It's always about the pitching. No matter how good the offense, no matter how good the defense, if the pitching lets down, a team will eventually start to lose. Because offenses will cool down and defenses will miss plays. But if the pitching is solid, a team can overcome the other deficiencies.
There are often complaints when the bullpen can't hold a lead or the closer blows the save. And the importance of a good bullpen can't be underestimated. But more often than not, a game is lost before the bullpen comes into the game. The starting pitcher gets bombed, or he weakens as the game goes along and the bullpen must bail him out.
Starters who don't get deep into games tax bullpens. They put more pressure on the offenses to put up lots and lots of runs. Each miscue by the defense is magnified. Teams can overcome issues with starting pitching for a while. Maybe it happens once a week or so. But when it happens on an every-game basis, a baseball team is going to have problems, despite its offense, despite the defense, despite the closer.
This is most definitely a problem with the Houston Astros. There are constant complaints about the bullpen and about the seldom-used closer who blew a game on Saturday night. There's noise about the undisciplined, free-swinging hitters and defenders with holes in gloves. But it's the team's starting rotation, which many people call the strength of the Astros, and which has been praised for the most part with keeping the Astros in games, that is instead proving to be the team's biggest problem, no matter how often fans and the media fail to acknowledge it as a problem.
Through 12 games this season, the Astros have only four quality starts. Not one pitcher has made it past the seventh inning, and only two, Bud Norris and Philip Humber, have pitched seven innings. Lucas Harrell, the two starter, has three starts. He's delivered one quality start, barely making it through six innings in that one. Brad Peacock's yet to go more than five innings in his starts, and Erik Bedard couldn't get through five innings in his lone start, being pulled from the game after four innings despite the Astros being on top of Seattle 13-0.
The suckiness of the Astros starting staff is easy to overlook with all of the team's other problems. But these problems are all magnified by the fact that the Astros' starting staff is beyond awful. And the fans and media need to stop praising the likes of Norris and Harrell for keeping the Astros in games because they're not keeping the team in games. Their continued inability to pitch late into games, to deliver even the bare minimum needed to qualify for a quality start, should not be celebrated because it means the overuse of a bad bullpen and more pressure on young batters to do something besides strike out.
But the Astros are a bad team. Down on the college level, problems with starting pitching are beginning to derail what were once promising seasons for ranked baseball programs at the University of Houston and Rice. The Cougars roared out to a great start on the strength of a fantastic offense and bullpen working long innings. But the Cougars have only one dependable starting pitcher capable of working late into a game every start.
On the nights when ace Austin Pruitt doesn't pitch, the starting pitching is unreliable and the bullpen has started to look taxed and tired, and the offense has cooled way, way down, now struggling nightly to score runs. The Cougars can survive and win on nights when Pruitt pitches. He can't start every game, and the Cougars are struggling.
The Rice Owls offense is as it has been for many, many years: A machine that strands runner after runner in scoring position while struggling to score runs game after game after game. The Owls rely on the performance of their starting rotation to keep games close. But when the starting pitching fails, there's almost no way the Owls are going to win a game, and lately, the starting rotation has been failing the Owls -- the Owls won one of three against UCF this weekend, struggling to score and struggling to stop UCF from scoring runs.
It's easy to blame the offense for striking out or hitting into double plays. It's easy to blame defensive miscues, or the bullpen that can't hold a lead. But more often than not, it's the starting rotation that can't go deep into a game, that has trouble getting quality starts, that is to blame for a team losing.
The Astros have trouble hitting and the defense is sometimes lacking, and god forbid the bullpen be trusted with a lead. But more often than not, the Astros starters don't go deep in games, forcing the bullpen, defense and offense to bail them out. That's a cue for disaster, whether it's the Astros, Cougars or Owls.