After taking deep breath, Astros to dive back in

Houston aims to reclaim control in AL West race following stumble before break

After taking deep breath, Astros to dive back in

HOUSTON -- The Astros hit the All-Star break desperately needing a few days off to regroup following a whirlwind first half in which they led the American League West for much of the season -- and by as many as seven games -- before falling a half-game behind the Angels on Sunday after losing six in a row.

Still, the Astros (49-42) were one of baseball biggest surprise stories in the first half, thanks to an improved bullpen, power throughout the lineup and solid starting pitching. They've faced some significant injury issues in losing pitcher Scott Feldman, shortstop Jed Lowrie and outfielder George Springer for extended periods, but they should get healthier in the second half.

First-year manager A.J. Hinch has pushed all the right buttons and gotten the most out of a team that's ready to win and continues to surprise despite shortcomings in the starting rotation and some holes in a strikeout-prone lineup.

FIVE KEY DEVELOPMENTS

1. The bullpen
A key point of emphasis in the offseason in terms of improvement, the 'pen was terrific for the most part and locked down games, with Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek and Will Harris excelling at the back end.

Harris works out of trouble

2. Injury bug hits hard
Lowrie tore a thumb ligament in late April and was expected to miss three months, Feldman tore a meniscus and had knee surgery in May and Springer fractured his wrist in early July.

3. The rookies
Preston Tucker (outfielder), Carlos Correa (shortstop) and Lance McCullers Jr. (pitcher) were called up probably sooner than many expected, but all three have become key contributors and figure to play big roles in the second half.

Correa shows off arm, range

4. Power numbers
The Astros lead the Majors in home runs, getting some impressive production up and down their lineup. Third baseman Luis Valbuena smashed his career high in the first half, and newcomer Evan Gattis overcame a slow start to become an RBI machine.

5. Dominant Dallas
Left-hander Dallas Keuchel followed up on last year's breakout season by establishing himself as the team's ace and one of the most effective starting pitchers in baseball. He's a front-runner for the AL Cy Young Award.

Keuchel works seven solid

FIVE STORYLINES TO WATCH

1. Astros are buyers
Houston has made it no secret that it is going to be in the market for starting pitching in the second half, but the Astros won't be alone in that quest. They have the prospects to make an attractive deal to land a starter to join Keuchel, Collin McHugh, McCullers and veteran Feldman, who's scheduled to start Saturday after missing more than a month.

2. What will happen when Lowrie returns from his thumb injury?
The injury opened the door for Correa to establish himself at shortstop, and the team has no plans to move him. Lowrie, a shortstop, could wind up seeing some time at designated hitter and third base, with Luis Valbuena getting some action at first, where production has been low.

3. How long will the Astros stick with first baseman Chris Carter?
The slugger, who had an explosive two months last year that enabled him to finish second in the Majors in homers, has struggled for most of the first half and continues to strike out while hitting the occasional homer. It will be a huge issue for a team in the pennant race.

Carter's 100th career homer

4. Rookie arms
Starting pitchers McCullers and Vincent Velasquez have both performed nicely in their debuts, and they should be key parts to the rotation moving forward. But the club has admitted they're going to have to closely monitor the workload of both pitchers because they would easily surpass their career highs for innings pitched if they worked every five days.

5. Postseason awards
Hinch will certainly be in the conversation for AL Manager of the Year Award, and Keuchel is one of the front-runners for the AL Cy Young Award entering the season half. Even though they came up in June, Correa and McCullers have a big enough impact to warrant some considering for the AL Rookie of the Year Award.

McCullers strikes out 10

FIRST-HALF AWARDS

MVP: Keuchel. Keuchel was the Astros' most consistent performer in the first half, with Houston going 13-5 in his first 18 starts.
Cy Young: Keuchel. The lefty proved last year's breakout season was no fluke, putting him in the AL Cy Young Award conversation in the second half.
Rookie: Correa. He made his long-awaited debut at 20 years old in early June and dazzled, and he is already one of the top shortstops in the AL.
Top reliever: Harris. The Astros made a splash in free agency by signing Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek, both of whom have been solid, but Harris was dominant.

PLAYERS TO WATCH IN SECOND HALF

Springer: A fractured wrist suffered in June sidelined him for at least six weeks, just as he was beginning to take off offensively.
Lowrie: A consistent presence in the lineup in April before tearing a thumb tendon, his return will mean a position change with the emergence of Correa.
McCullers: The rookie has been terrific after being called up from Double-A, but as he nears a career high in innings pitched, the Astros will watch his workload closely.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.