Houston Astros Hanging Around In The National League Central

By Chris Hengst

Though the Houston Astros‘ five-game winning streak figures to end this afternoon against St. Louis, a 13-15 record is being celebrated at Minute Maid Park. Four games will separate the projected 100-loss Astros and defending champion Cardinals on Monday. Even 28 games into the season, that’s a minor miracle.

So how are the Astros hanging around in the National League Central, waiting for what seems like an inevitable descent?

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It’s safe to say General Manager Jeff Luhnow didn’t expect that sort of offense in his first year guiding the club. Diminutive second baseman Jose Altuve, all of 22 years old, continues his torrid pace (.343 average, .910 OPS). Shortstop Jed Lowrie (.338 average, .979 OPS) has made a mockery of the offseason trade with the Boston Red Sox that sent 2011 Astros closer Mark Melancon to the American League East. Jordan Schafer keeps stealing bases (11 steals), J.D. Martinez keeps driving in runs (20 RBI) and this fan’s punching bag, Chris Johnson silenced whispers about another potential demotion. On the mound, Wandy Rodriguez (1.64 ERA) continues driving up his trade value, Bud Norris and J.A. Happ have been mostly serviceable and Brett Myers (7 saves) seamlessly transitioned back to the bullpen.

For more evidence of wiping the grime of 2011 away and replacing it with something you’re happy to walk out in public with:

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Jim Crane‘s acquisition of the franchise isn’t the main or even one of the top reasons for this Astros turnaround, but it sure as hell helped. Drayton McLane‘s tenure became stale, bad evaluations weren’t checked, questionable contracts were handed out and the club needed an overhaul to embrace rebuilding. Jeff Luhnow impressed with the Lowrie-Melancon deal, his suggestion that Brad Mills move Myers to closer and possesses his best chance at winning over the Minute Maid faithful by drafting a superstar with the #1 overall pick in next month’s Major League Baseball Draft.

The club is spending less money to stave off the allure of a quick fix on a team that frankly doesn’t require one. This enjoyable run probably won’t last long but at least Houston succeeded in generating some, any interest in the 2012 season.

They’re scrappy, playing over their heads and a million other cliches for an underdog. And thus far, the Astros haven’t shown any inclination that they’re a 100-loss franchise again simply because the prognosticators predicted it.

According to CoolStandings.com, their playoff chances sit around 28.6%. Far-fetched? Surely. Impossible in this free-for-all of a division? We’ve got all summer to find out.

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