Youthful Astros are playing better than expected

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

LOS ANGELES – The Houston Astros had come upon competence like a purse-snatcher at a church bingo hall, so when the deed was done and the commotion over, they'd be remembered for being mostly unmemorable. It was neither their fault nor their plan, as the transgression came when and where folks least expected it – broad daylight in the NL Central.

They showed up, kept their heads down, mixed with the crowd and leaned a little closer to their first presentable month in a couple seasons. They crept up on a winning record in late May, in a division that has some give in it, and would beat reigning Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw at Dodger Stadium, where the Dodgers had won 19 of 23 games.

Competence is a long way from October, but it is just as far from helpless, which is about where we'd left the Astros. They lost 106 games last season, earning every one of them, and early assessments of the young and gutted Astros put them on the same dreary path in 2012. Of their three most identifiable players, two – pitchers Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers – had a good chance to be traded before summer was over. The third – first baseman Carlos Lee – would be traded if anyone would have him (and his contract).

So there's something to their record bubbling around .500, and their third-place standing in the NL Central, and their brush with relevance that apparently will extend beyond Memorial Day. The new general manager – Jeff Luhnow, from the St. Louis Cardinals – already has had a conversation with the new Astros owner about fortifying at the late-July trading deadline, rather than deconstructing, the latter having been the presumed course.

"Does it change our plan? No," Luhnow said. "Our plan is building the Astros to be a perennial contender. We're not there. We have a lot of work to do. We're enjoying the short-term success so far and hope it continues. We don't have a lot of margin for error. We know that. But so far we haven't needed it."

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It won't be good enough to be just good enough a year from now, when the Astros will be well into their first season in the heartier American League, but that's of no consequence today.

No, today they'll try to pitch a little better, and get on base a little more often, and allow their position players – the club's youngest in nearly two decades – to grow up another four or five at-bats. So far, they've been vulnerable away from Minute Maid Park, on the road where the big-boy wins come. But the bullpen has been among the best in the league, the defense has been sound and the rest has been average enough to not be fatal.

"When you have a young team," Luhnow said, "they're unpredictable."

If that sounds like something less than a championship team, or not even a contending team, that's because the Astros probably aren't. But if that sounds like a team that's beginning to believe in itself, that might actually be ahead of its organizational rehab schedule, that is just raw and impressionable enough to make something good of 2012, they think so too.

And maybe that's the beauty of youth, when 106 losses don't leave a scar. Kids, they heal. They bounce. They come back tomorrow.

Perhaps none of the Astros represent these Astros better than Jose Altuve, the 22-year-old Venezuelan shortstop who's no bigger than a bobblehead but is batting .312. He talks softly, carries a small stick and yet amounts to much more than the impression taken from a casual once-over, just like the Astros themselves. Of the National League's regular second basemen, only Omar Infante's OPS is at a higher rate than Altuve. Seriously, you could fit two Altuves into Dan Uggla's left biceps. And so what?

"You know," Altuve said, "I think in baseball everything can happen. We're going to go day by day, inning by inning. If we go like that, we're going to have good news at the end of the year."

Of all the parts of a baseball game that either have come to Altuve or he's wrung from himself, there is a part he loves most. It's occurred after nearly half the games the Astros have played, in wins borne of the arms of Rodriguez or Bud Norris or, Friday night in L.A., Lucas Harrell. Perhaps in wins off the bats of Jed Lowrie or J.D. Martinez or even Lee. In the ninth innings tamped down by Myers.

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It's the handshake, the one that says, hey, we played well.

"That's the best part of the day," Altuve said.

So, while you may be waiting on the Astros to become overmatched and pathetic again, you might also keep an eye on your purse. Hours before the Astros would battle Kershaw and the 30-win Dodgers, manager Brad Mills was asked how they might match up. He steered around a direct comparison. He said his boys believed in themselves. He said they'd give it a go.

"That's our focus," he said.

And then Lee traipsed past.

"We are better," Lee shouted with a grin. "We are better. That's it."

He laughed and Mills laughed with him. Many more months like this, folks are going to see them coming.

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