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Houston Astros keep their cool over bullpen's Game 4 meltdown

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- If the Houston Astros' recent inspired play is any indication, they'll enter the fifth and deciding game of their American League Division Series brimming with confidence. After a colossal downer of a loss at home Monday, they boarded a charter flight to Kansas City and kept the drama and second-guessing to a minimum.

"One thing that's been very consistent throughout the year is our ability to turn the page and wash off any of the stink of things that don't go our way," manager A.J. Hinch said. "So I knew that the flight would be that way. We showed up, got to our hotel, woke up this morning, and the sun came out. It was a beautiful day in Kansas City, and we'll be ready to play."

Nevertheless, a nagging feeling must be lingering in the back of the Astros' minds: If not for one clunker of an inning Monday, they would be home in Houston waiting to learn the identity of their American League Championship Series opponent. And the Minute Maid Park clubhouse people would be busy washing the stink out of the home clubhouse carpet right about now.

The Astros led the Royals 6-2 in the top of the eighth inning in Game 4 and were six outs away from advancing to the next round. The Minute Maid crowd was rollicking, and victory looked like such a sure thing that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott prematurely shared his congratulations on Twitter.

Then the Houston bullpen sucked all the fun right out of the place. In an inning that could have been scripted by Wes Craven, the Royals sent 11 men to the plate and scored five times against relievers Will Harris, Tony Sipp and Luke Gregerson to turn a four-run deficit into a one-run lead. Eric Hosmer added a two-run homer off Josh Fields in the ninth, and the Royals emerged with a 9-6 victory.

The final inventory was ugly. Houston's relievers threw 53 pitches, and the half-inning took a staggering 41 minutes to complete. A stoic Harris stood before his locker after the game and told reporters, "It's tough to look these guys in the eyes."

How will Houston's relievers respond Wednesday in an elimination game, in a hostile environment, against a Kansas City lineup that ranked second in the majors with a .281 batting average with runners in scoring position this season? A lot of Astros fans must be wondering. But within the confines of the Houston clubhouse, they're presenting a united front.

"These guys have been nails all year," said Collin McHugh, who will start Game 5 for Houston against Johnny Cueto. "They've been one of the best bullpens in the major leagues. They've been around and they know what they're up against. One bad day is not going to make or break their season. They don't need a hug or a pat on the butt. They're professionals. I wouldn't take anybody else behind me."

It's entirely possible the Astros will have a celebrity guest in the bullpen for the series finale. Staff ace Dallas Keuchel threw a season-high 124 pitches in a 4-2 win Sunday, and he should be available to contribute at least an inning of relief on two days' rest.

Keuchel wasn't available for comment after Tuesday's Kauffman Stadium workout, and Hinch was cagey about his bullpen plans. Either he wants to keep the Royals guessing, or he would rather not show a lack of faith in his relievers by intimating Keuchel might have to come to the rescue. Or both.

"I'm going to have all hands on deck," Hinch said. "We know tomorrow's a win-or-go-home game. And you know what? It's a win-or-go-home game for them, too. So whether or not Keuchel's available or what the plan is, we'll have to tune in tomorrow night and find out."

Houston's relievers didn't need much help during the regular season. General manager Jeff Luhnow invested a lot of money in the bullpen last winter -- spending $31 million on multiyear contracts for Gregerson and setup man Pat Neshek -- and the results were largely positive. Houston's relief contingent led the majors with a 1.11 WHIP, ranked second in batting average against (.220) and sixth in bullpen ERA (3.27).

Gregerson saved 31 games in 37 opportunities, and Neshek pitched reliably for most of the season before his numbers crashed in September (he has pitched only 2/3 of an inning in the postseason).

Harris, who came to Houston from Arizona via waivers in November, has blossomed into a first-rate setup man at age 31. His 42 hits allowed in 71 innings during the regular season jump off the stat sheet.

That's why Monday's nightmare was so stunning. Harris gave up consecutive singles to Alex Rios, Alcides Escobar, Ben Zobrist and Lorenzo Cain leading off the eighth to set the stage for Houston's agonizing downward spiral.

With the benefit of an off day, Harris purged the raw emotion from his system and pronounced himself ready to climb back on the horse.

"We have a job to do tomorrow, and that's to win by any means necessary," he said. "If I'm not mentally in it or mentally prepared, it wouldn't be fair to the guys in here. As a reliever, you can't win a game. The only thing you can do is lose it. That's something you have to know going in, and deal with it the best you can."

A little perspective always helps. Harris' wife, Caroline, gave birth to a son, Jack, earlier this month, so the past two weeks have been an emotional whirlwind for the family. Will and Caroline Harris also have a 3-year-old daughter, Lily, and the joys of parenthood helped Dad survive a rough day at the office Monday.

"My daughter told me yesterday that she loved me and that I'm her best friend," Harris said. "It doesn't get much better than that."

It's a heartwarming tale, but Astros fans might not be so forgiving if Harris and his bullpen mates endure another difficult finish in Game 5. One group meltdown in a postseason was more than enough.