AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith
HOUSTON (AP) — Dallas Keuchel isn’t pitching for the Houston Astros right now.
Neither are Lance McCullers, Charlie Morton and Collin McHugh.
With four-fifths of their rotation on the disabled list, the first-place Astros are relying on two rookies, a second-year player, one who has bounced between the bullpen and starting and Mike Fiers, who was supposed to be their fifth starter, to keep the rotation afloat until the ailing starters return.
“You don’t really prepare for those extreme circumstances, but you hope that your organization can respond,” general manager Jeff Luhnow said.
The Astros have been without McHugh all season as he dealt with a dead arm in spring training before an elbow injury landed him on the 60-day disabled list. Keuchel, McCullers and Morton all had strong starts to the season to pair with a powerful offense and help the Astros race out to a huge lead in the American League West and the best record in the majors.
But just as folks started talking about how many wins this team could pile up and predicting a deep postseason run, injuries to their starting pitchers started to mount.
Keuchel was the first to follow McHugh to the disabled list. His first trip was merely a bump in the road as the left-hander missed just one start last month with a pinched nerve in his neck before returning to the mound. Then just before what would have been his third start back, he was scratched and put back on the disabled list when the same problem returned.
The 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner, who is 9-0 and leads the majors with a 1.67 ERA, acknowledged he returned too quickly the first time and would be out longer in his second DL stint. He’s been on the disabled list 14 days this time and is still at least a week away from coming back.
Morton (strained back muscle) went out between Keuchel’s two trips to the disabled list before McCullers (back soreness) joined both of them on the shelf June 12.
While injuries happen to every club, so many at the same position so close together had the Astros scrambling to piece together a rotation.
“I don’t characterize any of these as major injuries because all of these guys are expected to be back and expected to contribute in the second half,” Luhnow said. “But to have them all happen at the same time is a little frustrating and really stresses our organizational depth.”
The Astros planned to move Fiers into the bullpen after he struggled early this season and had a 5.75 ERA through his first seven starts. But Fiers never pitched in relief as the injuries forced Houston to keep him in the rotation. He’s been much better in his last three starts, going 2-0 with a 1.40 ERA to help boost the fledgling group.
Lately, he’s been thinking a lot about something manager A.J. Hinch told the team early in spring training.
“When we had everyone in there, the whole 40-man roster, he told us that we were going to need all of us to win,” Fiers said. “It’s not just going to be the 25 that make the team out of spring.”
Joe Musgrove, who is in his second major league season, has been in the rotation since opening day because of the injury to McHugh. He missed a couple of weeks on the disabled list, too, but is healthy now. The Astros are still looking for improvement from him as he’s 4-6 with a 5.09 ERA in 12 starts.
The same can be said for rookies David Paulino and Francis Martes. Paulino is 1-0 with a 5.03 ERA in four starts. After struggling in his first two starts this month, Paulino allowed three hits and one run – both season lows – in a season-best six innings against the Red Sox to get his first major league win in his last outing.
Martes, a 21-year-old who was Houston’s top prospect entering this season, had a tough time in a relief outing in his major league debut June 9, but rebounded in his first start to help the Astros to a win over the Rangers.
Brad Peacock joins Fiers as the only other veteran currently in the rotation. He was good early this season pitching out of the bullpen, but has been inconsistent as a starter.
Though the Astros still have the best record in the majors and entered Monday’s games with an 11-game lead in the AL West, this recent flurry of injuries has taken a toll as the team has dropped five of its last seven games.
The good news is the makeshift rotation shouldn’t have to hold up for much longer with McCullers expected to return by this weekend and Keuchel and Morton not far behind him. That’s if everything goes well for the trio in the upcoming days.
Hinch isn’t ready to breathe a sigh of relief just yet.
“Not until they’re back,” he said. “Once they’re back I’ll feel a little bit better. I like that they’re all progressing. I think the key is to not have setbacks and to not have to shut guys down. I won’t feel a ton better until I see that they’re legitimate options for us.”
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