HOUSTON -- The 2014 Astros bullpen, at least through four games, has shown a marked improvement over last year when Houston led the league in blown saves.
The club has had at least one reliever who has pitched extremely well in each game.
"It's definitely an area we needed to improve on," manager Bo Porter said. "I feel like the guys have done a good job as far as the start of the season."
Matt Albers closed out the Opening Day win over the Yankees, though it wasn't a save situation. Four relievers threw a combined four innings in Game 2, giving up only three hits, with Josh Fields earning the save. Brad Peacock pitched 3 1/3 innings Thursday, surrendering just two hits and one run, and Anthony Bass pitched 2 1/3 innings of one-hit relief on Friday.
"We've got a good group of veteran guys, and some long guys, some hard-throwing lefties," Albers said. "I think we've got a pretty good crew. It's a new year and it's definitely easier for veteran guys to turn things around. What you did personally, or your team did last year, has no effect on what you do this year. It's a fresh start."
Albers, Fields and Chad Qualls are the seventh-, eighth- and ninth-inning guys, in no specific order.
"We have three guys we're comfortable with in the back end and we'll continue to match those guys up, considering where we are in the lineup, what the situation is," Porter said. "Let's say there's a situation where we need a ground ball or a strikeout. They all have their strengths."
"It can be flip-flopped in certain situations," added Albers. "So far it's been coming out pretty good."
Albers, 31, pitched for the Astros in 2006 and '07, mostly as a starter, before being traded to Baltimore in the Miguel Tejada deal. The Astros brought him back this offseason as a free agent.
Albers has accepted his role in the bullpen, being out of the rotation since 2008.
"I haven't started in a while," joked Albers. "I think that ship has sailed."
In 56 games last year with the Indians, Albers went 3-1 with a 3.14 ERA. He embraced his job as a relief pitcher.
"There is a little bit of transition," he said. "Coming to the field every day I feel more like a position player. You can be in there every day, which is more enjoyable. If you take a battering [as a starter], you have to wait five days. Relieving you have to have a short memory."
Albers said he wouldn't mind being a closer someday.
Even the lesser known long relievers have proved valuable to the Astros.
Jerome Williams threw 3 2/3 innings in relief of Lucas Harrell Friday night, although he did give up seven hits and six runs, and Bass gave up only one hit in 2 1/3 innings.
"Last night was huge to have two guys eat up those innings so that we can come back today and we have our back end guys ready," Porter said.
Porter always trying to improve in manager's chair
HOUSTON -- A year ago Bo Porter became the youngest manager in the Major Leagues when the Astros hired him at 40 from the third-base coaching box for the Washington Nationals.
That first season was a learning experience for both Porter and the Astros, who finished with a franchise-worst 111 losses.
"I have more patience than I thought I had," Porter said of his first year. Patience was a necessary ingredient to survive a season like 2013.
That tough first year didn't dampen his enthusiasm or desire.
"I think we all have to challenge ourselves to get better," he said. "I think I evaluate myself harder than anyone else. I try to get better every day. How I managed the game, how I managed our players."
Porter first became a manager in 2006 when he led Jamestown (N.Y.) of the New York-Penn League. He served as a coach in the Majors with Arizona as well as Washington.
"I will always try to improve," he said. "When you stop learning, it's time for you to get out of the game."
Porter, consistently pleasant with the media, managed to keep smiling whether his Astros won or lost.
"Even last year, one of the things I stressed to myself was the value of an out, also the next 90 feet," he said. "The role it plays into the next play. An extra 90 feet can change a game."
Porter always thought like a manager throughout his playing career, which included stints with the Chicago Cubs, Oakland A's and Texas Rangers from 1999-2001.
"I've always played the game in its entirety," he said of thinking like a manager when he was still a player. "This isn't the first time I thought about the entire game. When I was put into that [manager's] chair, the thought process had already been in use."
Fowler itching to return after bout with virus
HOUSTON -- After spending the day at Methodist Hospital with a case of gastroenteritis on Saturday, center fielder Dexter Fowler was released later that evening. Manager Bo Porter expects him to return to the ballpark on Sunday.
Fowler, who did not come to the ballpark on Friday, was admitted to the hospital that night. Porter visited him after Friday's 11-1 loss to the Angels.
"He's much better than he was yesterday," Porter said after his visit. "Obviously, he was down, watching the game. He wanted to be here with his teammates. He texted me, 'Get me out of here.' I'm not the doctor, but [I told him] I'd talk to the doctors and see what I can do. He's looking forward to getting back."
Fowler, the club's leadoff hitter, batted .500 in the Opening Series against the New York Yankees, including two doubles, a triple and a homer, while scoring five runs.
"You definitely don't want to miss too many games when you're swinging the bat real well," Porter said.
Porter did not believe that the virus would keep him away from the club for too long.
"He's in the best place for him," Porter said before Fowler was released. "Being in the hospital, they can give him the treatment to get the virus out of his stomach. We'll see how he recovers. When the doctors say he's ready to go and he says he's ready to go, he'll be in the lineup."
Catcher Jason Castro was also not in the lineup for the second consecutive day after being hit by a pitch on the right ankle Thursday night against the Yankees.
"Castro is available to pinch-hit if we need him," Porter said. "I thought we would give him another day."
Castro showed no signs of strain walking around the clubhouse before Saturday's game against the Halos, although he did have the right ankle taped. He did some hitting in the indoor batting cages.
"I've been getting treatment for a little while," said Castro, who did not appear in the game. "It's definitely making improvement. Still trying to get some of that swelling out. It shouldn't be any longer than one more day."
Robbie Grossman, who had been starting in right field, moved to center for Saturday's game. Catcher Carlos Corporan was in the lineup for the second game in a row.
Gene Duffey is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.