Houston Chronicle

Rondon emerges as closer of the moment

- By Hunter Atkins

ARLINGTON — Ken Giles sat in the visitors’ clubhouse at Globe Life Park playing Candy Crush on his phone. The Astros’ shabby but glorious ceremonial robe hung in his locker after they completed a sweep of the Rangers with an 8-7 win Sunday.

He did not flaunt the Pitcher of the Game garment, as some do, by draping it in front of his locker like a banner for everyone to see. He sandwiched it between shirts and apparel, as if it were like any other part of his standard wardrobe.

It was a sign of the harmonious new hierarchy in the Astros bullpen. Teammates awarded Giles the robe for his five outs of scoreless middle relief that kept the game within reach.

This is his new role, a valuable righthande­d mercenary in the middle innings but a demotion from the pedestal he tenu-

ously occupied in the ninth inning of games.

“I enjoyed giving my team a chance to win,” said Giles, who lowered his ERA to 4.58. “It all worked out.”

Between him and Hector Rondon, a 30-year-old Venezuelan signed for a bargain price in the offseason, the job of closer is in Rondon’s right hand.

Rondon sealed victories with saves on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, garnishing each with a yell and double-fistpump celebratio­n.

He is pitching with the confidence of a closer, even if Astros manager A.J. Hinch dislikes using that word or publically assigning any pitcher that role.

With a fastball buzzing around 97 mph and a slider suppressin­g batters to a .211 average, Rondon has 29 strikeouts in 24 innings and a 1.50 ERA.

“I want to say ‘thank you’ for this team to give me the opportunit­y to sign here,” he said. “Right now I’ve got my opportunit­y. That is amazing.”

Confidence restored

Rondon is the best comeback story on the team. He is used to the ebb and flow of having to prove himself.

In 16 months from 2010 to 2011, he required two elbow surgeries. Dr. James Andrews told him he might have only a 20 percent chance of coming back to pitch.

He climbed his way to close out games for three seasons with the Cubs, but prior to last week, he had not saved a game since July 24, 2016. He lost the job as closer around that time when Chicago acquired Aroldis Chapman from the Yankees. A sore triceps gnawed at him for two weeks. He tried pitching through it, then returned from the injury and gave up four runs to blow a game.

From that day, Aug. 14, 2016, through the 2017 season, Rondon had a 5.32 ERA.

“Last year, that was hard for me to get to the level that I am right now, but everything’s about confidence,” he said. “I have my confidence back. They’re trusting me. They still believe in me.”

The Astros signed Rondon to a two-year, $8.5 million contract, but neither he nor the team expected him to emerge as a potential closer.

“I wasn’t coming here to be a closer,” he said. “I was coming here to win, to compete.”

On Sunday, he struck out the side for his most dominant appearance of the season. Joey Gallo pinch-hit as the final batter. The Rangers slugger misses often, but his home run clout improved the chances he could tie the one-run game. Rondon stayed high out of the strike zone until he sensed a whiff coming. He dispatched Gallo with a 99.2 mph two-seam fastball, his hardest-thrown pitch of the season. “Everything’s about confidence,” he added. “I have my confidence back.”

Ups and downs for Giles

Giles, meanwhile, has continued to leak confidence since he seemed exiled during the Astros’ World Series’ run.

He has converted all 10 of his save opportunit­ies, but before his stellar spot Sunday, he had pitched terribly in 12 non-save situations: a 9.82 ERA (12 earned runs in 11 innings) and a .333 (19for-57) opponents’ batting average.

He was effective but not dominant against the Rangers. He inherited a runner and walked his first batter before retiring four in a row.

In his last six appearance­s, Giles has a 9.53 ERA, and batters averaged .370 with a .932 OPS.

Improving his reputation as a pitcher will take a lot of work. He captured national attention for punching himself in the face after blowing a game against the Yankees. He can channel a defiant spirit — in his three seasons with the Astros, he has said, “I really don't give a rat's (expletive) what everybody thinks,” and, “I can raise the middle fingers to all the doubters” — but his fury on the mound does not reflect his tranquilit­y off the field. Giles cultivates a peaceful, almost spiritual vibe whenever he discusses his growth as a player.

After his latest outing, Giles said: “It was a right step in the right direction. Keeping a positive mindset. I’m old enough to not put stress on myself.”

Said Hinch: “Ken and I have talked. He was well aware with how I was going to navigate the back end of the game.”

Hinch regularly challenges the semantics of saves. He made sure to wedge Giles into his postgame review Sunday.

“You can get the save in the ninth inning like Rondon did, or you can get the save the way Giles did, whichever way you want to award it,” Hinch said.

Although naming a closer can boost the ego of one player who earns the opportunit­y, it also can deflate the confidence of the reliever who lost the role.

“Naming a closer makes a lot of people feel better other than me,” Hinch said. “I don’t care. I want to get to the last out. Yes, I want to have some structure and portion of a defined role, but for what?”

There is harmony already.

 ?? Mark Mulligan / Houston Chronicle ?? A bargain offseason signee who brought closing experience with the Cubs, Hector Rondon has a 1.50 ERA in 24 innings for the Astros this year and has saved three of their last five wins.
Mark Mulligan / Houston Chronicle A bargain offseason signee who brought closing experience with the Cubs, Hector Rondon has a 1.50 ERA in 24 innings for the Astros this year and has saved three of their last five wins.

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