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Astros make remarkable run after rough start

Altuve and young core play key role for Houston, which began season 17-28
October 2, 2016

HOUSTON -- Big expectations quickly turned into disappointment when the Astros -- picked by most to make the postseason, and by some to go to the World Series -- stumbled out of the gate. They righted the ship in time to zoom up the standings throughout the summer, before falling

HOUSTON -- Big expectations quickly turned into disappointment when the Astros -- picked by most to make the postseason, and by some to go to the World Series -- stumbled out of the gate. They righted the ship in time to zoom up the standings throughout the summer, before falling short in the final week of the season.
The fact that the Astros were even in contention entering the final week was surprising after their 17-28 start, the underperformance of several key players, including 2015 American League Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel and outfielders Carlos Gómez and Colby Rasmus, the injuries that wreaked havoc on them in the second half and the fact they didn't make a move at the Aug.1 non-waiver Trade Deadline.
Credit goes to Astros manager A.J. Hinch, who mixed and matched a tired bullpen down the stretch, pieced together the rotation and navigated his way around injuries. Rookies Yulieski Gurriel and Alex Bregman were huge additions to the offense, but ultimately, the Astros' lineup wasn't long enough for much of the season.
Astros aim to shore up roster for another run
A strong bullpen struggled and likely tired in September, throwing the most innings by any relief corps in baseball in the month, after a short-handed starting rotation had trouble getting through five innings. Still, the Astros' young core -- led by José Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, Bregman and pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. -- is in place, and their performances this year provided hope amid the overall disappointment.
Record: 84-78, third place, American League West
Defining moment: After overcoming a 7-17 April, the Astros scratched and clawed to get back into the postseason picture and were only 2 1/2 games behind the Rangers in the division after beating the Yankees on July 27. They lost nine of their next 11 games, including a 2-7 homestand against Toronto and Texas, averaging only 2.2 runs per game in the process. The Astros dropped six games in the division standings in that span and never came close to the Rangers again.

What went right: Altuve went from one of the best second basemen in the game to one of the best players, making a run at his first AL Most Valuable Player Award en route to his second batting title in three years. He added power and set career highs in home runs and RBIs, turning him into an even more dangerous hitter.
When the Astros moved Springer to the leadoff spot on May 24, the team took off. Springer's ability to get on base and his power potential made him a dangerous leadoff presence and nearly got him to the All-Star Game. The high-flying outfielder still struck out quite a bit, but he was a catalyst at the top of the order.
Correa followed up his AL Rookie of the Year campaign with a solid first full season, which he played at only 21 years old. He moved to the cleanup spot halfway through the season and came up routinely with big RBIs, including five walk-off hits.

The bullpen was solid for most of the year, even though the closer role went from incumbent Luke Gregerson to All-Star Will Harris to hard-throwing Ken Giles, who was hit-or-miss in the job. The emergence of rookie Chris Devenski made him perhaps the team's greatest asset in the bullpen.
In addition to Devenski, the Astros got significant rookie contributions from relief pitcher Michael Feliz and starter Joe Musgrove, but it was Bregman who had the biggest impact. After a 1-for-32 start at the plate, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 Draft established himself as one of the most dangerous hitters in the Astros' order and signaled he had arrived.
The signing of Cuban Gurriel was a solid addition, slugger Evan Gattis overcame a slow start to emerge as a power threat in the lineup while returning to catcher and steady utility player Marwin Gonzalez was an invaluable piece once again.

What went wrong: Two-thirds of the Astros' Opening Day starting outfield didn't impact the team in the second half. Free-swinging Gomez was released and eventually signed with the Rangers, and Rasmus -- who accepted a $15.8 million qualifying offer in November -- struggled at the plate, underwent surgery to remove a cyst from his ear in August and never could return to form.
Injuries hindered the Astros in the second half. They were the healthiest team in the Majors when third baseman Luis Valbuena (hamstring) was lost for the season. Keuchel didn't pitch in the final month because of shoulder inflammation, McCullers began the year on the disabled list with right shoulder soreness and ended it battling a sprained elbow. Bregman missed two weeks with a hamstring injury in September.
Keuchel couldn't come close to repeating his Cy Young Award success of 2015. He went 9-12 with a 4.55 ERA in 26 starts, though he pitched better in the second half. Collin McHugh, a 19-game winner in 2015, also started slow and finished strong, but the body of work wasn't what it was a year earlier. Free-agent acquisition Doug Fister had a terrific first half before falling apart in September, with the Astros losing his final seven starts.

Rookies Tyler White and A.J. Reed struggled in their debuts, and the Astros continued to have a revolving door at first base. Veteran catcher Jason Castro didn't have a good season offensively in what could have been his last year in Houston. The struggles at closer of Gregerson, Harris and Giles meant the Astros had among the most blown saves in the AL. Lefty Tony Sipp also had a down year.
And, of course, the Astros couldn't beat the Rangers, who went 15-4 against them.
Biggest surprise: Devenski. The rookie spent all of 2015 at Double-A Corpus Christi -- save for a terrific performance in the Triple-A championship game -- and made a quick impression when he was called up early in the season. Devenski made five starts but became a force in the bullpen with his ability to pitch multiple innings and use his dangerous changeup. He had one of the best seasons as a reliever in club history.

Hitter of the Year: Easy. Altuve's MVP-caliber season sets him apart.

Pitcher of the Year: Harris made the All-Star team after a stellar first half, and he gave Houston a second consecutive sterling season at the back end of the bullpen. He didn't do well as closer in the middle of the year, but he proved his worth as a strong option in the late innings.

Rookie of the Year: Devenski edges Bregman, who didn't quite have the body of work, because he was called up so late and then got injured.

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter and listen to his podcast.