Astros rookie Spencer Arrighetti learns valuable lesson: ‘I can pitch here’

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HOUSTON — A reliever stood ready in the bullpen, and a rookie neared the ropes in his second major-league start. No one budged inside the first-base dugout, where length from starting pitchers is paramount and lengths to get it are accompanied by lessons.

Spencer Arrighetti had already exceeded the Houston Astros’ predetermined pitch count while traversing twice through baseball’s best lineup. The reigning National League Most Valuable Player loomed for a third look at him. Manager Joe Espada allowed the meeting to happen.

The time to measure Arrighetti’s major-league mettle isn’t amid a miserable April, but Houston has little choice. Its threadbare rotation is thrusting an unsustainable workload upon a bullpen struggling to absorb it.

Arrighetti threatened to tax it more. He threw 57 pitches to procure his first six outs and started the fourth inning with 74. He had not thrown more than 80 in any start this season, so Houston hoped to keep Arrighetti around that threshold.

When Ronald Acuña Jr. arrived with two outs in the fourth, Arrighetti had already thrown 81 pitches. Acuña saw 11 of them in a terrific second-inning plate appearance, spoiling five two-strike pitches foul, taking two other close ones and taxing the young starter for a well-earned walk.

“That guy knows the zone better than anybody,” Arrighetti said. “I thought two (of the two-strike pitches) were close, but I went back and watched, and he was right. He’s the best in their league for a reason.”

Margins are minuscule in the major leagues. Make one mistake or miss a spot by a millimeter and an outing can go awry. Two streaking lineups taught Arrighetti that lesson, one many felt he wouldn’t learn until much later this season. For all the fanfare surrounding him, Arrighetti is still a man with 17 appearances above Double A.

“Knowing that you belong is very important, and I think he knows that he belongs,” Espada said before Arrighetti’s major-league debut.

Two starts aren’t enough to affirm Espada’s belief, but thrust into a terrible situation for a teetering team, Arrighetti has acquitted himself well. He didn’t work deep into either game and absorbed the loss in both. Neither of his pitching lines was stellar, but the path to them provided hope for Houston’s most promising pitching prospect.

“He’s not fazed,” Espada said after Monday’s 6-1 loss. “He’s got that presence about him. The stuff is good. The stuff plays. Moving forward, I think he’s going to have some success once he adjusts and gets used to the league and stuff like that. The stuff will definitely play.”

Nine earned runs and 11 hits across seven innings isn’t much to celebrate, but Arrighetti afforded the Astros a framework of what he might become. Monday, he battled the sport’s best offense across four innings of two-run ball, alternating flashes of brilliance with a few at-bats that showed the strides he still must make.

The Atlanta Braves took 46 swings against Arrighetti and whiffed 15 times. Of the 11 balls the Braves struck in play, five were hit harder than 96 mph. Arrighetti harnessed far better command of his four-seam fastball than in his major-league debut and mixed in more curveballs to keep Atlanta away from his sweeper.

“There’s a lot to look back and be proud of,” Arrighetti said. “I made some good adjustments between starts this time around. I definitely had some good days to work on things in between, so a little bit of confidence there. I feel like I got accustomed to the environment a little bit more, and I made some big pitches tonight in some big situations that I’m really happy about.”

Arrighetti retired five of the first six Braves batters he saw. The sixth out seemed unattainable. Atlanta taxed him for 39 pitches in the second inning. Shortstop Jeremy Peña and first baseman José Abreu couldn’t make a difficult defensive play behind him, prolonging an inning Arrighetti couldn’t seem to conclude himself.

Fifteen times, Arrighetti required one more strike to end it. Fourteen times, he could not. After Acuña worked the 11-pitch walk, Arrighetti spun a wicked 0-1 curveball to Ozzie Albies to, again, get one strike away from stranding the bases loaded. Arrighetti attempted to “throw a better” curveball. It hit Albies in the back foot, forcing in the go-ahead run.

“The result doesn’t come when you beg for it,” Arrighetti said.

“I got deep into some counts that you would like to put guys away in. Maybe the pitch wasn’t the one that it needed to be, maybe I didn’t execute, but I think right now it’s probably the biggest low-hanging fruit. Those counts, I need to make a good pitch and put some guys away. I wouldn’t call it elusive. I think I’m really close.”

Most around Arrighetti agree. Strides need to be made, but acting as if the stage seemed too big for him is foolish. Two long innings derailed two otherwise encouraging starts. He stranded the bases loaded in the second inning Monday and kept Houston within a run. Responding by retiring six of the ensuing seven batters showed resolve many expected from the cerebral 24-year-old.

“When you make it into something bigger than it might be, a lot of times it’s easy to let the moment get big,” Arrighetti said. “What I did a good job of tonight is reminding myself that I wouldn’t be here unless there was a reason. I just need to be myself and execute pitches.”

Arrighetti is not guaranteed another one, a potential casualty of Houston’s cavalry returning. Justin Verlander is trending toward making his season debut this weekend against the Washington Nationals. Too many scheduled off days loom for Houston to deploy a six-man rotation.

Arrighetti is the most logical choice to option out for Verlander’s return. If Hunter Brown delivers another dud Tuesday, perhaps he could enter the conversation, but it is apparent Arrighetti needs more seasoning in the minor leagues.

A scenario exists where Houston could option Arrighetti earlier, too, and add another fresh arm for the team’s final two games against Atlanta. Five relievers followed Arrighetti on Monday, Houston’s 11th consecutive game without an off day. Brown hasn’t worked past the fourth inning in either of his first two starts, so restocking the bullpen before he pitches might be wise.

So, in what might be Arrighetti’s final major-league inning for the foreseeable future, Acuña arrived for a third look. The pitcher raced ahead with a sweeper and cutter Acuña spoiled foul. Arrighetti is at his best when locating his four-seamer at the top of the zone, but he sailed consecutive ones too high and ran the count full.

In search of a put-away pitch, Arrighetti turned to the cutter he started throwing just last season. It tailed away from Atlanta’s most dangerous hitter, who could not resist swinging through it.

Acuña spiked his batting helmet and tore off his elbow guard, flummoxed by a man making just his second major-league start, perhaps the final image of Arrighetti’s first taste of major-league life.

“It shows me I can pitch here,” Arrighetti said. “It shows me that I can pitch here the same way I pitched in the past.”

(Photo: Thomas Shea / USA Today)

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