Fueled by powerful bats, Astros lift off to top of AL

MIAMI – Amid the good times of the record-setting run of success the Houston Astros are enjoying this season, the bitter memory of 2013 lingers for some of their key players.

That was the year when Houston went 51-111, the worst mark in franchise history and the low point in a three-season stretch of 100-plus losses that made the club a laughingstock.

For anybody wondering whether the Astros’ major league-best 16½-game division lead will make them complacent in the second half, it may be worth remembering that four players from that club – Jose Altuve, Dallas Keuchel, Marwin Gonzalez and Brad Peacock – still populate their roster. And they’re not about to forget.

“It’s a motivating factor,’’ said Altuve, one of six Astros picked for the All-Star Game. “Just the other day I was talking with Dallas about that. For all the players on the team, what we’re going through now is special, but for me and him there’s a little something extra because we were on that team that lost more than 100 games.’’

The Astros’ turnaround began in 2014 and picked up steam the next year, when they made the playoffs for the first time in a decade. But it reached an epic level with a first half that featured an indomitable offense that sparked a 60-29 record, making Houston only the fourth American League team ever to collect that many wins before the break.

The even-hotter Los Angeles Dodgers actually has one more at 61-29 in the National League, but their division lead is considerably smaller at 7½ games.

What could make the Astros a formidable force not just for the second half but for years to come is blend of talented young players in their prime or just short of it – Carlos Correa, George Springer and Altuve, none older than 27, are enjoying MVP-caliber seasons – and a strong farm system to supplement them.

Houston was represented by three players at Sunday’s Futures Game – outfielders Derek Fisher, Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez, who also plays first base – and they could become valuable trade chips if the Astros wanted to add help for the playoffs.

“They’re a young team that has experience and the ability to win in several different ways,’’ said Seattle Mariners DH Nelson Cruz. “They have pitching, a good offense, and when those don’t work, they run the bases well, which makes them even more dangerous.’’

Despite missing staff ace Keuchel because of a neck injury for the last five weeks, the Astros lead the AL in starters’ ERA at 3.82, as Peacock (7-1, 2.63) has helped pick up the slack.

 

There’s still some belief among baseball observers that the Astros need another top-notch starter – Gerrit Cole? Sonny Gray? – for the postseason, but their offense requires no upgrading.

Houston led the majors in runs scored, batting average (.289), hits, home runs, doubles and on-base plus slugging percentage (.855) in the first half as it posted the best record after 89 games in franchise history.

Springer (.993), Correa (.979) and Altuve (.968) rank among the league’s top five in OPS. The Astros lineup is so loaded, they lead off with Springer, who’ll be hitting cleanup Tuesday for the AL team.

“Of all the guys to pick, they picked me, so it’s special,’’ said Springer, whose 27 homers are second in the big leagues to Aaron Judge’s 30. “I’ve got Correa behind me, Judge and all those guys. It’s cool. I’ll take it.’’

The 2013 Astros set a major league record by striking out 1,535 times, a mark surpassed last season by the Milwaukee Brewers, but that has changed dramatically.

In recent years, Houston’s young hitters have matured – Springer lowered his strikeout rate from 33% as a rookie in 2014 to 22% this year – and general manager Jeff Luhnow has fortified the lineup with better contact hitters. Last offseason, he acquired Josh Reddick and Nori Aoki, outfielders who put the ball in play, in addition to veterans Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran.

As a result, the Astros have lengthened their batting order while striking out the fewest times of any club in the majors in the first half, a stunning accomplishment considering they’ve hit the most homers.

“When we targeted players we wanted to have a more balanced approach,’’ said Luhnow, who used to have license plates that read “GM111’’ as a reminder of 2013. “You don’t feel like we did in past years, where if you don’t score after the fifth hitter in the lineup, we’d have to wait till the top to take another shot. That’s huge for us, and it’s huge for our pitchers too.’’

Keuchel certainly appreciates it. Though sidelined until shortly after the break, he enjoyed watching his mates pound on opposing pitchers like All-Star Luis Severino, Michael Pineda, Aaron Sanchez and J.A. Happ as Houston won 10 of its last 14 games, scoring in double figures five times.

“We’ve hit around some pretty good pitchers the last couple of weeks. It’s kind of scary because you don’t really have a break in the lineup,’’ Keuchel said. “It’s kind of an embarrassment of riches right now, but it took us a while to get there. We are definitely enjoying the fruits of the labor.’’

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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