Astros Making Their Move Back into AL Picture After Awful 2016 Start

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJune 23, 2016

HOUSTON, TX - JUNE 22:  Jose Altuve #27 of the Houston Astros and Carlos Correa #1 celebrate their 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Minute Maid Park on June 22, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Houston Astros are dead, long live the Houston Astros.

OK, we should amend that: The Astros seemed dead after going 7-17 in April. Since May 1, however, they've gone 30-19. And with a sweep-sealing 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Angels on Wednesday at Minute Maid Park, they poked their heads above .500 at 37-36.

They're still 10 games behind the Texas Rangers in the American League West and have lost nine of 10 against their Lone Star State rivals.

The 'Stros, though, are back in the AL wild-card picture and, quite simply, looking like a relevant baseball team again.

That's where they were at the end of 2015, when they blossomed ahead of schedule, paced the division for most of the season, grabbed a wild-card slot and pushed the eventual champion Kansas City Royals to five games in the division series.

For a while, it looked like vertigo-inducing regression was going to define 2016.

Ace and reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel vacillated between mediocre and terrible, the rest of the pitching staff wobbled and the bats failed to pick up the slack. 

Ace Dallas Keuchel has struggled one season after winning AL Cy Young honors.
Ace Dallas Keuchel has struggled one season after winning AL Cy Young honors.Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

But the Astros have righted the ship, thanks in large part to an exemplary showing by the bullpen, as Sports Illustrated's Cliff Corcoran outlined prior to Wednesday's action:

The Astros allowed 5.1 runs per game in April but have held opponents to 3.8 since. Leading that charge has been the performance of their bullpen. Since May 1, Houston's relief corps has led the majors with a 2.50 ERA, 5.24 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 0.6 home runs per nine innings. Over that span, only the Yankees' relievers have struck out a higher percentage of their batters faced, and no other bullpen has issued walks or allowed base runners at a lower rate.

Flame-throwing reliever Ken Giles has served as a symbol of that turnaround. Acquired over the winter in the trade that sent budding star right-hander Vincent Velasquez to the Philadelphia Phillies, Giles' ERA ballooned to 9.00 at the end of April.

Since then, he's fanned 27 in 20 frames and thrown more like the shutdown late-inning arm the Astros thought they were getting. 

Hard-throwing reliever Ken Giles' resurgence has helped key a bullpen turnaround.
Hard-throwing reliever Ken Giles' resurgence has helped key a bullpen turnaround.Matt Brown/Getty Images

"It was mechanical 100 percent," Giles said of his early woes, per Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle. "Not confidence. I always knew I had the confidence."

Keuchel, too, has flashed some positive signs, cutting back on his walks and lasting at least six innings in eight of his last nine starts. His ERA, however, still sits at an unsightly 5.32.

Lance McCullers has contributed since returning from a shoulder injury on May 13, winning three of his last four decisions. Sinkerballer Doug Fister has likewise been solid, and Houston has won the last 10 times he's taken the hill.

Overall, though, Astros starters owned a 4.41 ERA entering play Wednesday. Continued improvement in that areaincluding a possible trade-deadline addition, a la Scott Kazmir last seasonwould go a long way.

Back on the good-news front, second baseman Jose Altuve (.343 average, .976 OPS) is putting together a superlative season at the plate. Shortstop Carlos Correa, who had a walk-off knock against Angels closer Huston Street on Tuesday, has raised his OPS nearly 40 points in June. George Springer is flexing his muscles with 15 homers, including 11 since May 1.

Second baseman Jose Altuve is enjoying a spectacular season at the plate.
Second baseman Jose Altuve is enjoying a spectacular season at the plate.Bob Levey/Getty Images

And supporting players like center fielder Carlos Gomez and third baseman Luis Valbuena have begun to pick it up.

The Astros are in the middle of the pack, literally, as they rank No. 8 in the AL in runs scored with 310. So shopping for a hitter at the August 1 trade deadline—a right-handed swinger to augment corner outfielder Colby Rasmus, perhapswould be prudent.

A National League scout recently floated Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun as a possible target, per the Boston Globe's Nick Cafardo.

Whether or not they pull the trigger on a deal of that magnitude, at least the Astros are playing well enough to warrant such speculation.

One month into the season, it looked like they might already be buried. Now, they've dug their way out. In the parity-leveled, wide-open Junior Circuit, that's all it takes.

"Early on, I think we were doing just enough to lose by a littlethat's the phrase that I always used," manager A.J. Hinch said of his club's out-of-the-gate struggles, per Angel Verdejo Jr. of the Houston ChronicleThese days, they're doing enough to win.

The Astros were almost dead. Long live the Astros.

All statistics current as of June 22 and courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted.


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