Astros playing smart with historic lead

Up 16 games in AL West, Houston has qualities to sustain dominance

July 5th, 2017

A.J. Hinch had just been asked the kind of question Major League managers are almost never asked.

How do your Astros maintain a competitive edge with a 16-game lead in the American League West?

Hinch was prepared for it.

"Just watch us play, and we'll demonstrate that we're going to play every day to win," he said.

There's more.

"I don't think there's a guy in the clubhouse that doesn't love coming to the ballpark," Hinch said. "When you come to the ballpark with this group -- a special group of guys -- they're not satisfied. Whether I say something or not, they're not satisfied."

The 57-27 Astros have the largest division lead prior to the All-Star break since the 2001 Mariners had a 19-game margin. And they are the first team to climb 30 games above .500 before the All-Star break since the 2006 Tigers were 59-29.

Heady stuff, right?

Hinch was prepared for these questions, because he has spent some time thinking about the state of his team as it has built a bigger division lead and shown virtually no weakness, even with four starting pitchers on the disabled list at one point.

Houston has scored 11 more runs than any other Major League team. Incredibly, the Astros have both the most home runs and the fewest strikeouts.

When Hinch was asked about the depth of his lineup, he said, "You don't have an inning when you can breathe [if you're an opposing pitcher]. We're demonstrating that time and time again. Sometimes I feel I could flip that around and put other guys at the bottom of the order, and you wouldn't miss a beat."

Pitching? Houston's 3.91 ERA is the fifth lowest in baseball. The Astros are 18-11 since their ace, , last pitched.

Houston is a respectable 27-18 at Minute Maid Park and a breathtaking 30-9 on the road.

Sometimes, a season takes on a magical quality. Surely, the Cubs had some of that feeling last season. But even on their way to 103 regular-season victories and their first World Series win in 108 years, they didn't open up a 16-game lead until September.

The Astros are on a pace to win 110 games, which would be the most since the 2001 Mariners won 116. And to Hinch, that's beside the point. The very thing that got the Astros to this place is the thing they believe can continue to carry them.

"They have so many elite qualities about themselves as a group that I have zero concern," Hinch said. "[This is a] great team to be around. Obviously, we've got a long season ahead still, and it's easy to kind of push things forward when we have some things going that we have."

Still, human nature being what it is, there surely should be some expectation of a letdown. Maybe that's where the makeup of the group is important.

Hinch's three best everyday players -- second baseman , shortstop and right fielder -- are 27, 22 and 27.

They've never won a championship. Before Houston grabbed an AL Wild Card berth in 2015, the club had averaged 104 losses the previous four seasons.

Altuve and Springer experienced some of that losing. They played then the way their entire group plays now: hard and with a certain joy.

Because they are still relatively young and because they haven't yet won a World Series or made huge money, the Astros believe they're still proving themselves.

And they love what they do and bring energy to the park every single day. To watch them in the dugout during good times is to be reminded of a bunch of kids having the time of their lives.

"We have a lot of fun. We know who we are," Springer said. "We understand who we are as a team. It's been fun to go out there and experience this with 25-plus guys. It's been a special first half for us. Obviously, there's a long way to go. We have to keep playing the same way."

Altuve, Springer and Correa were all voted starters for the 88th All-Star Game presented by Mastercard on Tuesday at Marlins Park in Miami. Starting pitchers Keuchel and , were also named to the AL team.

Springer said he hoped to play the All-Star Game the way he has played the entire season. He would play hard and have fun. Hinch sees that every day.

"They're internally motivated," Hinch said. "I watch by the way they play. I appreciate their preparation. That's something I told 'em."