level. Tucker, an outfielder, has played 75 games for Class-A Lancaster and nine for Corpus Christi, where he is hitting .188.
• A day after being named to the American League All-Star team and hitting the go-ahead, three-run homer, catcher Jason Castro got the day off Sunday.
Dave Sessions is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.