MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Astros rediscover swagger at perfect time

Springer's return instrumental to club's re-emergence as postseason contender

Astros rediscover swagger at perfect time

HOUSTON -- Suddenly, everything again feels right with the Houston Astros. Home runs are flying out of the park. Opposing hits are finding gloves. Everything else is clicking, too.

"We're back, right?" manager A.J. Hinch said.

OK, that quote didn't come out exactly the way it might be interpreted. Actually, Hinch was mocking the people who'd written off his team. He meant the Astros were never as bad as they looked while losing 12 of 16 games at the beginning of September.

Anyway, Hinch's team took another step back in the right direction by beating the Angels, 6-3, on Monday night at Minute Maid Park. They've won three in a row for the first time since Aug. 21-23 and at 80-71 remain solidly positioned for their first postseason appearance in a decade.

The Astros, who trail the Rangers by a game in the American League West, are three games in front of the Twins and 3 1/2 ahead of the Angels in the race for the second AL Wild Card berth.

"We're not a perfect team," Hinch said. "We still make mistakes. But we're a pretty good baseball team."

With 11 games remaining, the Astros have clinched nothing. But after getting swept in an ugly four-game series at Arlington last week, they've returned some normalcy to their clubhouse and their confidence.

Keuchel fans six

"Everybody wants to win so bad that sometimes certain guys, including myself, try to do too much," ace left-hander Dallas Keuchel said. "That's when we hurt the team."

On Monday night, the Astros very much resembled the club that has spent 139 days in first place. Keuchel allowed one run in 7 2/3 innings for his 18th victory, and Houston got a two-run home run from DH Evan Gattis in the second inning and another from rookie shortstop Carlos Correa in the third.

This is the way the Astros did things for five months when they were baseball's most surprising and interesting team. General manager Jeff Luhnow constructed a nearly perfect blend of youth and experience, and Hinch pushed every right button.

Gattis' two-run homer

This is the franchise that averaged 104 losses per year over the previous four seasons, the franchise that appeared to be at least another season away from being respectable.

Funny thing about timetables. They're slippery things. Young players don't acknowledge them. The Astros sprinted out of the gate, going 15-7 in April and leaping over expectations to climb atop the AL West.

They had a winning record in each of the first five months of the season. And then September rolled in.

At that point, someone stripped away the magic. Everything suddenly got difficult. At various points, every area of the team stumbled just a bit. When they fell out of first place in Arlington, it was easy to assume they were toast.

"We're having a great time," Hinch said. "We were having a great time at Texas even though the results were bad, and we were getting beat up a little bit. That's who we are as a personality. Our group is as loose as can be. We definitely sense the time of year we're in.

Astros on 6-3 win vs. Angels

"For guys that have been here the last few years, this is new territory. There's a great sense of urgency to get to the ballpark. You feel good about it. Bumps and bruises don't hurt as much. We're looking forward to tomorrow night's game already. I know our guys know what's at stake."

One thing that changed is that George Springer returned to the lineup after being sidelined for 53 games with a broken right wrist. The Astros were 47-34 when Springer took his production, enthusiasm and energy to the disabled list.

Springer's presence was so missed that Hinch asked him to travel with the club, hoping some of his magic would rub off on the others. Houston went 26-27 without him.

Springer has been on base in every game since he returned, but only in the last few days has he started to look completely comfortable again. On Monday, he was inserted between Jose Altuve and Correa at the top of the lineup. The three of them combined for eight hits, including three apiece by Correa and Altuve.

"When they put it together, it's pretty fun, isn't it?" Hinch said. "It's a difficult trio to get through, especially when they get going one after the other. They all bring something a little bit different."

Correa's two-run home run

One thing that hasn't changed is the attitude. The Astros are young and loose. For older players who endured the tough times, meaningful games in September are a bonus. For the youngsters, it could be the start of a special chapter for the franchise.

"It's really fun," said Correa, who'll celebrate his 21st birthday on Tuesday. "For the last couple of years, the Astros have been playing in September just to finish the schedule. For us to play games that matter, every single at-bat is important, every grounder is important. It's really fun."

Best of all, the really fun stuff could be just around the corner.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.