What we realized from Purple Sox sequence loss

BOSTON — Perhaps the Astros awoke the Red Sox, their American League Championship Series opponent last season and a shell of itself so far this season.

Boston entered this series 13-21 and without back-to-back series wins all season. The Astros had won five straight series against the Red Sox, too, including last year’s ALCS triumph.

The Red Sox flipped the script, snatching two of three — including a 5-1 win Wednesday — to finish one of the Astros’ longest road trips of the season. Houston’s one win will be remembered all season for its five second-inning home runsmatching a major league record.

Here are two takeaways from the series:

Urquidy’s unsettling trends

Jose Urquidy’s outing Tuesday turned into a footnote. The Astros’ lineup struck five second-inning home runs to supply him an eight-run lead. Pitchers always enjoy run support, but throwing with such a large lead can present its own challenges.

Urquidy said afterward the cushion did not affect him and he executed as he normally would. The results he received mirrored it — and must cause concern for the Astros and their coaching staff. Urquidy surrendered 12 hits in five frenetic frames. He’s allowing 12.3 hits per nine innings and has a WHIP approaching 1.5.

Boston stranded eight baserunners against him, but still inflated his ERA to 4.81 after seven starts. Urquidy is allowing some of the hardest contact in baseball and not missing bats. Houston has an elite defense to protect him, but relying on it every time is begging for disaster. Urquidy won’t pitch with a nine-run lead every start, either.

Urquidy generated 55 swings from the Red Sox lineup in his five-inning stint Tuesday. Seven resulted in whiffs. The Red Sox averaged a 91 mph exit velocity on the 26 balls they put in play. The trends are troubling and not getting better.

Urquidy is always going to induce some contact. He throws 68 percent of his pitches for strikes and doesn’t have overwhelming velocity. The key is to generate enough swing-and-miss with secondary pitches to keep teams from keying in on Urquidy’s four-seam fastball.

Urquidy’s 18.9 percent whiff rate is the lowest of his major league career. It trails the major league average by almost seven percent. Urquidy posted a 28.3 percent whiff rate in 2019 and a 24.9 clip last season. Put simply, Urquidy is not missing bats. And when opponents connect, it’s often loud. They’re averaging a 91.8 mph exit velocity against him. Urquidy allowed an 88.6 mph average exit velocity last season.

One solution is fixing Urquidy’s changeup. It’s the secondary pitch he uses most frequently. During his first three major league seasons, Urquidy used it to generate at least a 27 percent whiff rate. This season, it’s at 21.1 percent.

Urquidy’s cutter is performing better, helping to mask the issues with the change, but he needs more than one weapon to keep hitters off balance. Jake Odorizzi’s injury leaves the Astros in a five-man rotation for the foreseeable future. Urquidy will start again on Sunday against the Rangers. Some signs of progress feel mandatory.

Pressly’s prolonged

The Astros played nine games on this three-city road trip. Closer Ryan Pressly appeared in one of them — the 6-1 win against the Nationals on Sunday. It was not a save situation, but the Astros turned to Pressly anyway, presumably, to keep him fresh.

It is turning into the exception, not the norm.

The Astros activated Pressly from the injured list May 5. He’s thrown three times since. He’s made seven appearances all season, a low number for any team’s best reliever, even if he had a stint on the injured list.

By all accounts, Pressly is healthy. If he isn’t and the Astros have been carrying him anyway during this 17-day stretch of games, it is front-office malpractice.

A more likely scenario is the Astros are preserving Pressly for later in the season. There is value in saving his best bullets — especially after the recurrence of knee issues earlier this year. But the Astros’ bullpen is already being stretched thin during this grueling part of the schedule. There is no law preventing a closer from pitching in a lopsided game.

Héctor Neris is second among all major league relievers with 18 appearances. Phil Matton, whom the team seems intent on converting into a mutli-inning weapon, has 16 appearances. Bryan Abreu threw two innings Wednesday and Seth Martinez managed three Tuesday.

Both are, presumably, unavailable for Thursday’s series opener against the Rangers, leaving the bullpen short again. Perhaps Pressly can appear, even if it’s not a save situation.

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