As Astros brace for bad news, breakthroughs by Hunter Brown, Spencer Arrighetti are welcome

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SEATTLE — A rotation bracing for bad news is witnessing two breakthroughs, an evolution accelerated across a season that now may hinge upon it. Help may not arrive for another two months, thrusting Spencer Arrighetti and Hunter Brown into heightened roles for the Houston Astros with huge expectations.

“We’re going to be counting on them to put up some quality innings, pitch deep into games, give the bullpen a chance and give the hitters a chance,” veteran setup man Ryan Pressly said.

“There’s some big shoes to fill because the guys that we have lost are pretty well experienced in regular season and postseason. They’re going to have to fill some big shoes. It’s one of those things where they’re going to have to go out there and give us a chance. I’ve got all the faith in the world in them.”

Arrighetti struck out a career-high eight batters and spun his first scoreless start during Thursday’s 4-0 win against the Seattle Mariners. Before he did, manager Joe Espada said an update is expected Friday on veteran starters José Urquidy and Cristian Javier, both of whom are on the injured list with a forearm issue.

Urquidy re-injured himself during a minor-league rehab start on Friday, flexing his forearm and fingers as he exited the field. Javier experienced soreness while playing catch on Saturday. Both were scheduled to undergo imaging on Tuesday morning. Updates have been scarce since, other than an acknowledgment both pitchers are seeking second opinions.

That the Astros don’t yet have a diagnosis on either pitcher feels far-fetched, but expecting any clarity from this franchise’s medical updates is even more so. Silence and slow playing is a standard operating procedure spanning three general managers and field managers.

Speaking on the team’s flagship radio station Wednesday morning, general manager Dana Brown avoided any specifics other than to reveal he is “really worried” about Urquidy’s prognosis.

Javier already spent 18 days on the injured list with what the team described as “neck discomfort.” He made three starts after it subsided, showed decreased velocity during two of them and went back on the injured list Monday.

Further speculation seems reckless, but pitchers with forearm problems often don’t make quick recoveries. Presuming Javier and Urquidy will have prolonged absences, it will rob the Astros of 225 innings they received last season. J.P. France still isn’t throwing, either, while recovering from a shoulder injury he sustained earlier this month.

France threw 136 1/3 innings last season. Only three Astros logged more: Javier, Framber Valdez and Hunter Brown. Add in the curious decision to designate Brandon Bielak for assignment earlier this month and 441 1/3 innings from Houston’s starting rotation or swingmen reside on the injured list or in another organization.

A full season of Justin Verlander will mitigate the volume of lost innings, but further depth does not exist. Houston’s 40-man roster includes six healthy starting pitchers with substantial major-league experience: Verlander, Valdez, Arrighetti, Brown, Ronel Blanco and Eric Lauer.

Valdez has already spent time on the injured list this season. Neither Blanco nor Arrighetti has thrown more than 125 innings in any professional season. Both are now on pace to exceed it. The team expects both Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers Jr. to return sometime after the All-Star break, but relying on two men recovering from elbow surgeries to shoulder a substantial workload — or be effective upon their immediate return — is dangerous. Until Garcia and McCullers do return, Houston has a five-man rotation it essentially cannot alter.

Fortifying the rotation should again be one of Dana Brown’s priorities at the July 30 trade deadline, provided his team even puts itself in a position to buy. Brown has proclaimed there is no situation in which Houston will sell, but they still sit seven games below .500 and own one of the sport’s worst farm systems.

After Thursday’s game, FanGraphs gave the Astros a 39.8 percent chance to make the postseason. Six American League teams had higher odds. Losing three of four at T-Mobile Park left the Astros 5 1/2 games back of Seattle for first place — but underscored the vulnerability atop this sport’s sorriest division.

Seattle scored nine runs in 37 innings against Astros pitching. Houston punched out 46 Mariners across the four-game series. Brown and Arrighetti collected 17 of them. The two young right-handers teamed to toss 13 innings of one-run ball, prolonging a prolific run Houston has to hope they can maintain.

Arrighetti and Brown have combined for a 3.45 ERA across their past 44 1/3 innings — a span of four appearances for each man. Brown’s introduction of a sinker to right-handed hitters has been a revolution, changing the complexion of his entire arsenal. Since he started throwing the pitch on May 5, Brown has lowered his ERA from 8.89 to 6.39.

Arrighetti hasn’t added a new pitch or overhauled his attack plan since posting a 10.97 ERA across his first three starts. Confidence after an awful introduction to major-league life has catalyzed his success.

“I think just trusting my stuff a little bit more and knowing that it’s going to play, not if it’s going to play, and then not forcing myself to feel like I have to be perfect and using more of the zone to my advantage,” Arrighetti said.

Muzzling the Mariners must be viewed with a proper perspective. Only three clubs awoke on Thursday with a lower OPS than Seattle. No lineup struck out more, either.

Houston did to the Mariners what a competent pitching staff should, but two young pitchers pummeling a division leader with such a minuscule margin for error is estimable. Brown received two runs of support across the seven innings he threw on Tuesday. Arrighetti worked with three during the first five innings of his start on Thursday.

Outcry over the Astros’ offense is outsized, especially against Seattle’s excellent stable of starters. The team struck six extra-base hits and scored nine runs across these four games, yet still boasts baseball’s highest batting average and sixth-highest OPS.

Counting on a crew of proven hitters to produce is simple. Enough depth exists to make lineup changes if they don’t. Houston’s starting rotation has no such luxury.

“You’re going to run into some months that are pretty difficult but, at the same time, you have to learn how to get yourself out of those ruts. Nobody on the other side is going to feel sorry for you — you have to figure it out,” Pressly said.

“To watch both of them grow and the big steps they’ve taken has been pretty impressive. We’re just going to keep building off of it.”

(Photo of Spencer Arrighetti: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

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