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Should the Astros slow Wilton Lopez' roll?

Wednesday's victory over the St. Louis Cardinals clinched the Astros' second series sweep of the Red Birds this season, an anomaly of sorts in a season filled with more losses than wins. If their winning ways haven't been enough to give you a little pep in your step, the return of second baseman Jeff Keppinger and closer Matt Lindstrom from injury should be more than enough to do so. Not that the Astros struggled without the pair, but their being available to play, plus the addition of five minor leaguers because of September call ups means that other Astros won't have to perform in roles that aren't necessarily beneficial for the team or to the player himself.

Wilton Lopez is one such Astro who, while in the midst of a stellar if not spectacular rookie season, has been forced into pitching more innings with greater frequency than most would like to see from a mid innings relief pitcher. His statistics don't necessarily indicate that Wilton has been over used and abused by any stretch. Fifty-eight games pitched, and 58 innings in total after 130ish games is not ludicrously high in relation to the other relief pitchers in MLB either. Nor can we draw any meaningful conclusions from a comparison with injured hurler Alberto Arias, in my opinion, because Arias threw less innings in his first season as an Astro (first FULL season, mind you) than will Lopez.

So are concerns about Lopez' health going into the future legitimate? That much remains to be seen. My subjective brain told me that Brad Mills was running Wilton out there quite a bit in August, while the team actually had leads to preserve and during the DL stints of Jeff Fulchino and Matt Lindstrom. If you go down his log of appearances, it is tough to argue that he has been utilized a great deal more this past month than in any other. His 16 appearances are the most of any month this season and he pitched two innings three times this month, also a season high. To minimize any stress on his arm, the always efficient Lopez threw 23, 20 and 20 pitches in those appearances, in line with his 8+ K/BB ratio on the season. He attacks hitters and doesn't make himself work harder than he has to.Brad Mills called Lopez' number seven times from August 10th to August 19th, and his man delivered by not allowing a run over 7.2 innings, walking none and striking out three. Again, look to the pitches thrown column to realize the almost machine like efficiency of this guy. My personal favorite is the August 10th outing against the Fightin' Ted Turners, where he got two outs with one pitch, inducing a double play to end his daily labors. Good stuff.

Hopefully now with Fulchino and Lindstrom back, and Wesley Wright and Henry Villar added to the mix from the minor leagues, Wilton Lopez won't have to shoulder the burden he did during the month of August. Yes, it's not as if his innings assignments suddenly doubled or anything extreme like that, but his load did increase during the August days of winning with a thin 'pen. He's 27 years old so he's heading into the prime seasons of his career. While the offense struggles to push runs across home plate, pitchers like Lopez will be counted on to win games moreso than for other clubs. Injuries are a part of the game, and as we've seen with the Nationals treatment of Stephen Strasburg, even the kid gloves treatment doesn't always work. Wilton Lopez' value to the Astros can't be compared to Strasburg's value to Washington, but the injury concerns associated with pitching are a constant in today's game. Lopez' usage in August seems to be more to do with game to game situations and limited bullpen options, factors hopefully not to be repeated in September and on into 2011.