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The Astros’ bats awakened, but it was yet another clutch bullpen performance that sealed Game 5

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So the Astros relief staff was definitely playing dead during the regular season.

MLB: World Series-Houston Astros at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Braves appeared to end the Astros’ season in the first inning Sunday night. Atlanta outfielder Adam Duvall’s grand slam off Framber Valdez was a devastating gut punch that induced feelings of concession right at the outset. After all, it was an elimination game on the road, and the Astros had scored two runs total in the past two games. The possibility of digging out of a 4-0 hole seemed highly unlikely. Not just because it required the offense to score several runs, but because a spent bullpen would again have to pick up the starting rotation’s slack.

In remarkably impressive fashion, both units came through when they absolutely had to. The Astros lineup scored nine runs in Game 5, while the bullpen pitched 6 13 scoreless innings after Valdez surrendered five runs in 2 23 frames.

Yimi García, José Urquidy, Phil Maton, Ryne Stanek and Kendall Graveman kept the door shut all night, collectively allowing four hits, no walks and striking out five, with Maton and Graveman each eating two innings.

Graveman did not appear in Game 4 Saturday night, but Maton did, throwing 17 pitches. The ex-Cleveland reliever then threw 29 in Game 5, and though his velocity dropped to 90 mph in his second inning of work, the Braves were held at bay.

Astros hitters did their job against rookie starter Tucker Davidson, scoring four runs off the 25-year-old lefty. They also finally got to Atlanta’s fireman, A.J. Minter, tagging him for three runs. The offense’s explosion was vital. But for the the third consecutive day, Houston’s relief corps, the group of pitchers that were supposedly the franchise’s biggest x-factor heading into the postseason, pitched five-plus quality innings.

It’s been the biggest theme of the month for the Astros. During the American League Championship Series, when no starter could make it more than a few innings — if that — it was the bullpen that almost single-handedly kept the club afloat. Now in the World Series, with their backs against the wall, the relief staff delivered yet again. It seems no test is too great for them. Not even 16 23 innings in three days, with a scoreless performance somehow coming in the final day, exhaustion be damned.

Before the ALCS was over, I wrote that their endurance would be challenged. What they did in Boston in Game 4 of the ALCS was heroic. Last night was nothing less than sensational. Though Urquidy provided a necessary inning of relief, which will prevent him from starting Game 6, it can’t be overstated how incredibly well Astros relievers have pitched during this World Series run.

The Astros offense was rightfully lauded as the postseason began — the industry expected baseball’s top offensive unit to ultimately determine how far the eventual AL Champions would go. Houston hitters have come through when they needed to, but overall, they haven’t been the one constant. Regardless of what transpires in Game 6 and, if necessary, Game 7, Sunday night’s showing in Game 5 cemented the 2021 Astros bullpen’s legendary status. No matter the series outcome, they’ve carved out a substantial piece in the organization’s history.