The Astros are a joy, and dangerous
The Astros are an absolute joy to watch. That's surely one part of this season's sweetest and most improbable story. They have youth and energy, resilience and toughness. They have some confidence, too, growing day by day. Is there anything else?
Yes, there is. They're a simple team in a lot of ways. They hit home runs in bunches and play very good defense and hold onto leads when they get them. Isn't that a formula for success right there?
When is it OK to believe in a team? Are 45 games enough? Isn't Memorial Day supposed to be the first important checkpoint? The Astros have sprinted into this one with baseball's second-best record (29-16) and largest division lead (6 1/2 games).
Raise your hand if you saw this coming. Even those of us who believed that owner Jim Crane had a great plan and that general manager Jeff Luhnow had been doing brilliant work building an organization never figured it would happen this season.
Not after beginning a complete franchise overhaul just over three years ago. Not after averaging 104 losses the last four seasons. Even after showing improvement last season and adding some veterans this offseason, there just seemed to be more work to be done.
Maybe not. What builds confidence faster than winning and winning and then winning some more? Winning one-run games (11-4). Winning against other American League West teams (18-11). Winning on the road (14-6).
If there's such a thing as winning time in baseball -- and there absolutely is -- the Astros seem to have that figured out, too. They've scored 81 runs in the seventh inning or later, tops in the Majors by a wide margin over the A's (70).
Those 81 runs tell you that despite not having an everyday player who has turned 30, there's talent and toughness and smarts. Best of all, there's a scary amount of talent in the Minors that figures to have an impact on the big league club this summer.
There's also a great manager, perfect for this job. A.J. Hinch probably figured he wouldn't get another chance after a disastrous couple of seasons in charge of the D-backs.
Luhnow believed in Hinch for a long list of reasons, beginning with his people skills and consistency and ability to run a game, especially a bullpen. In ways large and small, Hinch has been one of the best of a long list of important decisions Luhnow has gotten right.
For instance, Sunday afternoon.
If you hadn't seen the Astros play another game this entire season, Sunday's 10-8 victory over the Tigers at Comerica Park would have told you plenty. The Astros trailed, 7-3, heading into the sixth inning. Then Evan Gattis, one of Luhnow's offseason acquisitions, led off the top of the frame with a home run.
After two more Astros got on base, Hinch summoned 24-year-old rookie Preston Tucker to face Tigers starter Anibal Sanchez. When Sanchez left a changeup over the plate, Tucker hit it out of the park for his second career home run, the other one also a pinch-hit homer, against the Tigers on Thursday.
"It was a matchup we'd been waiting for," Hinch would say later.
Finally, catcher Jason Castro, one of the guys who was around for the worst of the losing seasons, finished a tremendous eight-pitch at-bat against reliever Angel Nesbitt with a two-run single in the top of the seventh for a two-run Houston lead.
At that point it figured to be easy.
The Astros' bullpen had the worst ERA in baseball last season and tied for the Major League lead in blown saves, but no more. Newly signed free agents Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek, along with waiver claim Will Harris, and holdovers Tony Sipp and Chad Qualls have created one of the best.
Astros relievers have a 2.14 ERA, second best in the AL. More important, the Astros are 29-3 in games in which they've had a lead at any point and 26-1 when leading or tied after the sixth inning.
Some of that success is having more talent in the bullpen. Some of it is Hinch's ability to put people in the right place.
Third baseman Luis Valbuena, yet another of Luhnow offseason acquisitions, leads the Astros with 10 home runs, but he's followed close by Gattis (nine), Colby Rasmus (eight), Chris Carter (seven) and George Springer (six).
Dallas Keuchel (6-0, 1.67 ERA) is a bona fide ace at the top of the rotation, and the debut of highly touted 21-year-old rookie Lance McCullers (1-0, 2.53 ERA) has added depth to a rotation that has baseball's 22nd-best ERA (4.29).
And there's that batting champ. Jose Altuve (.294) has struggled some lately, but his struggles would be career years for some others. Springer has had trouble getting his average above .200, but the Astros are convinced he'll eventually be a five-tool star, an impact player in every way.
Anyway, so far it's all working. The Astros homer and steal bases and strike out (only the Cubs have more), and they hold leads. Summoning Tucker and McCullers from the Minors has given the club a burst of production at a time when it was needed, and 20-year-old shortstop Carlos Correa, MLB's No. 3 prospect, is on track to make his debut shortly.
Luhnow said that the Astros have the resources, especially in terms of young talent, to swing a trade for another starter at some point. Yes, Cole Hamels has been discussed internally.
For now, though, the Astros are continuing a magical ride. This is the best 45-game record they have ever had and a 12-game improvement over the 17-28 they were sporting a year ago. They were 11 1/2 games out of first then.
Know this: Teams such as the Astros are dangerous. The more they win, the more they believe they can win, the more they understand the fine line between inning and losing.
No trophies are awarded after 45 games, but that's enough of a season to expose flaws and reveal strengths. The Astros have more of the latter than the former. As the Orioles reminded us three years ago, a bunch of players who have taken their lumps can begin to enjoy life on the other side of town pretty quickly. That the Astros are doing.